Thursday, February 11, 2016

Day Two: Sand Opera Lenten Journey

Day Two: Sand Opera Lenten Journey
Today’s Scripture

If, however, you turn away your hearts and will not listen,
but are led astray and adore and serve other gods,
I tell you now that you will certainly perish.

Including this reference in Deuteronomy, there are at least 42 instances in the Bible in which we are admonished to “harden not our hearts.” In a world so full of din and spin, voices thick with propaganda and hatred, it is easy to close our ears to everything but our own immediate concern. Sometimes, to my great shame, I've shut out the people I love the most. What of the “many long dumb voices,” of which Whitman spoke: “through me many long dumb voices,” the voices that have been mute or made mute in our lives and in our world? What if we’re not listening to the very voice of God?

I found this illumination (below) in an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and was struck by its astonishing beauty and its representation of a cruel and hideous act, the beheading of St. Bartholomew. I wondered again at the paradox of the limitlessness of human depradation and also the ability of human beings to depict even such acts with such grace. What if flesh is the text of God?

Manuscript Leaf with the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew, from a Laudario


Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew


from the dried hide of calves
carved & sewn in quires

they bend & tend to him / as if
tailors or healers & not rending

skin from limb / their eyes
narrowing knives / he balances

naked on ankle / a single
arm aloft as if in flight

from body’s scything / O wholly
gold-haloed & yet-membered head

soothe the eye in which I am
thrown / hand without shield /

scissored out hymn / & if
the body’s flayed & displayed

in human palms / & human skin
scrolled open / the body still dances

& if the flesh is the text
of God / bid a voice to rise /

& rise again


On “Illumination of the Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew” by Hilary Plum

In an age of text casually digitally illuminated, I find online a reproduction of a leaf from a ca. 1340 Italian hymnal, which above its fragment of hymn portrays in tempera, gold, and ink the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew. I am following the poem. The pose of the saint corresponds; in one panel, skin of one leg flayed to the thigh; in the next, skin a cloak tied round the neck of the headless saint. Bartholomew is often portrayed offering forth his skin, specter of his own face gathered in his hands.

Bid a voice to rise: the page is waiting to be sung. Yet its fate has long been silence. A hymnal like this has become a document of song, not a means to it; to preserve and be preserved and not to be used.

Bid a voice to rise: of his encounter with the testimonies of those imprisoned in Abu Ghraib, Metres writes I found the transcripts… were too painful for me to read straight through; the only way I could bear to read them was to work with them. So every morning, I sat down with a photocopied page and a yellow highlighter. To illuminate.

The voice that rises, ruptures: in the “abu ghraib arias” that follow this poem, space and silence rupture the text. Black bars obscure where text might have been. To illuminate; to hear the history of silence. These poems document a silence that is a silencing; they mourn by hearing what they cannot hear. The poet calls forth his voice and then lets silence occupy it.

When I sit before the reproduction of this page I am following the poet, occupying a space before the screen he must once have occupied. Years have passed since he was here, years that have silenced further the fact of these crimes and of these living voices, the hooded faces we have yet to see. I sit before the poem and all that has come after. I follow the poem; the work remains. The poem means to be used.

Hilary Plum is the author of the novel They Dragged Them Through the Streets (FC2, 2013) and the essay Watchfires (Rescue Press, forthcoming 2016).

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day One: Compline

Sand Opera Lenten Journey
Day One

From Joel, Chapter 2:
Even now, says the LORD,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, and weeping, and mourning;
Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.
For gracious and merciful is God,
slow to anger, rich in kindness….

Opening Thoughts
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Today is Ash Wednesday. I remember the awe and confusion I felt as a child, approaching the priest to receive an ashen cross on my forehead. It was a reminder of our mortality, and I did not know the first thing about death. That we are given this small span, as Blake once wrote, to bear the beams of love. I’ve always had a quarrel with Lent, the idea of fasting and penitence in winter. Living in Cleveland, I experience Lent during the months when my energy is lowest, my mood’s tending toward darkness. Winter’s incessantly gray skies, its icy sidewalks, and sometimes sub-zero temperatures make it hazardously physically and emotionally.  I already tend toward the masochistic. Shouldn’t I be practicing “hygge”? Probably.

Traditionally, Lent asks its pilgrims to take on some act of penance, some act of fasting. Not too long ago, it meant “giving something up”—chocolate, television, the internet—some bit of worldly pleasure that might keep us from dwelling with ultimate things. More recently, people have begun performing acts that might bring us closer to God. This year, I wanted to enter into the Lenten mystery more fully. To return, as the Hebrew prophet Joel invites, with a whole heart, despite (or perhaps through) my brokenness.

In some sense, Sand Opera, which began when I started “writing through” the Abu Ghraib story, was both a “giving up” and an act of penitential witness. When faced with the problem of evil, the theodicy that was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, I found myself closer to the mystery of suffering and the demonic forces of unchecked power in war. I wrote these poems to read them, and now I read them again to write them. To return again to the questions that they ask.

Today, I’m sharing "Compline," the last poem of Sand Opera, and poet Luke Hankins’ reflections.


“Compline” by Philip Metres     

That we await a blessed hope, & that we will be struck
With great fear, like a baby taken into the night, that every boot,

Every improvised explosive, Talon & Hornet, Molotov
& rubber-coated bullet, every unexploded cluster bomblet,

Every Kevlar & suicide vest & unpiloted drone raining fire
On wedding parties will be burned as fuel in the dark season.

That we will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying
Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God,

The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp
Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-

Reaching of God. We’re dizzy in every departure, limb-lost.
We cannot sleep in the wake of God, & God will not sleep

The infant dream for long. We lift the blinds, look out into ink
For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.

First published in Poetry (February 2012). From Sand Opera (2015)

On “Compline,” by Luke Hankins

“I will not keep silent.”

Perhaps no other phrase is more emblematic of Western religious traditions at their points of intersection with lived experience. Praise and lament, petition and complaint all arise from the human impulse to assert one’s voice—even on the largest scale, before the very Creator.

“I will not keep silent,” Job cries. “I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 7:11; see also The Holy Qur’an, ād 38:41)

In Sand Opera, Philip Metres inhabits and extends this tradition, voicing not only his own outcry as an Arab American living in the post-9/11 era, but seeking to bring the silenced and molested voices of victims of the War on Terror to a wide audience—but not in any straightforward or facile way. Many of Metres’ compositional techniques imitate the very offenses—imprisonment, torture, erasure—that they lament. In so doing, the reader arrives along with the author at a place of anguish over our contemporary state of affairs.

Again, let me emphasize that Metres’ work is anything but one-sided, facile, or selective in its vision or empathy. Alongside the voices of Middle Eastern victims in Abu Ghraib, the reader will find voices like those of a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan who took part in the arrest of a murderer of both children and adults, but who ultimately was forced by absurd government and military policy to release him because they were only authorized to detain “terrorists” and “insurgents,” not mere murderers. “I had looked directly into the eyes of evil,” he says, “and could do nothing about it.”

In the final poem of Sand Opera, “Compline”—an evening prayer—Metres writes:

“[W]e will learn the awful hunger of God, the nerve-fraying
Cry of God, the curdy vomit of God, the soiled swaddle of God,

The constant wakefulness of God, alongside the sweet scalp
Of God, the contented murmur of God, the limb-twitched dream-

Reaching of God. We’re dizzy in every departure, limb-lost.
We cannot sleep in the wake of God, & God will not sleep

The infant dream for long. We lift the blinds, look out into ink
            For light. My God, my God, open the spine binding our sight.”

Metres locates God here among and within us. When a newborn sleeps, God partakes in that peace. When an Abu Ghraib prisoner is violated, so is God. When a soldier is compelled to act against her conscience, God is taken advantage of. When we blind ourselves to the realities of modern warfare, nation-building, and “homeland security,” we are attempting to cover the very eyes of God. Cry out all we like, until we remove the veil from our eyes and confront the world as it is, we will receive no illumination from above.

Metres’ poems can help us see, can help us learn to voice our complaint and that of others—and can help us learn to take the work we ask of God as our own highest calling. It can teach us anew the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”


--Luke Hankins is the author of a collection of poems, Weak Devotions, and the editor of Poems of Devotion: An Anthology of Recent Poets. His latest book is The Work of Creation: Selected Prose. He is the founder and editor of Orison Books, a non-profit literary press focused on the life of the spirit from a broad and inclusive range of perspectives.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Lenten Journey: The Sand Opera meditations

A Lenten Journey: The Sand Opera meditations

The Project
After Sand Opera’s publication in 2015, Jayme Stayer, S.J., wrote to tell me that he had been praying with the poems as part of his daily Examen, the Jesuit daily contemplation. I was touched to hear that he had intuitively completed what my own morning Lenten practice over the Abu Ghraib testimonies many years before had begun; that these were texts that needed to be prayed over as much as read.

This Lent, beginning tomorrow on February 10th 2016, I will share one poem per day from Sand Opera on my blog, Behind the Lines, and send the link via Twitter and Facebook—as part of a digitally-collective observance and meditation through poetry. I hope that you might share the news as well.

Why Lent?
During a Lenten season many years ago—a forty day season of penitence and fasting observed by many Christian denominations—I awoke early every morning to read through and work with the testimonies of the abused at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I wanted to face the darkness of this war, a war carried out in our names and in the name of our security. At some point, after poring over the photographs taken by military police at Abu Ghraib of their abuse of prisoners, although I am a poet, I decided that I could not write my way into or out of them. In some respect, to continue to circulate the photographs themselves, or to write poems from the photographs, would only complete the total objectification of the bodies and souls of those tortured Iraqis.

It was only when I stumbled on transcripts of the testimony given by the Iraqi prisoners themselves (thanks to Mark Danner’s book Torture and Truth) did I discover a way to slip inside that prison. The “abu ghraib arias,” which opens Sand Opera, began simply a way to be with those prisoners through reading their testimonies. However, I found the transcripts which were too painful for me to read straight through; the only way I could bear to read them was to work with them. So every morning, I sat down with a photocopied page and a yellow highlighter, looking for words and phrases that vibrated on the page, that seemed almost to lift up out of the page, and to trace my highlighter over them, bearing down with them, trying not to be suffocated by the story of torture.

Later, I would work with the testimonies of U.S. military personnel who worked in the prison, as well as the Standard Operating Procedure manual for the Guantanamo Bay Prison, to place the testimonies of Iraqis and Americans in dialogue—a dialogue that they did not have in life. The poems that resulted became part of a chapbook called abu ghraib arias, first published in 2011; years later, they became a pivotal section of Sand Opera.

This Lent project circles back to that original practice, but widens out, to include many others voices and poems, alongside the voices that made their mark on me. As I've evolved in the understanding of what this should be, I realized it was the 25th anniversary of the Persian Gulf War, and suddenly it made even more sense. I’m happy that so many people were interested in dilating the conversation (including poetry and activism and art and faith) and that I could invite people from these diverse communities; I’m particularly pleased to have touched base with a number of friends that I have not connected with for years—especially some Iraqi friends from our anti-sanctions campaign in the late 1990s.

When I asked for ideas for how to engage this project, my friend Father Don Cozzens wrote to me, wondering whether “finding a creative, spiritual ‘use’ for the poems for the Lenten season might distract from their innate power, their existential force. But you might consider this: since Lent is about the disciplined hope of transformation into the body of Christ, it’s about both discipline (the paschal mystery) and the joyful hope for healing, new life, and peace. Alongside each of the daily releases, a Scripture quote or an aphorism that calls us to a fearless hope in the midst of our wounded, tragic world might be placed.” Thanks to Father Cozzens, I’ll be sharing a quote from scripture from the day’s readings to frame each day.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to this dialogue, this contrapuntal chorus. I’m thinking of the work of Edward Said on contrapuntal reading and John Paul Lederach, on peacebuilding. In The Moral Imagination, Lederach argues that from peacebuilding requires both an understanding of the geographies of conflict and an exploration of the creative act:

we must understand and feel the landscape of protracted violence and why it poses such deep-rooted challenges to constructive change. In other words we must set our feet deeply into the geographies and realities of what destructive relationships produce, what legacies they leave, and what breaking their violent patterns will require…[and] we must explore the creative process itself, not as a tangential inquiry, but as the wellspring that feeds the building of peace (5).

What Lederach teaches us is that peacebuilding thus requires a view grounded in the complex and thorny landscapes of oppression and violence. One must analyze fully the protracted nature of destructive relationships, or else we risk moving too quickly to false or unjust peace, and thus fail to understand or address the essence of what fuels conflict and oppression.

What Edward Said teaches us is that to read contrapuntally is to hear with both ears, to see with both eyes—outside the frames offered by mainstream media or ideological propaganda. We need to come to terms with what it means to be citizens of empire, to ask ourselves how we might be participating in injustice simply by living in this time and place, and to find out ways that we ourselves might make more justice, more light, more love, and more peace.  


Philip Metres
February 15, 2016.



Friday, January 22, 2016

A Lenten Journey: The Sand Opera meditations (an open call)

The Project
I’ve wanted to find ways of connecting the work of this book with the work of other writers, artists, activists, scholars, and people of faith. After Sand Opera’s publication in 2015, Jayme Stayer, S.J., wrote to tell me that he had been praying with the poems as part of his daily Examen, the Jesuit daily contemplation. I was touched to hear that he had intuitively completed what my own morning Lenten practice over the Abu Ghraib testimonies many years before had begun; that these were texts that needed to be prayed over as much as read.

This Lent, beginning on February 10th 2016, I plan to share one poem per day from Sand Opera on my blog, Behind the Lines, as well as on Twitter and Facebook—as part of a digitally-collective fasting and meditation through poems. But I wanted to make this about more than the poems themselves. The poems are points of departure. I’m hoping that you might add your voice to this conversation by choosing a poem from the collection to write a short meditation? I’m thinking that short pieces of about 100-500 words that meditate on the poem through spiritual, political, ethical, or artistic lenses—whatever suits you. Let me know what you’d like to work with. Again, your faith or lack of faith are not at stake; I'm interested in your voice and what you'd like to say.

For example, a meditation on “Black Site [Exhibit Q]” could explore the meanings and politics of “black sites” in particular, or the problem of incarceration and the prison system in the United States, or the implications of entrapment on a more personal existential level. It could share suggested readings or suggestions for action. For example, for a poem about Guantanamo, it could share links to calls for closing the prison or Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir. However, I am happy with any way you wish to engage with the poems!

Further Background: Why Lent?
During a Lenten season many years ago—a forty day season of penitence and fasting in the Catholic Church—I awoke early every morning to read through and work with the testimonies of the abused at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. I wanted to face the darkness of this war, a war carried out in our names and in the name of our security. At some point, after poring over the photographs taken by military police at Abu Ghraib of their abuse of prisoners, although I am a poet, I decided that I could not write my way into or out of them. In some respect, to continue to circulate the photographs themselves, or to write poems from the photographs, would only complete the total objectification of the bodies and souls of those tortured Iraqis.

It was only when I stumbled on transcripts of the testimony given by the Iraqi prisoners themselves (thanks to Mark Danner’s book Torture and Truth) did I discover a way to slip inside that prison. The “abu ghraib arias,” which opens Sand Opera, began simply a way to be with those prisoners through reading their testimonies. However, I found the transcripts which were too painful for me to read straight through; the only way I could bear to read them was to work with them. So every morning, I sat down with a photocopied page and a yellow highlighter, looking for words and phrases that vibrated on the page, that seemed almost to lift up out of the page, and to trace my highlighter over them, bearing down with them, trying not to be suffocated by the story of torture.

Later, I would work with the testimonies of U.S. military personnel who worked in the prison, as well as the Standard Operating Procedure manual for the Guantanamo Bay Prison, to place the testimonies of Iraqis and Americans in dialogue—a dialogue that they did not have in life. The poems that resulted became part of a chapbook called abu ghraib arias, first published in 2011; years later, they became a pivotal section of Sand Opera.

This Lent project would be a circling back to that original practice, but also a widening to include all of your voices alongside the voices that made their mark on me.

Thanks in advance for your consideration! Let me know.

The following poems have yet to be "claimed":

Illumination
Lane McCotter
In the name
Next day
Public Address
His name is G
Graner
On the third day
First the man
The Blues of Lynddie England
The Blues of Ken Davis
Now I am
And it came to pass
Joe Darby
Woman
Iraqi Curator
Black Site Q
Asymmetries
Salaam
War Stories
The new theory
She asks
What does it mean
Testimony
Saddam
Etruscan
A Toast
What consequence
In the wake of
As if

On the flight

Sunday, October 4, 2015

"The Quiet Side Street" by David Baker


From David Baker's new book, Scavenger Loop (2015), "The Quiet Side Street" the ghostliness and permeability of selves beneath some hovering gaze, which is alternately ominous or consoling--marking this poem as part of our digital, panoptic age. Two very different kinds of homing in. In the first section, what is a "quiet side street" is also marked, in the speaker's awareness, by what happens "over there" beneath the surveillance of drones--which is not just "over there," but increasingly over here. In the second section, the poet explores the uncanny infolding of time and space, as the poem slips between the present--in which his father is aged and half-shade--and the past, in which the father is robust and carrying the speaker in his arms. Here, too, the sense of death is not far off. A remarkable poem for its dialogue between the personal and political, showing the permeability and frailty of our mortal, earthly flesh. (n.b. in the second section, the columns should be lined up perfectly, as they are in the original, but the formatting is not lining up properly. My apologies.)

The Quiet Side Street             by David Baker
                        


                                    1.

                                                            where we live is lined

with dogwoods and maples
with old man’s beard

lined with many blue 
bins to recycle

                        things we cast away
                                                            from us and gladly

                        that’s how quiet
                                                            you can hear crickets
           
                        a hundred feet above
                                                            in a glister of

                        leaves leathery there
                                                            with dew or brushed moon

                        bees mumbling at a
                                                            hummingbird tube or

                        in spiked flowers of 
                                                            ivy crawling crazed

                        up the body of
each dying maple
           
                        when had you thought to
tell me      meanwhile

                        deer so still in the
                                                            folded woodruff
                                   
                        one hawk overhead
                                                            no one hears a thing

                        sometimes no one says
                                                            one thing until it’s 

                        too late here or there
                                                            we think we are fine

                        we are not as somewhere
                                                            in a room beneath

the clover meadow
a hand a joy-stick

guides the news      a drone
                                    unmanned far away

or quietly above us 
even now as we

call it homing in—
           

                                    2.

                                   
He walks back from the  window in half-shadow

a half-shade himself        who first called them shades
                                               
who people the place       bereft of long life

he comes back he feels    with the fingers of one

hand the soft hem bed’s   high edge to settle

back my father now         his bed his home or
           
we are walking now         he is walking carrying

me under starlight            under willows swept

with high wind crickets    two whippoorwills far

like two bells one bell      across the night hills

these long hills I am         so tired he thinks

                        I am sleeping who            peoples the night river
                                                           
riffle of water here            over the newest stones


in the river all night          to the other side

okay he says at                 last or I say okay go

to sleep old man and        when you waken on
                                   
the other side I’ll              be there we’re there now

see our shadows where    they have been waiting 
                                   
as long as we’ve been here—
           
  
                              


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

"Peace on Earth" by U2 as response to Omagh Bombing of 1998



Okay, I'm aware the U2 is a decidedly uncool band; they were uncool before they signed their souls over to Apple, thus causing a generation of iUsers to associate them with musical spam. Still, it's hard to think of many bands who have been as successful in bringing protest into mass culture, in ways that do justice both to pop music and to the cause against violence and injustice.

"Peace on Earth" was Bono's response to the Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland in 1998, by a member of the so-called Real IRA, just a few months after the Good Friday Peace Accords had been signed. It was a particularly brutal bombing, killing 29 and injuring 200 others. Names of the dead are shared--both Protestant and Catholic names--as well as little details of particularity about the victims. "She never got to say goodbye / To see the color in his eye / Now he's in the dirt" comes from the funeral of James Barker. The Irish Times quoted his mother as stating, "I never realised how green his eyes were."

Later, the song became associated with the 9/11 attacks, thanks to U2's performance during the telethon fundraiser "America: A Tribute to Heroes."

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Bush Debuts Paintings of Dogs, Friends, Ghost of Iraqi Child...

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere

Posted by The Onion on Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

"The Making of a Prophet" by Corey Van Landingham


THE MAKING OF A PROPHET by Corey Van Landingham, from Antidote

            for Adrienne Rich


Keep it small   they said   Keep it small
or the city will form a mouth   Be careful
not to say mouth   or world   Don’t say
body   Drink your coffee   Fuck it
There are gum wrappers on the sidewalk
that reflect all those predator drones
You can almost see them see you   You
flip your hair   You preen   You touch
yourself but you can never see them   They
can always see you   There is a room
full of men making anything possible   It is
the loneliest thing   making up worlds  
Watching others live their little lives   Keep
it small   the men are telling you   Wave to
the sky   No   to a bird you are no longer
allowed to name   and may no longer exist  
You’ve been selected for a very particular
task   All you have to do is talk and talk
and talk and not say anything at all   This
should be easy   They say that   too


Monday, May 11, 2015


Ascension                   by Elmaz Abinader, from This House, My Bones (2014)

                                    For Mahmud Darwish

What do exiles do but continue to walk
in countries where they were not born?

And when they leave are their ghosts alone,
Wandering routes river to home to horizon?

Breath   visible   from the cold of death
I call you to smoke and   vapor

__

We search for the lost through shards of cement
a crusty coffee cup impossible to read.

The cities are homes as much as they are tombs
you draw the map, a longitude of loss

The names of the storytellers will be catalogued
next to saints, teachers, revolutionaries, and bread makers

__

How many times can your heart break?
How many ways is writing a surgery?

Mahmud, is it too much to hold
I stand in the square and call for you

You pierce the voices of this city—

the sky over Ramallah is refrain.

Friday, April 24, 2015

"Relentless" by Zeina Hashem Beck (Stop writing about war...")


"Relentless" by Zeina Hashem Beck 

“Stop writing about war,” he said. “Stop
writing about borders and blood. Stop writing
about revolutions and revolvers, about cities,
rooftops with antennas and snipers.
Stop writing about bread
and barefoot children with their dark
skin, their hair blond from too much sun.
Stop telling the story of how your friend
bought hats for them and gave them out
from her car window, saying put this on
put this on. Stop telling the story of the gates
your grandfather painted on his wall
to remember, and the gates he painted
on his heart to forget. For God’s sake stop
writing about religion, I’m tired
of minarets and crosses, even the prayers
are tired and want to sleep. Just write
some shade for me to sit in.”

So I drew him a tree without roots
and a street with enormous wings and said, “Here
is a tree that cannot be uprooted
and a street that will take flight
before it explodes.” And I drew myself
some mud, two strong legs, a clothesline
upon which to hang my drenched words,
to see what this sunlight would make of them,
and black birds on a fence

like the pattern of a kufiya.


This poem originally appeared in Rusted Radishes