Sand Opera, by Philip Metres. Alice James Books, 103 pp., $16.95.
The Last Two Seconds, by Mary Jo Bang. Graywolf Press, 84 pp., $16.
loose strife, by Quan Barry. University of Pittsburgh Press, 65 pp., $15.95.
In Titian’s painting Flaying of Marsyas, the eponymous satyr is shown being punished for his excessive hubris, having challenged Apollo to a flute-playing contest. Titian includes two images of Apollo: in one he is bent down in the foreground, calmly and meticulously about to pare the loser’s flesh, and in the second he is standing behind the scene with his lyre raised, face turned toward the sky. These, Titian seems to be saying, are the possibilities for art. Attend to the subject directly, almost clinically, or turn away from it in the name of beauty. But, as evidenced in his own dark-toned, painterly depiction of the myth—dog lapping up Marsyas’ blood, spectators looking on, Marsyas strangely peaceful in the throes of torture—Titian knew there are approaches that lie between these two artistic extremes. In this painting, utilizing the particularities of the gruesome image but still invested in the subject’s own splendor, Titian makes an efficient statement about art.
Poetry, I would argue, has a more difficult task, lacking the simultaneity of the visual arts, its meaning unfolding not in space but in time. Imagery in a poem takes longer to process than the few seconds our eye requires to range over a painting, however complicated. Perhaps it is this delay that makes poetry seem, to some, an inadequate method of approaching larger political and social issues. It is, as Yvor Winters argued in a personal letter, the most intellectual art form. And the quality of intellect can, in the hands of some poets, appear opportunistic, or estranged from its subject matter. Auden’s often-quoted line marking his departure from political poetry, that “poetry makes nothing happen,” is rarely mentioned along with what comes four lines later in “In Memory of W.B. Yeats”: “it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”
Auden’s distinction—that poetry may not have a direct correlative of action, but that it is its own action—comes to mind when reading these three new collections. Each poet’s unique way of happening navigates the space between the two Apollos: song and subject, and the difficulty of that merger, are of utmost concern. The poets here depart from Titian; some turn away from song and the overtly beautiful in order to embrace the close attention to subject of the knife-wielding Apollo, yet this also exposes the exploitative nature of art and its ability to sacrifice the subject for its own purpose. Others, rather than Titian’s idea of an art oblivious to the subject from which it originates, take up the very idea of song and beauty in their work. These books take on different forms of suffering from a variety of vantage points—the documentary, the philosophical, the lyric, the didactic—all highlighting the intellectual rigor required to approach such difficult subjects.
In the notes at the end of Sand Opera, Philip Metres writes: “I take solace in Herodotus’s notion of writing ‘to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion,’ and find peace in the durability of art—that momentary stay against confusion.” Yet the Frost quote doesn’t quite seem adequate for this book, as that idea—the “momentary stay against confusion”—follows Frost’s assertion that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” And that trajectory is not one that Metres’ poems follow, and rightfully so. This book, compiled from and erasing sources such as the Guantanamo Standard Operating Procedure, testimonies and official reports from Abu Graib prisoners and guards, the Bible, and the Code of Hammurabi, begins not in delight, but in received forms of violence. Likewise, rather than ending in wisdom, I might say that it ends in confusion, in particular as it attempts to engage with the idea of the responsibility of poetry.
Though documentary poetry in itself may be seen as a didactic form—more interested than other forms in disclosing information, often with a specific argument in mind—Metres constantly questions the very tenets of poetry, and how they hold up against extreme brutality. Sand Opera shows that seeing is not enough, which holds great implications for art, for imagery. Sight holds a certain complicity, which Metres is well aware of, as one of his epigraphs makes clear: “…it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” This responsibility is passed from officer to testimony to poet to reader. The first poem pleads: “Soothe the eye in which I am / thrown.” The doubling of objectivity (the “eye”) and subjectivity (the “I”) not only shows their inseparability, but also calls each into question. The subject, forced into sight, lacks agency. Sight, always a product of a subject, is never whole. Likewise, an image in a poem is always incomplete, as evidenced in the following lines from “The Iraqi Curator’s PowerPoint”:
A slide is missing
Here. What I ask you is this: base
What you believe on what you can almost see.
For example: you hear the dogs bay
From the outskirts of the city. They head
Wherever they smell flesh. My eyes
Still see buildings that are now holes.
What you see is not what is missing.
The speaker’s after-image is like the ghost of language: it reconstructs what is never fully accessible, especially in the case of a war-torn cityscape. While sight is a constant concern throughout these poems, it is ultimately devalued, so that instead a kind of poetic vision or imagination—the ability to create wholes from holes—reigns supreme.
Poetry, like all art, has to account for its inherent omissions, always struggling with what is off the page, outside the lens, and one of the book’s main modes—erasure—explicitly emphasizes this. Erasure always provokes questions of completeness and accuracy, as the curating enacted throughout an erasure increases awareness of the everyday curation of language. Language, the book seems to argue, as it helps create and compose what we see, is what we must always revert to, both in enacting forms of violence, and in documenting them. But what are the implications of erasure here, especially when using the testimony of others? The most effective erasures in this book break down a hierarchy of language, so that the personal testimonies of both prisoners and guards carry the same weight as the Bible, the Code of Hammurabi. This method has its own problems, though, since language that almost always comes to an audience edited (the prisoners’ testimonies) here is further erased, risking an obscuring of the prisoners’ voices among the language of the others. Do we read the big black boxes of redacted text that appear in some of these poems as official erasure, or poetic erasure? And does that matter? Is it opportunistic, if not gimmicky, to strip language down to its punctuation, as Metres does in the final erasure, “(echo /ex/),” in the first section? He is obviously aware of these issues, which are addressed in the poem “Document Exploitation (Standard Operating Procedure),” an erasure that acts as a manual for erasure: “clearly and legibly skip lines // as close as possible // to the original,” the poem instructs. “Don’t translate poems word for word.” This becomes not only a procedure for the censors and guards, but for the poet as well. The awareness, however, places an even larger burden on Metres, since the previous questions are never approached directly. The erasures lack a necessary stance; I would like to see, beyond the obvious corruption of language, poems that engage more in creating a whole from what has been fractured due to great acts of violence and injustice. Without this, these exploit their subjects in what seems to be an unthinking manner, mining useful language in order to complete the poem.
The blending of voices from victim and perpetrator, prisoner and guard, in order to compose what presents itself as a unified voice may be problematic, but the moments when singular voices are given space are some of the most interesting inversions of idea and form, as with the blues form, which Metres uses in multiple poems for the voices of officers Javal Davis, Charles Graner, Lynddie England, Ken Davis, and Joe Darby. These poems are highly aware of the power dynamics both in inverting this form and the systems within which the guards are working. Emerging after Emancipation as part of the work-song tradition, the blues form emphasizes here, somewhat ironically, that in this case the soldiers overseeing imprisonment are workers as well. For example, in “The Blues of Javal Davis,” the speaker (Davis) acknowledges, and flaunts, how the American public views them: “CNN says we’re some dumb / poor kids from Garbagecan USA / it didn’t turn out to be that way.” Highlighting their class identity, the blues of disenfranchised youth creates necessary tension in a book that can slip into obvious narratives and information. In “The Blues of Lynddie England,” speaking about Graner, England speaks of the dynamics of their own relationship:
he has power
anything he asked
I would do
Both of these poems reveal the complexity of the systems of power both carried out and subverted, inter-personally and economically. The poems do not make these officers sympathetic, but they do humanize them, showing the larger structures within which they’re operating. The work these poems do, however, could stand to be more complex, as they risk simplifying the role of the officers/humans in question. Here’s “The Blues of Charles Graner” in its entirety:
the Christian in me
knows it’s wrong
but the corrections
officer in me can’t
help but love
making a grown man
Instead of questioning economic and class-related systems of power in which Graner is operating, the poem falls back on reductive tropes and roles: the Good Christian, the Bad Officer. And the helplessness, the futility of religion, morality, and ethics in the face of official duties ring false, when, in such a short poem, it’s difficult to see exactly why Graner “can’t / help” reveling in the degradation of the prisoners. It’s easy, I think, to reduce Graner to his station or religion. What would be more difficult, and more fruitful, would be to show him beginning to think that perhaps these acts of violence are, in fact, right—to see them as a necessary deed. This points to a problem not only in Sand Opera, but also in contemporary poetry: a certain self-righteousness produced from an inability to separate the poet’s agenda from the poem.
Elsewhere, when Metres references song outside of the blues, he presents it as both lyric and artifact, exploding the perceived vacuum of lyric poetry. This is where his work excels, as in the fifth poem in section three (which are all titled “@”):
In the cell of else / in the pitch-white
someone’s hands shackled between ankles
in the nights & sunny days keeping the clouds
shaking the rib cage & no way
to keep the music from entering & breaking
the bodies hit / Let the bodies hit the / Barney
is a dinosaur / this is the touching without being
touched / this is the being without
silence / from our imagination / in wave upon
wave / in a shipping container & I love you
in a box of shock you love me / in a cemented
dream / we’re a happy family /
with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark
Won’t you say you love me too?
This searing poem remixes the songs used during the torture and interrogation of Mohammas al-Sliha at Guantanamo. The poem’s greatest strength is also its greatest risk: it verges on the overtly didactic, with the assertion that “this is the touching without being / touched / this is the being without // silence.” The various songs that are almost remixed into the language of the poem are insidious, pervasive, inescapable. The lyrics, in poetic form, simultaneously harm and reveal.
In the last section of the book, the poems become even more self-reflexive.
The towers burned down into themselves—just like a cigarette, the poet laureate wanted to say, and did, on air, knowing that distance makes metaphors terrifying and the world less so, dividing the night from night. How to describe the twisted angles and planes? Picasso: a picture is a sum of destructions.
Poetry, here, thrives on destruction, interrogating and exposing itself as witness and opportunist, beautiful and terrible, necessary and inadequate. Though the failure of poetry is one of Metres’ main themes, the book itself often fails to elaborate on this distance between poetry and the world. The unproductive confusions of the book—the mixtures of voices in the erasures, the processual questions of redacting the text, the at times moralistic writing—make an important book seem not yet fully formed.
In The Last Two Seconds, instead of exposing specific disasters throughout history, Mary Jo Bang writes of history’s general, and perpetual, tyranny. While at times seemingly apocalyptic, this book shows the terror of what history looks like when the future has collapsed into the present, when the end seems both very near, and, at the same time, as if it might never come to release us from the state of inescapable self-dom. If, in Sand Opera, poetry transforms that which it documents, in The Last Two Seconds poetry endures it. With an effort to create a language of boredom, Bang avoids the beauty that poetry also demands. Her epistemological skepticism results in poems that are glib, knowing, muscular, and difficult, relying on cascading statements about history, time, and knowledge. And, when most compelling, these statements are the sources of a profound and pervasive anxiety.
Early on, Bang invokes Walter Benjamin’s angel of history—the figure that, for Benjamin, was blown into the future by the force of past catastrophe—but in her poem “The Storm We Call Progress,” the angel is instead, “the dog / of history,” which “keeps being blown into the present, her back to the future, her last supper simply becoming / the bowels’ dissolving memory in a heap before her.” The change from being driven into the future to being driven into the present is significant; the present, in this book, is an over-extended one, a relentless, capitalist modernity without hope or a foreseeable future. The poem goes on:
A revolution goes right, then wrong. The right falls
in love with an icon. They force a landscape into a box.
They lock the box with the key inside. The aristocracy
is an improbable agent of change.
Benjamin’s criticism of progress and the ease with which it attempts to obscure a historical narrative of destruction echoes throughout these poems, producing, as evidenced in the lines above, a sort of exhausted glibness. When the poet slips into seeming ennui, it’s difficult for the poems to feel in any way transformative, for the statement on the page to feel like anything more than weariness. But, when obsession with the bleakness of the present becomes an obsession with and anxiety about time, the language metamorphoses toward urgency and insistence. Just a look at the table of contents shows Bang’s concern with temporality, with titles such as “At the Moment of Beginning,” “Equidistant from the Center of Never,” “An Autopsy of an Era,” “The Perpetual Night She Went Into,” “Time Trap: The Perpetual Moment,” “Two Places and One Time,” “A Technical Drawing of the Moment,” “The Elastic Moment,” “Studies in Neuroscience: The Perpetual Moment,” and “The Last Two Seconds.” Here time is a catalyst for being, which is a wide stage for the production of thought. “Let’s Say Yes,” a poem in six sections composed of words found in Mrs. Dalloway, best exemplifies the links between thought and time, knowledge and pain, being and anxiety. The reader witnesses a character caught in the “perpetual instant,” the “edge of her mind turning meaning for hours // at a time. Hours and days. A sound like a sickle. / Her head like a bunch of heather. Then over.” When faced with the masturbatory nature of thinking, she finds that “The answer is to go beneath life,” for
here was the door opened,
the door ajar. And outside was history:
engraving of a sofa, a factory, violin sound.
The dwindling impulse. The gigantic clock.
The clock was her mind.
History, in this poem, is made up of art, industry, the senses. While this would, elsewhere, seem comforting, the slippage between thing and idea, self and time, forms just another system within which the speaker remains caught.
The terror of time accompanies scenes of inertia, of stasis, where the mundane is examined to the point that it teeters on the absurd. In “You Know”—an ekphrastic response to Jessica Stockholder’s sculpture Flooded Chambers Maid in Madison Square Park—a moment of boredom bleeds into anticipated communal disaster.
You know, don’t you, what we’re doing here?
The evening laid out like a beach ball gone airless.
We’re watching the spectators in the bleachers.
The one in the blue shirt says, “I knew,
even as a child, that my mind was adding color
to the moment.”
The one in red says, “In the dream, there was a child
batting a ball back and forth. He was chanting
that awful rhyme about time that eventually ends
with the body making a metronome motion.”
By way of demonstration, he moves mechanically
side to side while making a clicking noise.
His friends look away. They all know
how a metronome goes. You and I continue to watch
because we have nothing better to do.
We wait for the inevitable next: we know the crowd
will rise to its feet when prompted and count—
three-one-hundred—as if history were a sound
that could pry apart an ever-widening abyss
with a sea on the bottom. And it will go on like this.
The crowd will quiet when the sea reaches us.
This poem operates in multiple instances of knowing: the initial question-as-statement, the observed man explaining a precocious (and, perhaps, slightly obnoxious) childhood knowledge, the shared knowledge of the metronome, the speaker’s knowledge of the impending actions of the crowd, and, completing the knowing nature of the entire poem, the implicit knowledge that comes from the ending statements of the crowd hushing when, presumably, a tsunami hits. What makes this poem particularly successful, though, is the unstated scrim of desire for the disaster at the end, that amidst the ongoing din obliteration is perhaps preferable to enduring this communal boredom and inanity. And the communal indeed encompasses the self, the speaker, so that the poem is not just a complaint of the crowd, but one more personally penetrating. The invocation of Prufrock (“The evening laid out like a beach ball gone airless”) adds another level of stasis to the poem. Just as Prufrock’s initial invitation (“Let us go then, you and I”) proves an unsuccessful escape from the room and his own anxiety, so, too, does the speaker appear to be stuck in this scene in the park, this environment of observation and boredom. The tone, like the “beach ball gone airless,” is deflated, and it is here where Bang most successfully merges tone and idea: glibness of tone accompanying bleakness of surrounding.
Where the book becomes confused in its ideas is in its stance about art. Drawing, theatre, cinema—all are invoked throughout the poems, often emphasizing theatricality and fiction, staging and simulation. “Every last scene lasts for no more / than a second,” Bang writes. “On stage, in a moment of everyday realism, / an accordion folds and unfolds while / we pretend we forget we said we’d be kind.” The reproduced realism provides a sort of curtain, a distancing method between viewer and reality. It is not that art makes us forget our proposed humanity, but it allows us to pretend to forget some social contract. Art, then, seems a negative refuge from the world. The end of “A Technical Drawing of the Moment” elaborates:
Color can add detail to the expanse between
the short but bright beginning of an era
and a mottled much longer after.
History moves in under the glass-top
where from a safe distance we can watch it
become our keeper and contentious tormenter.
I admit to being frightened, or better,
ill at ease, with what I don’t know but can see:
the instinct for power that some people have.
Is art—technical drawing, painting, theatre, film, and, of course, poetry—this “safe distance”? Is it the lens through which we watch history unfurl? Is it the anesthetizing illusion of control? Is it the aestheticization of experience, the color added “to the expanse”? Is fiction comforting, a story line in which one can hide? If so, then The Last Two Seconds would prove to be an outlier. Here, experience and existence—internal and external—is dismal. These poems do not offer a retreat, or even a respite, from time.
“We’re post-postmodern,” writes Bang. “We know where we’re going and it isn’t back and forth. / We want and light comes. We call what we want what we need.” Which recalls Williams’ question: “How shall I be a mirror to this modernity?” The Last Two Seconds, in its interest in simulation, or mimesis, of the “post-postmodern,” becomes a mirror in its scope and language: the way we live now is not poetic, nor is this book. Yet I wonder if one also needs, more often than an inventive mind relaying its own terrors and boredom, an inventive language, one that risks reverting to the poetic, the, yes, beautiful moments that would not necessarily assuage a brutal reality, but would make a reader more patient in receiving it.
Listen closely as I sing this. The man standing at the gate
tottering on his remaining limb is a kind of metronome, his one
leg planted firmly on the earth. Yes I have made him beautiful
because I aim to lay all my cards on the table.
So begins the second poem in Quan Barry’s loose strife, a collection haunted by the song of the lyric in the face of inhumanity. Barry’s main theme is one of violence, expressed in subjects as varied as the Khmer Rouge, ancient battles in Aeschylus and Homer, motherhood, the now-infamous Zanesville, Ohio zoo, sex, truck-stop killers, men stabbed, women raped and killed, Manifest Destiny, and global warming. And the poems are constantly aware of their own complicity through the violence of language. That art distorts; that, as in Flaying of Marsyas, art makes suffering beautiful. The poem continues:
In graduate school
a whole workshop devoted to an image of a woman with bleach
thrown in the face and the question of whether or not
the author could write, “The full moon sat in the window
like a calcified eye, the woman’s face aglow with a knowingness.”
This question of authorial permission is given space here, surely, but it’s also side-eyed. Barry is quite aware of this especially contemporary anxiety: what permission does a poet have in the rendering of an image? Where do an artist’s loyalties lie: with musical truth or social truth? Unlike most contemporary collections of poetry, loose strife offers an allegiance to both. “There are seventy-four forms // of poetry in this country and each one is still meant to be sung,” the poem ends. Barry’s dual allegiance, however, would preclude such overtly decorative imagery as that of the workshop poem. While lyricism is present in these poems, and while song is constantly acknowledged, it is never privileged over content.
The fierce intellect inhabiting these poems, and the poet’s constant looking toward the interstices between the social and the poetic, turns at times toward the didactic. What is especially enjoyable about Barry’s writing, though, is that she approaches the didactic without timidity. And while one might expect a certain didacticism to accompany the brutality of subject matter here, the skillful maneuvers of the poems to merge their socio-political subjects with statements about art make it so the reader is never receiving anticipated information. Take, for example, a poem she writes from the perspective of the animals released by the zookeeper at the Zanesville, Ohio zoo. “When he comes to the gate for the very last time,” the poem begins, “the predators among us / can smell the difference. Every art needs a structure. Hormones flooding // the blood. Even the wildest gardens contain some form of order.” What could, written by a lesser poet, become an obvious argument about appropriation and the wrongful treatment and captivity of animals, turns instead into a meditation on chaos, and art’s capability—and necessity—of ordering that chaos.
The last couplet of the poem could seem excessive, moralizing, perhaps even precious: “Some of us will be shot dead even as we stand in our open cages, / the instinct long degenerated that would have told us how to do this.” The trajectory of the poem changes how we receive these lines, however, as it veers from the frenzied scene at the zoo to Pandora’s Box beforehand. “Imagine on her wedding night // the woman lifting the lid and the newly freed darkness seeping out to / the four cardinal points.” By juxtaposition, the act of the zookeeper is a product of ceremony and innocence, and, if one is to think of the myth of Pandora—created by Zeus to carry out his revenge on Prometheus—the poem enlarges this singular situation of freeing the animals to one caught in a larger system of violence and cruelty. “A thing should be what it was made to be,” Barry writes. Skillfully didactic, the poem points, again, to creation (of art, of man, of myth) and the decline that so necessitates such a statement.
Following in this discursive mode, loose strife is also engaged with the interrogative. “How many times can I appropriate a story that is not mine to tell?” the speaker asks in the book’s first poem, and it is only one of many questions posed throughout the book. Often, these questions are anti-didactic, questioning the poet just as much as the reader. The inclusion of the ending epigraph (or one might call it a coda) by Aeschylus, however, seems a misstep. “Where will it end? / Where will it sink to sleep and rest, / this murderous hate, this Fury?” The former question about appropriation provides an urgency and awareness to the following poems in the book, so that the reader is constantly attentive to this concern. This opens the poems up, socially and theoretically, whereas the lines from Aeschylus reduce what comes before them, especially with the word “this,” to a catalogue of “murderous hate” and “Fury.” And these poems are much more than that.
Unlike The Last Two Seconds, Barry criticizes the aestheticization of both personal and social violence, while loose strife still remains beautiful in its own craft, such as in the aptly titled “Craft”:
… how deep the despair of writer-time,
of deciding not to beautify the thing, to avoid the impulse to say
I was my own pyre, a comet, a star, to describe the unimaginable
in a time and place when sadly everything is imaginable,
the heart with a bullet hammering through it imaginable, the baby
found cold and dead on the trash-strewn beach imaginable
Grandfather on fire one snowy Wisconsin morning, the sleeves
of his cotton pajamas like fiery wings imaginable
It is clear that though we may live in a time when it appears as though “everything is imaginable,” the poet is still able to offer—through language, through the lyric—more than our readily-available information. More than description. The horrific—“the baby / found cold and dead”—still exists with the poetic—“the sleeves / of his cotton pajamas like fiery wings.” Because of her own admitted despair, of the impulse to beautify admitted, purportedly denied, and then enacted, Barry, I think, is allowed these forays. And it is this intrepid writing that makes her one of our most intelligent, and impressive, living poets.
Corey Van Landingham is the author of Antidote, winner of the 2012 The Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry. A former Wallace Stegner Poetry Fellow at Stanford University, her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in The Best American Poetry 2014, Boston Review, Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Ashland, Oregon, she is currently the 2015-2016 Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College. She runs through the battlefield, can’t stop reading “For the Union Dead,” and is considering getting “It is altogether fitting and proper” tattooed on her arm.