Thursday, August 23, 2007

David-Baptiste Chirot on the Guantanamo Poems

And David Baptiste-Chirot, on Poems from Guantanamo, written for the Buffalo Poetics Listserv, which ranges in its meditation on "suspects," "authors," Artaud, War on Terror, and translation:

It's been over a year now that the story as well as some of the poems of this book have been making the news, and now come the reviews, and even the posts here noting that the book is "suspect". (After all, it IS written by "suspects"--!)"

A book produced by the Pentagon, or a book of bad poetry by bad people----already the poems are being put into their own form of Guantanamo--the military-controlled translations, the use of the word "suspect" with regards to a book of poetry by "suspects", the immediate response that the poems are bad, and their only reason to be read at all is that they issued from Guantanamo, a sort of curiosity
that in time--and the quicker the better!-- will be forgotten.

The responses to the book only reinforce the military's judgement--the work is "suspect" (may contain hidden messages/contains no message and/or formal qualities worthy of attention)--it is "bad"--(written by a bunch of very bad guys/by a bunch of bad poets) and, as the reviewer perhaps subtly implies, written by persons from cultures inferior to those of the Russian Mandelstam or the Japanese interned by the Americans. After all, Russian and Japanese poetry is far better known to/by the American reader than that of the languages and cultures of the prisoners.

When Foucault wrote that the "author" is a product, a nexus, of the discourses of her times, he could as well have included the reader. "Who reads?" It's easy enough to figure out "who is reading" in most cases, by the readers' responses. It becomes more difficult to tell "who" is reading when the interrogation light is turned on oneself. What a bunch of cobbled together nonsense, knee jerk reactions, leanings on the authority of someone's theory or "Word", adherences to an ideology, a prejudice--spews forth like a burst sewer main! "Hard headed realists' clarities", "brutal analyses", "convincing critiques", "radical readings"--how much of it is not just regurgitated internalization of the discourses of one's personal
preference? And how much of it is not based on a "willing suspension of disbelief"--in other words, a belief in fictions which one takes as facts, "truths", as "self-evident"?

Hasn't this book been placed already in the position of being "set up" to "fail"--in terms of "quality" and "quantity" also if people know what's "good for them"? One can pretty much imagine what many a blog and web site, pundit and poet, will have to say ahead of time about the weaknesses and failures of the book. And its "triumphs" it will immediately be pointed out, are all of them very much "suspect".

Who wins? The "American discourse" so to speak, employed with equal disdain by the military and the poetry community, as well as a lot of people who won't want to read/see/hear the words of "terrorists" or "Islamo-Fascists" or simply "Moslems" to begin with. Once again "America" has triumphed!! Even over a "triumph of the
human spirit"--something we know cannot belong--or be allowed to belong-- to suspected terrorists, Moslems, or Third World persons all supposedly violently opposed to OUR definitions of "democracy", "freedom", "post-avant poetry" "borders" and the like.

The more one thinks about it, the more this book makes America look Great, doesn't it? Whichever way you look at it, "we" come out looking even better than ever than "them". I mean isn't it satisfying and somehow very myself-as-an-American confirming to find out these bad guys are also bad poets? And doesn't that put in their place a bit all those "bleeding heart" types who will fall for any kind of poetry providing it is written by the the "right kinds" of subject positions? Look how free "we" are--reading only the "right kind" (the ood") poetry regardless of ideology, subject position and so forth! You see, the more the poets of Guantanamo "lose'"-the more "we" all regardless of ( which American) point of view stand to gain!

The Guantanamo book does however raise very interesting questions regarding translation in times of War, and especially in the loudly and long declared Wars Without End--the War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terrorism, a Trinity each of which effects greatly the other. The Imperialist American agenda abroad is just as much a War at home, on those of the American people "not worth saving". The
"Health Care" system in this regard is really a program of eugenics, working in tandem with the other methods of limiting the elite and powerful of the society to the right few and their various sycophants, assistants, collaborators, undertakers, prison wardens, media and institutions.

In light of these Wars, i thought the review interesting as in itself it creates its own possible "after" review or meta-review, in many strange ways, among them the little discourse on translation. I recall reading in an article from last summer in it may have been the Guardian----a little bit about one of the poets mentioned, the first one of whom there was an account of having written his poetry incised in styrofoam cups. (A very interesting way to write in that one may read it with the touch rather than the eyes alone; a haptic poetry, literally--). This particular poet was Pashtun, and what to the reviewer may seem hackneyed or trite phrases, in Pashtun and in the other poetry traditions within which the prisoners write, these lines are filled with centuries of echoes, allusions, references to
sites/sights/cites which are profoundly evocative of one's homeland and personal home. Even through the non-literary translations done by military approved translators, there is always going to be a certain amount of the poetry which slips through the bars, in between the lines, as well as in the themselves. Some of it may be recognized by an attentive reader, and/or many other aspects be present even in a poor translation, yet unrecognized due to a non-recognition of the writer's culture.

In other words, the poetry may be there, for all the dis-translation and dissing, yet, just as the military feared, it is camouflaged, hiding in plain sight, or long ago departed for parts unknown, seen as clouds floating over a distant land by someone who will recognize the poem from their friend, relative, fellow country

Artaud, in the Preface to The Theater and its Double:

Furthermore, when we speak the word "life," it must be understood we are not referring to life as we know it from its surface of fact, but to that fragile, fluctuating center which forms never reach. And if there is still one hellish, truly accursed thing in our time, it is our artistic dallying with forms, instead of being like victims burnt at the stake, signaling through the flames.

Isn't this exactly what the criticisms of the book are all about? That is doesn't measure up in regards to the "artistic dallying with forms" while all the while the visible/visible hooded person's signals vanish behind the asphyxiating smokescreens which have been deliberately cranked full mass and volume to hide them? Isn't the discourse about the "bad" poetry and Pentagon interference all a way to ignore that somewhere inside all the smokescreens there is indeed someone burning at the stake?

Obviously, someone must have seen Artaud in Dreyer's film La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc--and doesn't want any poet in "our custody" to die a martyr, "signaling through the flames"!

God forbid there be any interruption in "our" "artistic dallying with forms"!

An aspect of this that is quite striking is to find how dangerous poetry can be not only to the military, who rightly know that poetry can conceal messages they would rather not allow to get out, but that this paranoia carries over to the reviewer also. The reviewer essays to restrict the poems within the limits of being
witness-only poetry--and not even very good witness poetry at that.

It's as though there is a fear that some form of otherness, if unbounded from the restraints of a narrowly confined genre, might indeed be producing a poetry which he won't be able to hear, understand, grasp--the same fear the military has. Maybe these poets in spite of everything just may be sending messages out there to
someone somewhere! I.E someone reading them as poetry (in a tradition, in a language) with far more depth than the reviewer will allow them to have.

The War on Terror, of which the Guantanamo prisoner poets are such a powerful, hooded, simultaneously visible/invisible example, opens also the the mine fields of translation in relation to "intelligence" and "news" as well as (and AS)propaganda. The War on Terror, which would seem to require the most exacting forms of intelligence and translation, instead seems to have taken an alternate route--into the realms of controlled translations, deliberate dis-translations, the removal of feared words and their replacement with words giving a happier picture of things, or a more frightening, as the occaision demands. Translation--which, in the case of a great many ancient and modern classics is always being done over and over again--is always trying to keep pace with "today's new, modern usage" and "latest researches and forms". The same demands are put on translations of intelligence and the news, and when one essays filtering poetry through this, it begins to create a small to very huge disturbance of the methods of deceit that are employed against its supposed and feared methods of deceit.

The language of poetry, already super charged, creates a difficult problem for military translators used to identifying "hidden messages" in a way oddly analogous to literary critics approaching a text which they have a pre-formed intention towards--whether it be an animus or a friendly welcome. "Objectivity", which one would think would be a goal of intelligence, starts to corrode, and in the
presence of poetry i think the corrosive effects are acting in ways that the translators feel is getting a bit out of hand, though not being able to identify quite where or in what way.

In order to try to maintain control, the spin doctors go to work, and the poetry is reconfigured, reworded, until it conforms as closely as possible to the desired template. Even then, something in its very awkwardness and "bad poetry-ness" seems to indicate that it is still "suspect", that something is still "troubling".

This same anxiety seems to be haunting the reviewer. If the texts can be kept confined to being witness poetry only, then he can make a very easy judgement. If they start to corrode the walls of this further confinement, then he doesn't know what to do with them.

One gets a feeling that he would much rather keep things confined and in that manner be done with the issue. After all, the prisoners it is implied are not Mandelstam, and not Japanese interned in America--people who it seems to be implied are of a higher poetical character than the prisoners of Gitmo. The bios of these men seem
reassuringly simple to comprehend, while their poems do not. (Even if they are "bad" poems--they keep inducing an anxiety, as though being more "complex, ambiguous" than they seem so obviously NOT to be.)

Again, there is the feeling, as with the military, that somehow, something is slipping through the critic's grasp and making its way into the world where someone somewhere at sometime will indeed recognize it in some way.

Translation itself with the War on Terror has become a further field of manipulated and controlled propaganda--with independent organizations attempting to get out alternate versions of translations than does MEMRI, the mega mouthpiece for a good part of the world's versions of texts from the Middle East that are used in
newspapers, radio, tv around the world. MEMRI is known for subtly to greatly altering articles to fit their agendas, as well as planting stories in various Arabic and Farsi language newspapers and then providing the "translations" (i.e. the "originals") of these very stories to the world at large--again all done with an eye to the agenda. News becomes propaganda via dis/translation and the translations/pre-writings of "real" fake stories planted in real newspapers which are "found" and then "translated" into the readymade original language as well as into others and then distributed throughout the world as "real" news found in a real journal/online site.

The reader/listener/watcher of all this propaganda requires, like the fiction reader, a "willing suspension of disbelief." History has proven over and over again that in times of fear, of concern for Security of the Homeland, the willing suspension of disbelief is one of the first modes of response chosen by the majority of people.

Complete fictions trigger wars, hatreds, massive arms races, enormous security and cleanup contracts, the building of corporate mercenary forces above any law, national or international, the construction of ever bigger and more lethal Walls. No one running for office or in office wants to look anything but tough on Crime, Dope, Terrorism, Immigrants, the Poor, the Sick, all of them pitched into the same
roiling pot of gumbo.

The "news" becomes a vast spectacle of partial facts, a few "safe" facts, fictions, lies, distortions, all guaranteed to make one feel "up to date" in the "most modern efficient way". The tricks of the intelligence community get fed back outwards into the news, to effect events and opinions, ideas, which in turn effect actual events,
creating further distorted and falsified "translated" versions of these. To attempt to control and spin these continuous streams of information, disinformation, dis-translation and out right fictions, news organizations become ever more dependent on "government sources", "intelligence briefings" which in turn feed them their own mixtures of facts, fictions, disinformations. The resultant texts are either
taken seriously or provide fresh fodder for comedy shows. Either way, the status quo is maintained.

The continual fear is that for all the elaborate constructions of fictional "intelligence" and "news" there will always be something that gets through unnoticed, igniting questions which need to be muzzled, controlled, censored.

Oddly, since the "free press"'s cited (real or fake--) source is claimed to be the enemy's newspaper/tv/radio/blog/web site in order to give it "authenticity", it is considered on the one hand "false", "suspect" and on the other "real", the "real voice of the Arab world/street. These constructedly fictional or severely
dis-translated as possible bits of "intelligence," these supposedly hardened, "irrefutable" "facts" have the very instability they were meant to replace and suppress. The constant fear that something will "leak out" or "leak through" requires ever more vigilance, surveillance, and ever more censorship. Attacks need to be launched on various individuals, presses, books, speakers, to discredit them
and silence their criticisms. Mass responses to such outbreaks of criticism have to be contained by a deluge of media "reporting" and "discussion" whose intent is to annihilate the person/publication/professor/poet in question. The fewer critics of
the fiction there are, the more the fiction can triumph. The more emphatically and forcefully critics are made to disappear, the less likely new ones are going to come forward and take a similar risk.

In this way, the reader/writer may disagree in general but not in the particulars with the viewpoints presented by the controlling powers. The responses of poets to the Guantanamo poems may not be all that far at all from being nearly the same as the military's. "The poems are suspect". "The poems are bad." "I won't buy the book." "I won't read the book." "I'll satirize the book."

With the Guantanamo poets, the reviewer seems to have a fear that poetry somehow has made it through every effort, including his own, to muzzle it. For, after all, a great many poetries that have endured through time and space have done just that. Don Quixote began his chase after the "impossible dream" in a prison, and to quite some astonishment found himself conquering the El Dorados of Broadway. At
various times, any writer worth their salt was expected to have done a good turn or two in prison! Johnny Cash and Thoreau only needed one night there to profoundly move millions with their jail inspired work.

The list of prison writings that are both powerful bearers of witness and very good pieces of writing is very very large indeed.

Perhaps, just as the military --and the reviewer--and readers--feared, their is something there in the poems, which has yet to be found--and yet that remains very much a question of who controls the dis-translations and who --as a native speaker--will be able to read through the English into the heart of the original languages of
composition, inside the manacles and under the hoods. One can always also "suspect" that concealed somewhere in the layerings of fictions, constructions, censorings, dis-translations, there are still traces of lines of poetry which have issued from the anarkeyological strati of a "mother Earth" "mother tongue" and poetic tradition. Until one knows much more what the poems are, passing a swift judgement on them seems to be to participate in the discourses of power which Foucault thought
of in "Who is an author?"

Because Who IS the Author here--the poet, the military, the translator, the press, the publicity, the opinions of poets found here, the reviewer, myself? Because of the muzzling and censoring and dis-translating of the poems, ironically the reader becomes very much what a lot of theoretical-critical positions advocate--a co-producer if not more of the (nearly absent, hooded, manacled) poem's "meaning,"
"quality," and "direction," "category," "value," "cliches," "witnessing." The reader becomes complicit in the creating of the poem as "bad," "suspect" in a way not too far removed from that of the military. The effort on both parts is to be able to render the poetry as absolutely ineffectual as possible. The worse, the weaker, the more pathetic the poems can be made to be read and received, the
better and safer and more secure the good American reader/military can feel. All is truly for the best in this best of all possible worlds!

And American poetry is safe and "free" from the "threat" of there being any "good" Guantanamo poetry, composed on what after all are "our shores".

If one finds "suspect" the Guantanamo poetry, why not subject to an equally "suspect" level of investigatory consideration o the news, the poetics, the words of the "great leaders" in all walks of American society and the arts that everyday participate in the construction of various levels of fictions one is supposed to "willingly suspend one's disbelief" for?

Earlier this year was the appearance of IMPOUNDED Dorothea Lange's Censored Photographs of Japanese American Internment Camps with texts by Linda Gordon and Gary Y. Okihiro . 97% of the books images have never before been published. The photos, shot primarily in 1942, were never shown but for a very few, as Lange, despite following the contrainsts placed on her choices of things to photograph, still conveyed far too much of the reality of the camps. Or--allowed the realities and people to express themselves too cleary through her being open to what was being said. What makes the book even more haunting is the inclusion of the original titlings for each photo, which give a "positive" light to the most grim, stark image. The juxtapostion of image and official caption can be extremely disturbing in a way no detourned caption could ever be. Again, there is the issue of translation--the photographic translation as it were, then the military approved captions, then the present day texts. There is also the fascinating ways in which these photos are finding their way in a development of the methods and "look" of Lange's famous
Depression Era photos. Since the book gives one both the censored images and the original military dis-translation captions, as well as the contemporary commentary to put things in historical perspective, it is perhaps prototype of what may or not become someday of the Guantanamo poetry and the history of its censorings and final release of the original poems, not just by the poets included in this book,
but all the poems by all the poets. It took over sixty years for Lange's work to reach the American public--who knows when if ever the same may be possible for the poetry?

Another very interesting book of an American incarceration and its expression in art that has many eerie foreshadowings of Guantanamo is: Warrior Artists Historic Cheyenne and Kiowa Indian Ledger Art Drawn by Making Medicine and Zotom by Herman J. Viola with Commentary by Joesph D. and George P. Horse Capture. This is the story of the capture, and thousand mile train and forced march journey of the warriors and chiefs of four tribes to the 17th Century Spanish-built Fort Marion Prison in St. Augustine, Florida. There the Indians were taught to read and write and speak some English, sing Christian hymns and say the Lord's prayer, listen to sermons and be trained in the discipline of the American army. They were also given pencil and paper and the result was a flood of "ledger" books in which the lives of the
imprisoned "terrorists" are recorded. (Some of the prisoners had killed men, women and children settlers in an effort to stem the tide of settlements and the attendant killing off of the buffalo and Indians both. Others were teenagers who hadn't done a thing. The choosing of prisoners was done in a completely arbitrary way.)

Translation with regards to the Indians involved translating them into White terms, behaviours, handicrafts, disciplines, religion and language. If the former "savage" could be rewritten into an acceptable, well behaved, simulation of a White--why
he or she could go free--i.e. be allowed to leave the prisons and go live on the reservations where their families had already been shipped off to. There, they were supposed to teach the ways of the Whites and maintain discipline and order. This was hoped to be a "kinder, gentler" way of vanishing the Indian than simply to continue killing every last one of them.

Better a poor imitation, a bad translation, of a White version of being, safely confined on reservations, dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs for food and aid, than a terrifying, "terrorist" savage!

So isn't it much better to have "bad" poetry from "bad" people safely confined in Guantanamo, safely dis-translated, safely dismissed, than to have to read the terrifying, "terrorist," "savage" alternative? Isn't it much better to "know" "our" poetry and ways will always be better than "theirs"?

After all, what could be more frightening than if the best poet on American soil turned out to be an imprisoned "terrorist" "suspect" or a reservation Indian? What might happen to the "willing suspension of disbelief" continually required to keep on believing in the Empire's New Clothes, New Writing, New Threats, New Bread and

What if after all one was confronted with signalings through the flames, rather than smokescreens, Walls, border security fences, prisons, distranslations, fictions, lies?

Would the flames and signalings reveal too much of the "still one hellish, truly ccursed thing, . . our artistic dallying after forms"?

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