Review: Philip Metres’ abu ghraib arias

Editor's Note: According to Flying Guillotine Press, a second printing of abu ghraib arias is forthcoming.

JOE HALL was the 2007-2008 Thesis Fellow at George Mason University. His first book of poems is Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean 2010). The Cathedral Tent, his second collection, will be published by Black Ocean Press in 2013.

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abu ghraib arias is Philip Metres’ selection, editing, and erasure of texts including the Gitmo SOP manual, torture victim testimony, words of U.S. soldiers and contractors, religious texts, news stories, etc etc. A review on the Kenyon blog by Hilary Plum situates this collection within the burgeoning genre of big poems about systems from authors like Noah Eli Gordon, Juliana Spahr, the entire output of Futurepoem, and more I’m sure to come. These kinds of poems bring into relationship the outlines of the many systems of capitalism, their growth and decay through time, and their local manifestations. Many of the works Plum references include the “I” and the I’s reaction to all this stuff as it collates and develops the organization that become the glyphs of these systems. There is often a rhythm in these big poems between a fragmented voice that piles up stuff and an essayistic voice that makes half sense of it. They illuminate and trouble the systems and our relations to them without ever fully slipping into full-on didactic mode.

Plum asserts that abu ghraib arias is a “systems” poem and finds significant that the collection forgoes the presence of the interlocuting “I” due to the impossibility (and sometimes pointlessness) of referring to one’s own reactions to the heavy waves of information that bring, in pieces, news of things like the torture of prisoners by Americans.

I wish to elaborate upon this. In many ways, yes, this is a “systems” poem in that it situates the act of torture as the product of a systemic ideology (a larger diffuse “they” that soldiers report back to, negotiate with, and at the critical moment capitulate to) and not a few rogue individuals.

….................because if this is what we’re .................going to do if this is what .................we’ve become then I’m done

.................they say to talk to a chaplain .................they say it’s all your perception .................it’s how you perceive…

On the other hand, the scope of the system here reads as largely delimited to martial culture and those caught within its net with the implication that what happened within the walls of torture houses is rolling outward in the bodies and minds of the soldiers there. This isn’t a poem about the whole shebang. There are no references to strip malls, poison vegetables, or oil. Instead, the individuals upon which these systems act and through which they act—and in torture, the mutilation of bodies corresponds to the distortion of minds/meaning making of the torturer and tortured in the process of converting incoherent bodily pain into actionable “intelligence”—rest firmly at the center of Metres's collating.

.......................................ordered to stand

.......................................testicles with gloves

............hand-

cuffed

.................................................................................water

......................................G........................................pouring water

..................................................screaming...........“my heart”

...........................And the water shall....................flood all flesh

.............................................................. .................all this beating

..........................................to stitch the string.......the needle

..........................................the operation

.................succeeded

This tight focus upon bodies and the actions of individuals is important in that this not only puts a voice within the actions of the system, it also shows us what is at stake. That is, via arrangement, redaction, and the increasing fragmentation of the text, Metres illuminates the movement outward of the act of physical torture: like a crushing wave, it moves to the mind/psyche and short circuits the capacity to make meaning, find significance, and engage with a present. It is the casting of one into darkness and seclusion, the removal of agency to understand or act against such systems or any systems. The mind can no longer gather and relate as the author of a “systems” poem gathers and relates.

My greatest frustration with “systems” poems is that so many hamstring themselves through their sheer scope and the perspective of the meditating “I,” the eye who perceives outside of action or physical feeling. In such poems this has taken the form of panoramic views of cities, houses, shopping centers, and the abstracting of these to foreground their planned, manufactured nature, the alienation this radiates.[i] Perhaps because these poems are thinking big, they decide to think through the largest of images. But the world is not simply systems making architectural reality. Individuals are always the interlocutors of systems. Evil is banal people doing banal stuff. To forget the knot of body and consciousness is to not enter anything at all.

Religion is something else critical that “systems” poems often fail to account for. In abu ghraib arias, Metres situates it as perhaps a last bulwark against the deep pain of torture, and the massive weight of the systems behind it.

............................out of the room...............inside the room

.........................................................................Abide here

.........................................................................The broom

.

................the glowing finger........................until I was

.

laid upon.............the altar

..............................the stick that he always carries inside

.................me

...................................................Here I am

.............................lifted up

I saw inside............................................................a burnt offering

...........Pictures of me............................................................ instances

Fired by the religious mind, the torture is transformed into a spiritual crucible by the individual it is visited upon. Images that fuse the torturing hand with the beautiful fire and the slurring of syntactical relationships created by the lack of punctuation assert an impossible disintegration of boundaries in phrases like “the stick that he always carries inside / me.” It is not the torture that is poetic but the defense of the mind against it—the hazard and resistance to it. In crisis there is opportunity, though Metres’ collection ends in a wash of punctuation. Walls, partitions, and that which relates are in a wreck, without anything to hold. The terminal point of torture is the opposite of intelligence.

Finally, no review of this chapbook would be doing its job without considering the fact that the paper it is printed on comes from combat paper maker and war veteran Chris Arendt. I recently talked to expert paper maker Aimee Lee, who is familiar with the process of producing combat paper. In her mind, a significant but often overlooked issue with producing combat paper is how its raw materials—the uniforms—are synthetic and often saturated with toxic chemicals and compounds. Converting these uniforms to pulp is itself a somewhat hazardous process in terms of what the papermaker handles and breathes. The paper itself carries a somewhat deranging halflife. The editors of Flying Guillotine, Sommer Browning and Tony Mancus, deserve a lot of credit for being willing to invest their time and energy into organizing and assembling this labor-intensive, radioactive chapbook. It is, as of the time of writing this review, sold out, but it is my hope that at least a digital version will be made available sooner than later. This is an important document.

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[i] Some do go beyond these kinds of perspectives. Briante’s Utopia Minus finds in the cathedral-like ruins of industry and warehousing a highly charged ambiguity and often examines manufactured American landscapes alongside the rhythms of her marriage.

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