"The same 'reason' I thought I could help change the world is the 'reason' I thought the sonnet form would lead to a 'conclusion.'"

Bernadette Mayer, author's note to the 2014 reprint of Sonnets (1989)

The revolutionary poem's minimal demand is to trace the coordinates of struggle, even and especially as that struggle fails, or you do. Wendy Trevino's "Sonnets for Brass Knuckles Doodles" takes up the most routine evidence of this failure: that we continually show up for, and find ways to tolerate, our jobs. Written around 2012 and first published in Boog City #8, these ten interlinked poems reflect, in Madeline Lane-McKinley's terms, the generalized condition of work as "our social totality . . . what robs us of life while being simultaneously indistinguishable from whatever life might be."1Throughout the sonnet sequence, Trevino deploys a similar vocabulary, remarking in the fourth poem that "I write / About work because there's no escaping / It. Like heartbreak. Work structures so much life."2 Within this dreadful nexus, poetic and affective experience gets subsumed under the wage-form, a double process that loots the poet's life and, in exchange, confers on her the identity of a worker. But the condition of work's inescapability what compels Trevino to write about it is also what makes its articulation impossible: "I can't work. I can't write. Even for fun," the sequence opens. In their attempt to narrate the relentless erosion of the speaker's expressive and social capacities, the sonnets begin in a state of inertia, in which work has become everything and nothing at once. Instead of working or writing, the speaker is "liking many posts on Facebook" but even the act of avoiding work confronts her as "a kind of work."

Such paralytic cycles, mediated by technology, have characterized wage labor at least since Marx articulated them in the first volume of Capital. In his well-known chapter on machinery and the factory system, he writes that such work "confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and intellectual activity," before warning that "even the lightening of the labor" through technological innovation (or, in this case, distraction) "becomes an instrument of torture since the machine does not free the worker from the work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content."3 "Brass Knuckles" begins from this deprivation of content, this perpetual "heartbreak" endemic to capitalism's life-world, in which one can neither work nor stop working, write nor stop writing. But something more than resignation lies behind the sonnets' opening paradox. By attending to the affective vacuum of "work" as such, Trevino also refashions the sonnet-form to examine the speaker's contradictory position as a nonprofit worker involved in the Occupy Oakland encampments. The entire sequence is shot through with a critical awareness of liberal nonprofits' indirect but substantive role in tranquilizing the same anti-state and anti-capitalist movements in which the speaker participated. More than a poetics of workers' ennui, these sonnets uncover particular complicities between the nonprofit and counterinsurgency, revealing that what appears to be a closed, inescapable system wage labor as an endless drive towards contentless immiseration is in fact contingent upon a whole set of opaque machinery.  Inasmuch as they are against work in general, then, Trevino's poems develop from a concrete struggle to maintain revolutionary consciousness against bureaucratic structures and foundation funding, as well as the docile subjectivities produced by these pseudo-state, pseudo-capitalist formations.

These poems are artifacts of Occupy Oakland's more radical front the anarchist and communist factions that attempted to build collective power by refusing the compulsive logic of the state and its institutional accomplices. In his account of Occupy Oakland, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough, Mike King recalls these factions' tactically "unique" emphasis on non-compliance with police, media, and local government. Unlike many other segments of the movement, he notes, in Oakland, "[t]hings like official permits to assemble . . . quasi-permanently . . . in the plaza, permits for amplified sound, the expectation that the movement maintain 'order' as determined by the police or by city officials . . . were almost universally rejected."4 Furthermore, militant occupiers conceived of the encampment as a commune rather than a space for demonstration, a vision incompatible with the reformist elements of Oakland's activist culture. Despite vicious police repression and its own internal contradictions, King contends that the encampments represented a "coherent effort at political autonomy, the fulfillment of social needs through mutual aid and social struggle, and the usage of direct democratic processes to shape daily life."5

Like many before it, however, this effort was stifled not only by the police, but by private charitable entities what Marx and Engels derided in 1848 as that "part of the bourgeoisie . . . desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society."6 A full history of the nonprofit's political-economic development is impossible here, but Ruth Wilson Gilmore offers a succinct account: while "third sector" (non-state, non-business) organizations have existed in the U.S. for centuries, the controlled demolition of public social programs since the late 1960s has made them increasingly responsible for providing "direct services" to people, especially those "in the throes of abandonment."7 A vicious parody of Marx's "withering away" of the state, this organized neglect has pressed vulnerable populations into the arms of a vast network of charities and private social ventures. While these organizations have undoubtedly saved lives, Gilmore explains the unfortunate bind in which even the most radical, 'grassroots' nonprofits eventually find themselves: forced to "do business with the state," they acquire elements of both, "conform[ing] to public rules governing public money" while becoming private "fiduciary agents" subordinated to the whims of powerful donors as well as the structural imperatives of capital accumulation. Consequently, nonprofits function as "repositories of twice-stolen wealth" that are "forbidden by law" both juridical and economic "to advocate for systemic change." 

Adapting Gilmore's more polemical phrasing, "radical in form, liberal in content," Dylan Rodriguez details the relationship between purportedly emancipatory private foundations and the spectacle of state violence: the "'law and order' state," he contends, maintains itself in part "through a symbiosis with the non-profit liberal foundation structure."8 The effect of this codependency is twofold: first, despite their occasional rhetorical fidelity to emancipatory social movements, in practice, nonprofits "collapse various sites of potential political radicalism into nonantagonistic social service and pro-state reformist initiatives." In other words, the nonprofit nexus and its managerial designs mediate rather than combat the intimacies of capital and the state. The second consequence, Rodriguez continues, occurs at the level of ideology and knowledge-production, a process perhaps "more insidious than the raw structural constraints [of the] foundation/state/non-profit nexus." This "epistemology," an ideological formation analogous to the foundation-structure, "is difficult to escape or rupture," precisely because it mystifies its own political horizons; as a "way of knowing," nonprofit epistemologies gesture toward but inevitably obstruct a "radical break with owning-class capital."

Either directly or obliquely, Gilmore and Rodriguez's theoretical interventions against the NPIC appear throughout Oakland's movement literature a rich archive that includes Trevino's sonnets as well as a number of important prose pieces such as "Who Is Oakland?" (2012). Written by Escalating Identity, an anonymous collective of "people of color, women, and queers," that text offers a concrete account of how Oakland's nonprofit sector prevents militancy among the dispossessed while encouraging state militarization. The authors take as paradigmatic former mayor Jean Quan, a woman of color who had participated in the anti-colonial, anti-capitalist student movements of the late 1960s. Despite her activist credentials and initial support of Occupy, she nevertheless attempted to contain its most militant factions within "an array of state-approved social justice nonprofits."9 Protestors who engaged in what Escalating Identity calls "autonomous organizing" for instance, by building a community center on abandoned city property were subjected to "mass arrests and a police crackdown." From its inception, the authors conclude, the encampment "existed in the tightening vise between two faces of the state." More than a decade later, that vise continues to tighten: "Shattering Abolition™," a 2023 dispatch from an anonymous abolitionist collective, reflects on long wake of Occupy and the 2020 George Floyd Rebellion. Railing against the foundation nexus that still swallows up the city's insurrectionary energies, the authors detail how the NPIC, in concert with the state, perpetually refines its mechanisms for managing instances of "proletarian self-activity" such as the Oscar Grant Rebellion (2009), Occupy Oakland (2011-12), and Floyd's Rebellion. The NPIC, they argue, "cultivates individual and collective desires, conceptions of freedom, what it means to . . . act collectively . . . neatly within . . . the operating logic of the State and Capital."10 These disciplinary mechanisms produce a "structural counterinsurgency" that alchemizes genuinely radical sentiment into Rodriguez's nonprofit "epistemology." Cloaking reform in the vestments of revolution, the nonprofit structure, like a capitalist enterprise, attempts to achieve a corporate monopoly over political antagonism administrating it when tolerable, defusing it when necessary.


Trevino's sonnet sequence is inseparable from the material and discursive worlds of the encampment as well as the public-private partnerships that annihilated it. Like the movement literature discussed above, the poems discern the nonprofit's ceaseless deflation of political militancy and its tendency to unmake ties of solidarity. But unlike Occupy's more polemical and analytical texts, "Brass Knuckles" also registers these processes in its lyric grammar most often through parataxis and pronominal turns. If parataxis, as Ruth Jennison argues, is the "deployment of a radical agency, wherein discrete particulars are placed side by side," Trevino's paratactical sentences deconstruct that agency as the speaker endures the double indignity of wage labor and the encampment's failure.11While the actual events of Occupy condition the poems indirectly, the work that "structures so much life" is always also "structured by the shadow of the occupation." Without narrating collective struggle, "Brass Knuckles" explores its aftermath, as the "march gone terribly wrong" weaves itself into everyday life.

The poems' clearest break with NPIC epistemology occurs through their decomposition of its conceptual apparatus, particularly its appeals to 'community' and the collective 'we.' Its first two sonnets describe the transformation of literary relations into relations between classes, and the way that stratification compels the speaker to foreclose creative community. One poet becomes a boss and the other Trevino's speaker a worker, at the same nonprofit. The speaker then recounts that, before "my boss became my boss," the two poets "had many / Friends in common," maintained through literary institutions and social media. When that class differential is introduced, she writes, "I didn't want my boss / To know how much I used Facebook at work, / So I made her and our mutual friends / Acquaintances & hid my posts from them." The extended paratactical collapse from friendship to digital acquaintanceship conjures an imagined gathering of all those former friends in which, once again, the class relation skewers the development of meaningful social relations: at a gathering "for a wedding on the 17th floor / Terrace of a Vegas hotel, looking / Out at the strip and surrounding mountains," the speaker's boss tells the group of friends "we work together." By obscuring the dynamic between speaker and boss, this gesture of 'togetherness' exemplifies the NPIC's epistemological fantasy of a workplace without class hierarchy a fantasy that shatters after someone jokes about the frequency of the speaker's Facebook posts, "& my boss not letting it go." In a later sonnet, the speaker returns to this relationship with her boss before their economic rift, citing the anxieties they shared about "how we wanted to live & write." Although neither "wanted to be poets / Who taught in a university," surgically de-souled by prestige and precarity, the logics behind their move to the nonprofit sector betray divergent orientations toward poetry, work, and community. For the impending boss, "privileged / College students" and poet-scholar colleagues constitute a nightmarish workplace to which the nonprofit offers an alternative, a "career." For Trevino's speaker, however, the nightmare is that work itself precludes any alternative, any mode of living outside its determinations.

Dispersed among these reflections are attempts by the nonprofit bureaucracy to restructure its employees' identities: Human Resources recategorizes the speaker as white, while in workplace interactions she is "confused for other women / With dark hair." "Maybe I am them sometimes," the speaker hesitates, paratactically displaced in "the elevator, taking the stairs, / Walking back from lunch," before negating herself entirely, "saying, 'it's not me.'" Near the end of the sequence, the poem broadens its critique, exposing the nonprofit's passive counterinsurgency that compels workers to accumulate moments of racial and economic violence precisely in order to secure their own existence. Challenging her boss's ideas about the material differences between the literary-academic world and the social justice nonprofit, the speaker wonders, "How many poets of color end up / Working for their white friends who are also poets." The question answers itself in the second half of the poem:

More than half the staff of
The non-profit I work for are people
Of color. For various fundraising
Materials, they tell their stories. They
All sound the same & don't take up much space.

Here, the nonprofit degrades nonwhite workers' political speech by rendering it efficient as work, as the "materials" necessary for the reproduction of the institution. This flattening out of language extends through the final sonnet, in which the speaker must further compress her coworkers' stories into a direct plea for charity. "Often," she remarks, "I tell their stories & people / Donate thousands of dollars for diapers / & cribs, which is not enough, & I feel / Miserable about it. In the break between each poem, the pronoun shifts from "they" to "I," implicating the speaker in her own desubjectivization as well as that of her coworkers. In contrast to the terse grammar of the previous sonnet, these lines occur as a series of stacked clauses structurally similar to the nonprofit economy: the speaker exchanges her and her coworkers' suffering for commodities that will momentarily alleviate the suffering of others, the insufficiency of which produces further suffering. Misery itself has become currency and surplus, the profit of the nonprofit.

Yet, elsewhere in the poems, there are moments in which the speaker appears not just to narrate the decomposition of insurgent subjectivity, but to actively resist it: In the seventh poem, for example, Trevino imagines "the other room," "a secret place / Inside of heartbreak. Space in which and from / Which you can write." Borrowing lines from Debbie Hu's "To Heartbreak Hotel," she describes that room as "the one you go [in] / For a second to masturbate or [puke], / & then you come back out & live your life / A little more smoothly." In this "other room," writing becomes a bodily function, alternately pleasurable and repulsive; its abstract geometry offers the promise of individualized relief from the workplace. This expressive fantasy, though, soon becomes an exhausting tangle of memory and place. "Tired of rooms," the speaker confesses that "it is easy / to confuse it"

with the space you might have
Shared with a partner, the space you rarely
Spent time in before the raid, the space you
Returned to, where your heartbreak attaches
Itself in a way that can't break your heart
Again. I need my heart to break again
& again, away from this space that is
Also a shadow.

Trevino's parataxis is at its most urgent in these lines, accumulating figurative and grammatical space in order to set heartbreak against itself. The stanza is a protracted rejection of the nonprofit, and of wage labor more broadly, in which workers and their experiences "don't take up much space." The speaker's embrace of "heartbreak" and abandonment of "the other room" cuts through the nonprofit epistemology that understands itself as repairing the failures of the public sector to care for the working and unemployed classes. At the same time, however, her accumulation of social space blurs the line between utopian impulse and nostalgic reaction. The promise of the "other room" a "secret place" of creative and bodily autonomy is that its articulation will restore the occupation, return "the space you rarely / Spent time in before the raid." But that space never materializes on the page or in the speaker's consciousness, and as the memory of the occupation reasserts itself, so does its "shadow": occupation as job, as immiseration in the workplace.

What does materialize, though, are the "brass knuckles doodles" after which the whole sequence is named. The speaker draws them out of boredom "during / All-staff meetings," but their presence becomes an occasion for some of Trevino's most sophisticated meditations on the relationship between art, work, and capital. In his brief reading of the sonnets, Jasper Bernes notes that the brass knuckles doodles are a modest strategy of averting or delaying capital's paralytic cycles, a self-immersion in "trancelike space . . . necessary if one wants to avoid the subjectivizing effects of the restructured workplace."12 For him, the doodles are "analogized" to the sonnets themselves through the speaker's aesthetic considerations: drawing with a Sharpie, the speaker revels in "the thickness of the strokes. / You don't have to be so careful or good." Bernes speculates that her "reflection on the strokes of the Sharpie might also be heard as a reflection on the decasyllabic line" of the sonnets a kind of antiwork poetics of inelegance. In these moments, doodling on the job acts as a reclamation of stolen labor time, a gesture against plundered life that feels more substantive than "liking many posts on Facebook." While Bernes usefully places those doodles in the context of U.S. deindustrialization, I think their presence suggests more than simply the evasion of work and its ideological or epistemological effects.

The doodles appear at first to represent, as Bernes suggests, a brief undermining of capitalist power through consciously inelegant art; in producing "bad art" unproductively, the speaker recovers a sense of her own power outside the wage form. Yet Bernes's reading misses a crucial turn, structured by the following paratactical flourish that begins with the doodles' evolution:

Before brass knuckles, I drew four-petaled
Flowers with one leaf that looked exactly
Like the petals, before that, it was swirls,
Never wishing I could actually draw,
Accepting the mess as I made it to
Get through, later feeling more embarrassed
Not wanting to see it, ignoring it,
Impossible, moving on, too.

The progression from swirl to flowers to brass knuckles develops in precisely the same way as "other room"; in that sonnet, the room's abstract promise of bodily and creative power brings up a series of concrete spatial memories real albeit unrealizable. A similar movement occurs here: inarticulate swirls become impressionistic flowers become weapons specific to the body's form. It is tempting to interpret the brass knuckles as the bursting forth of class war through the space of the page, the poem's insistence on physical struggle as a foil to the reformist nonprofit. In other words, a second instance of nostalgia for the anti-state encampment. Immediately upon articulation, however, the brass knuckles repulse the worker-doodler; its ostensibly liberating "mess" mutates from the speaker's expressive appendage to something foreign, the product of anti-work sentiment confronting its producer as an uncanny, spectral violence.

The speaker's feelings of embarrassment make it difficult to reduce the brass knuckles to an emblem of dissent. Its irruption into the sequence suggests that there is a third term at work, beyond nonprofit ideology and resistance to state violence. While produced and conditioned by the NPIC and the Occupy encampments, the sonnets also briefly confront the impersonal domination of capital, what Soren Mau  borrowing from Marx  has called "mute compulsion." While it almost always acts in concert with ideology and the state, capital's economic power constitutes a third, less visible force that cannot be reduced either to particular "ways of knowing" or the police raid's calamitous repression. According to Mau, one of the key insights afforded us by an analysis of mute compulsion is that "no one is in control, and there is no center from which power radiates; instead capitalist society is ruled by social relations morphed into real abstractions whose opaque movements we call 'the economy.'"13 After the dissolution of literary community on the one hand and of the encampment on the other, the sonnets open up to these "opaque movements," signaling at once the speaker's overcoming of the NPIC's reformist epistemology as well as her horrifying realization that capital endures invisibly beyond it. The brass knuckles doodles become a vector of this realization and the speaker's uneasy self-implication in its mechanisms, accidentally made perceptible by her own "bad art" "Not wanting to see it, ignoring it, / Impossible, moving on, too." As the lines swirl in their parataxis, their referent grows opaque, as impossible to ignore as it is to articulate. In the obscurity of their "It" lurks an echo of the poem that follows: "It's not / Your job. It's a job," what Bernes correctly identifies as a grammatical shift towards totality. "Getting / Through" by doodling brass knuckles "was nowhere near enough," the speaker concedes, "but at least / It was something I couldn't always see." Again, the pronoun's referential opacity furnishes the spectral force of capital, visible for a moment before finally collapsing back into a goofy, awkward doodle.

As artifacts of militant politics, Trevino's sonnets may seem muted, even forlorn. Unlike her better-known work, in this sequence "Santander bank" never gets "smashed into."14 But the revolutionary poem's minimal demand is to trace the coordinates of our struggle and the particularities of our failure. "Brass Knuckles" rejects the idea that poems (and by extension, poets at nonprofits) provide either reprieve from or resistance to structural exploitation. It admits that if poetry serves a concrete political function in the workplace, it's roughly equivalent to wasting an hour in the office bathroom stall, trawling the catacombs of Facebook marketplace in other words, that poetry is a protracted bodily function, necessary but insufficient. And yet, the poems' admission is also their insight: at the end of work's desubjectivization, outside the spaces of revolutionary activity, poetic forms can make visible the self-reinforcing totality of capital as such, the hidden abode of our collective misery, whose spaces are always shadows. 

Dominick Knowles is a poet and academic worker researching modernist and contemporary poetry of the Americas. They teach in the English, American Studies, and Labor Studies departments at UMass Boston, and are Professor of Writing and Critical Thinking on the Clemente Course in the Humanities.


  1. Madeline Lane-McKinley, Comedy Against Work: Utopian Longing in Dystopian Times (New York: Common Notions, 2022), 1.[]
  2. Wendy Trevino, "Sonnets of Brass Knuckles Doodles," in Boog City Reader, no. 8 (2015). A later version of this poem appears in the section "Popular Culture & Cruel Work" of Cruel Fiction (2018), with slightly altered language and enjambment: "I write about work / Since there's no escaping it. Like heartbreak. / Work structures so much life." Subsequent quotations of "Sonnets of Brass Knuckles Doodles are from the Boog City Reader printing and made without additional citation.[]
  3. Karl Marx and Ernest Mandel, Capital: Volume I, translated by Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 2004), 548.[]
  4. Mike King, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough: The Policing and Repression of Occupy Oakland (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2017), 6.[]
  5. King, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough, 49.[]
  6. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, edited by Frederic L. Bender (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1988), 90.[]
  7. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex / Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007), 45.[]
  8. Dylan Rodriguez, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex / Edited by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. (Cambridge: South End Press, 2007), 26.[]
  9. "Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-Optation," Escalating Identity (blog), April 30, 2012. https://escalatingidentity.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/who-is-oakland-anti-oppression-politics-decolonization-and-the-state/.[]
  10. "Shattering AbolitionTM: Against Reformist Counterinsurgency in the Streets of Oakland," Indybay, accessed June 5, 2023. https://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2023/02/03/18854116.php.[]
  11. Ruth Jennison, The Zukofsky Era: Modernity, Margins, and the Avant-Garde (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012), 3.[]
  12. Jasper Bernes, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization, 1st edition (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2017), 195.[]
  13. Søren Mau, Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital (London: Verso, 2023), 314.[]
  14. Wendy Trevino, Cruel Fiction (Chico: Commune Editions, 2018), 19.[]