Reportage and poetry: on “abu ghraib arias”

Hilary Plum
January 19, 2012
Comments 4

In the January 3rd issue of the Nation, Stephen Burt reviews four new books of poems, by Juliana Spahr, Anna Moschovakis, Noah Eli Gordon, and Kathleen Ossip. In their work, he says, all of these poets are:

reacting to big modern systems, above all to the system called capitalism, whose results and failures seem inescapable, from the swells of the North Pacific (where miles of plastic collect and glaciers decay) to the American flag on the moon. Their poems look like disrupted systems, fractured but conveying information nonetheless. In paths through and under and around those systems, economic, environmental and linguistic, these poets address what the critic and poet Christopher Nealon calls the “matter of capital,” the built-up stuff (facts and texts) that our social system manipulates and accumulates, treats as fungible or attempts to discard. The poets pursue reportage, or take stabs at abstract argument, and their work incorporates, adopts or deforms blocks of expository prose; their books are part essay, part catalog, part collage, and yet they possess the oddity, the density and the emotional resonance of the language we still seek in poems.

Burt puts these books in conversation, but seems wary of naming any orientation or aesthetic one might say they have in common, of pronouncing them a movement or school; rather he notes more generally that

these new poems, from  [C.D.] Wright’s to Ossip’s… function as essays, medium-length attempts at understanding some things without explaining everything: they do not pretend to predict the whole course of our history, nor do they tell us what we should do.

Instead they are partial takes—neither songlike nor epic—on systems more complicated and fragile, and less amenable to human governance, than previous generations of writers believed. Avowedly partial, attentive to the self and to something outside the self, the essay form—or the ghost of it, or the fragments of it—makes a bracing contrast both with the lyric compression these poets refuse, and with the giant systems they critique.

As I was reading this, I was thinking again about Philip Metres’s new chapbook abu ghraib arias, and whether or how it might fit in to the dynamics Burt discusses. This line of thought was prompted too by a note on Metres’s blog, Behind the Lines: Poetry, War, and Peacemaking, in which he wondered what readers had made of the chapbook and included some reactions received so far.

Like much of the work Burt discusses, the poems in abu ghraib arias incorporate and collage other texts, including “expository prose,” in this case such sources as (according to Metres’s afterword):

a Standard Operation Procedure manual for Camp Echo at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp (thanks to WikiLeaks), the testimony of Abu Ghraib torture victims found in Mark Danner’s Torture and Truth, the words of US soldiers and contractors as found in Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’ The Ballad of Abu Ghraib… the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi, various news stories and journalistic pieces…

The poems in abu ghraib arias depart from those Burt describes above in that the essayistic “I” seems absent here; one wouldn’t call these poems “avowedly partial” or “attentive to the self.” Metres has removed himself more fully, and the poems proceed in the voices of both prisoners and guards: titles include “The Blues of Lynndie England,” “The Blues of Lane McCotter.” This speech is fragmented and recombined but feels direct: we feel spoken to, addressed. Throughout, the “I” shifts among these personas; the language is testimonial—wrenching, straightforward, unbeautiful—even as the “I” from which it originates is ghostly, made both intimate and unstable by Metres’s extrication and arrangement. Black boxes appear within many of the poems, as if redacting text, thus making the poems seem haunted by the hand of a censor, an intermediary—or perhaps, by the sensibility of someone reading, someone who couldn’t bear to read every word (in his afterword, Metres notes that “Some of the poems began as a way to read the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib which were too painful for me to read straight through”). The violence is sometimes described, sometimes intimated, terribly:

into the toilet                    “go take it and eat it”

     and your eyes shall be

dogs    G    brought the dogs

This sense of haunting, of material remade—something like the “matter of capital” Burt refers to in his essay?—is present in the chapbook itself, which is bound in paper made out of old military uniforms, made by Chris Arendt through the Combat Paper Project. Even before we reach the end of the text and learn this, the book’s khaki color and the grains that appear in the paper give us the sense of something that’s been undone and re-formed.

It is as though the degree of violence and the American reader’s implication therein—the violence at Abu Ghraib, at Guantanamo, everything described in these “source texts”—strained even the essay form, demanded something else, some greater distance from the narrating self. The “I” of the writer is elided here, present only in the trace of the one who arranged these texts. I want to think about how for some of the “systems” Burt discusses in his review, it seems right for the poet to respond in and preserve his or her individual voice, the essayistic I that guides us through, that retains and offers—as he asserts in both the review’s introduction and its conclusion—”emotional resonance.” But when the subject is the secrecy and violence of these prisons, the effectual erasure of their prisoners’ selfhood, perhaps it’s right to let the voices themselves speak, to offer a text that feels like a document, even as it still operates like poetry. abu ghraib arias can’t quite “bear witness” to the violence of US prisons abroad; that is part of the tragedy, that it is a struggle even to know (or to bear to know) what occurs in these places, even as it occurs in our name. But the work can report back from these prisons, in a way, and offer this reportage with an immediacy of experience and a breadth and sense of mourning that hundreds of pages of prose can’t quite offer—I don’t know if it’s right to call this “lyric compression,” the term Burt refuses above, but it seems in any case a powerful form of compression. Metres says that these poems “began out of the vertiginous sense of being named but silenced as an Arab American, and out of the parallel sense of seeing Arabs named and silenced, since 9/11.” It’s profoundly compelling that in response he has created a text that incorporates both names and silence, that both names (the torturers) and aims to witness the silence, the violence they’ve inflicted by allowing space in the text, exerting pressure on the speech until it breaks. Indeed, later poems in the work seem truly like a mourning for what could not be said, or could not be heard: only pronouns or punctuation arranged on the page.

These notes seem like only a beginning; I want to think about this more, and hear others’ thoughts. So please do read abu ghraib arias—a chapbook in a limited edition, I should add—a stunning, intensely disquieting work.


4 thoughts on “Reportage and poetry: on “abu ghraib arias”

  1. Hilary, thank you for your trenchant and thoughtful engagement with the poems; it’s every poet’s greatest wish to be read as intensely as this. Poems like these are not often “enjoyed” as encountered, wrestled with.

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