For progressives, Barack Obama’s first two years in office have offered a mixed bag. There have been real, impressive, most likely lasting, accomplishments, from the Affordable Care Act to the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But there have been disappointments, too, and most of those have come in the realms of civil liberties and the rule of law.
The administration’s continuing inability—or unwillignness to—unravel the admittedly knotty problem of what to do with the prisoners held without trial at Guantánamo must rank near the top of that list. On the second anniversary of President Obama’s inauguration, George Fragopoulos takes a look at a 2007 collection of poetry from Guantanamo detainees to see what it can tell us about our current moment, our much-touted ideals, and the ongoing state of exception that allows these men to remain imprisoned, outside the rule of law.
—Levi Stahl, poetry editor
and what, after all, is the use
And purpose of poets in an age of darkness?
—Friedrich Hölderlin, “Bread and Wine,” translated by David Lehman
It seems that more than ever Hölderlin’s question is in urgent need of a response. What can the purpose of poetry be in a world as barbarous and brutal as ours? Perhaps it can be our most contemporary aesthetic and poets our true contemporaries, especially if we conceive of “contemporaries,” following Giorgio Agamben, as those who look actively and with purpose into the dark in order to see what must be seen. Considering the cruelties of the age we live in, the anthology Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak, published in 2007, is remarkable for a variety of reasons, the least of which is the fact of its existence. That the collection exists is not, I would like to suggest, really that surprising, even if its birth was a difficult one and one that should be applauded. This collection stands as an accurate and honest reflection of the age we live in.
The anthology can be placed within a long-standing tradition of prison literature and, as Flagg Miller writes in his insightful introduction to the collection, “Forms of Suffering in Muslim Prison Poetry,” alongside a rich variety of Arabic and Islamic poetics and poetries: “From the earliest days of Islam’s rise among world religions in the seventh century, poetry has provided a steady moral compass for Muslims.” Miller goes on to illustrate the varied connections that exist between poetry and politics. The idea, to give but one example, is that language—here “vernacular Arabic”—can be used as a means for aesthetic and political dissent. This is important to note for two reasons: in the United States it has become convenient to obscure and conflate political motives with religious ones, thus summarily removing any reasoned discussion of the global climate that allowed for the horrific crimes perpetrated on 9/11 to be committed in the first place. We also tend to eagerly dismiss the potential for works of art to speak to us in a political manner. Miller again:
Barely half the Guantánamo poems in this collection . . . invoke hallmark Islamic terms, such as “Allah,” “the book of God,” the “messenger,” and “Islam.” When they are used, moreover, such terms are usually employed in a mainstream manner, inserted into conventional supplications at the end of qasidas [a form of lyric poetry], rather than being used to develop themes of militancy. Certainly few of these poems open with pious supplications, in contrast to religious poetry. At first stroke, the Guantánamo poets catch us off guard with a modernism that even rings secular at times. To be sure, studies of Islamic reform movements suggest that many global jihadists have a weak understanding of core Muslim beliefs and indeed have more affinity with Marxist revolutionaries than with religious devotees.
But beyond literary genres, what the poetry from these seventeen detainees at Guantánamo speaks of is of a space that is not an exception to the current rule of global law but the very nature of that “law” itself. As Agamben has argued in Homo Sacer, the Nazi’s extermination camps are not simply “an anomaly belonging to the past (even if still verifiable) but in some way . . . the hidden matrix and nomos of the political space in which we are still living.” Agamben and Judith Butler have further argued that the “state of exception”—reductively put, the indefinite suspension of laws and rights in order for the preservation of the “greater good”—is the condition that has allowed for Guantánamo to become a possibility in the first place. There is nothing abnormal about Guantánamo Bay’s existence or the fact that people can be detained indefinitely without proper juridical recourse in a Western “democracy”: such structures live and breathe amongst us, they are not aberrant representations of our world and they are not symbols of temporary madness; hence my earlier claim that the existence of such a collection should not completely surprise us. Such structures are reflections of our true realities, forms of oppression and horror that exist because they are fully and totally situated within our very sense of who and what we have become. This is not, however, to imply that the concentration camp equals Guantánamo, that they are the one and the same, only that the two are connected by a logic that seeks to construct a space beyond the rule of law. As Agamben has written, “The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.”
For these reasons and many more, discussing the “aesthetic” quality of the works in the anthology is highly problematic. For one, the poems, as Marc Falkoff writes in his introduction, were translated not by literary translators but by “linguists with secret-level security clearances” (although Miller did translate one of the poems). And while one cannot necessarily assume that a literary translator would have done a better job, we can at least say, without controversy, that the “literary quality” of the translations were not of great concern. (And as critics of literature in translation, we should always be aware of the distance that exists between us and the work at hand. This fact should never be taken for granted.)
We should not, therefore, simply read individual poems in the search for literary quality—even though some are excellent poems—but rather read them with an eye toward achieving an understanding of what poetry can suggest as poetry. It is only in approaching the poems in such a manner that we can even hope to articulate the complexities of the situations that gave rise to such works. Any attempt to read the poems simply as poems can obscure the political realities at work; and to simply discuss the political context is to dismiss the possibility that such poems can also be works of “art.” The key is, I believe, not to supplement one with the other—the political as supplement to the aesthetic, the aesthetic as supplement to the political—but to suggest that there is no dividing line between the two, or at least that the division cannot be easily located.
To easily dismiss the aesthetic as not expressing something “politically” tangible is to fall into a reductive and troubling binary that seeks to isolate and bureaucratize fields of knowledge. Writing for the Guardian back in July of 2007, critic Shirley Dent said of the collection, “A red warning sign goes on for me when poetry gets dragged into legal and political battles—I can almost guarantee the poetic truths reached for will not be the objective, universal and complex truths that poetry can offer, but the subjective, individual and simple. This sort of poetic justice makes a travesty of equality before the law.” (Though, strangely enough, Dent will go on to read Camus’s L’Étranger as an example of how a work of fiction can critique problematic ideological positions, specifically France’s colonial occupation of Algeria. Can prose represent an “objective truth” that poetry cannot?) The equating of the “subjective” and the “individual” to the “simple” is itself an incredibly reductive view of things, and one that forgets to consider, as Foucault and others remind us, that the personal is political and the political is personal. The same goes for the lyric. There is no personal lyric that does not speak of a “public” and “political truth.”
A poem such as “Death Poem,” by Jumah Al Dossari, can only be approached as a nexus in which collide a wide variety of historical, political, social issues. To fully unravel such a complex knot is impossible. Any totalizing answer would be reductive and would fall into the trap of prioritizing either the aesthetic or the political. Here is the poem in full:
Take my blood.
Take my death shroud and
The remnant of my body.
Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.
Send them to the world,
To the judges and
To the people of conscience,
Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.
And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,
Of this innocent soul.
Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,
Of this wasted, sinless soul,
Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.
The voice in the poem struggles for recognition, for documentation, for an accounting—“photographs of my corpse”—of its very death/existence. It is a document of annihilation. There is a voice here struggling to live beyond a living death. The legal limbo of the camp is turned into a reflection of one’s existence in the face of overwhelming misery, oddly reminiscent, at least to this reader, of Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Both poems are an attempt to document the impossible: the experience of death.
I agree with Dent that more than poetry is needed for those who are still being held after all these years, and while I do not doubt her sympathy for the plight of the innocent at Guantánamo, her response, nonetheless, seeks to exclude aesthetics entirely from the realm of the political, a move which, of course, is political in the extreme. It is this kind of reasoning which subtly serves to reify the hypocritical contradictions that allow for a democratic nation to hold people captive with little or no recourse in as far as legal representation goes. That is, that following Dent’s logic, these prisoners are allowed to participate in the field of politics only as politicized subjects, people with no existence outside of the realm of the conventionally realized political. They cannot be considered, therefore, as those with the capability of fully engaging in the possibility of art; they exist simply within the realm of the “ideological,” they stand outside of aesthetics. Hence, the possibility for poetry is taken off the table. We must challenge such claims, especially since they are also coming from an ideological position. Jacques Rancière, for one, has suggested that what aesthetics and politics have in common is that they both examine the relationship between the Universal and the Particular. As Slavoj Žižek has written of Rancière’s work:
Politics proper [as Rancière conceives of it] thus always involves a kind of short-circuit between the Universal and the Particular: the paradox of a singular which appears as a stand-in for the Universal, destabilizing the ‘natural’ functional order of relation in the social body.
Rancière also conceives of aesthetics in a similar manner, as that which can act as a rupture in the sensible order of things. The poetry of the detainees—and poetry it is, fully and completely in the sense of the word—gestures toward such a short-circuit, a moment where the particular and the universal are challenged and reconceived.
The question arises: to what extent are these poems representative of such a disruption? Are they, in fact, subversive in any sense? Or are they, as Dan Chiasson has argued in the New York Times, Pentagon propaganda, a “public relations psych-out, ‘proof’’ that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo”? And while some of the poems express their dissent in less than vitriolic terms—“They are criminals, increasing their crimes. / They are criminals, claiming to be peace-loving. / They are criminals, torturing the hunger strikers.”—others are decidedly more strident—“American justice, American pigs, / American Soldiers, American wigs. / Yes, I’m feeling angry, yes I’m feeling pissed”—a fact that complicates Chiasson’s claims.
However, to completely dismiss Chiasson’s concerns would be careless, even if he does fail to give enough credit to the poems themselves—he does not discuss them in any detail, for example—or to the work of those at the University of Iowa Press and to lawyers like Marc Falkoff who had to fight for the release, translation and publication of even this meager number of poems. As Falkoff has said in an interview with Andy Worthington, thousands of lines of verse written by the detainees will most likely never see publication and have probably been destroyed. What Chiasson may be implying—and yet never fully articulates—is the notion that the very same humanist principles that we look for in the poetry of the detainees are the very same principles that helped lead to their detention. I interpret Chiasson’s review more as a call for a careful reckoning with such poetry rather than as an attack on its purpose or usefulness. We should never forget, for example, that ideas such as “human rights,” “equality,” “freedom,” and “democracy” have been used by the United States government to justify the (ongoing) war against terror, and that these very same humanist principles are the ones many readers and critics have leaned on in articulating their responses to the poetry in this collection.
To simply argue that it was the perversion of such concepts that led to places like Guantánamo is to miss the opportunity to further articulate what can be of value in such concepts—or if they need to be abandoned entirely. For example, Jacques Derrida’s notion of a democracy to come—the idea that we are constantly waiting for a truly democratic world, and that we need to continue to work towards this future—is an example of how such a “universalist” term can continue to be of value, but only through constant critique and (re)consideration. If anything, this anthology can allow us to be much more sensitive to the ways in which the realms of politics and aesthetics speak to one another in a meaningful manner.
George Fragopoulos lives in New York. He is currently writing his dissertation on modern American poetics.
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