Friday, February 26, 2016

Sand Opera Journey Day 17: The final page of the arias & a call to action (end prolonged solitary confinement (+ Danny Caine & Marwa Helal)

Sand Opera Journey Day 17: The final page of the arias & a call to action (end prolonged solitary confinement (+ Danny Caine & Marwa Helal)

So Joseph went after his brothers and caught up with them in Dothan.
They noticed him from a distance,
and before he came up to them, they plotted to kill him.
They said to one another: “Here comes that master dreamer!
Come on, let us kill him and throw him into one of the cisterns here;
we could say that a wild beast devoured him.
We shall then see what comes of his dreams.”

Today is the final installment of the “abu ghraib arias” from Sand Opera. I’m so happy that I can leave the prison behind, tuck it back into the book and into some corner of my brain. I’m grateful that I can do that, and not wake up to it, the way the men remaining in Guantanamo still do, the way prisoners all over the world wake up to it, as if waking up at the bottom of a well.

I’m thinking about Joseph, the favored son, the master dreamer whose special status enraged his brothers. How they first decided to kill him, then to throw him in a well, and finally to sell him. Be careful of the dreamers, the brothers want to tell us, they are dangerous. They think they are better than us.

Thanks to Josie Setzler for the reminder about this: If you’re interested, sign the petition against prolonged solitary confinement in U.S. prisons here:

Here in Cleveland, it’s snowing outside, thick flakes like white punctuation. Bringing silence.

Audio of the full arias:

“Final page of ‘abu ghraib arias’” by Danny Caine

In February 2013, I joined Philip Metres, fellow poet Paige Webb, and pianist Philip Fournier for a performance of Abu Ghraib Arias in its entirety at John Carroll University in Cleveland. The plan was to split the poetic voices between us. The readers would speak their parts simultaneously, creating an overlapping vocal tapestry (and occasionally cacophony). Paige was the voice of God. I was The Redactor—every time a bit of text was blacked over, I was to shout CLASSIFIED.

It was a claustrophobic and difficult reading experience, and I’m sure it was so for the audience as well. This is a good thing. The tragic subject matter of the Arias is difficult to read, but I think it’s even harder to hear those voices—all of them found and sampled, original words as spoken by those involved. What better way to confront the errors and sins of our military, the pain of their victims, and the motivations of the perpetrators than to hear them spoken out loud in the words of those who were there?

As soon as we figured out the timing, things went smoothly. That is, until we got to the last page. How would we tackle the open field of punctuation? The last poem in arias is, memorably, composed entirely of space and commas, white page and periods. It’s a devastating final note for the sequence; it’s the ultimate erasure—all voices have been eliminated, whether Iraqi or American. The last page of arias is the ultimate triumph of The Redactor.

In this way, the poem works really well on the page. Yet how could we translate it to the environment of out-loud reading? Phil had the idea to simply breathe loudly, all four of us, at different tempos. The effect was pretty staggering. Imagine: at the end of a four-person poetry reading, nearing the part where the audience is supposed to clap, all four readers look right at the crowd and simply breathe, loud enough to be heard.

It created an air of unease in the room that suited abu ghraib arias’s subject matter. The piece gives voice to both victims and perpetrators, daring us to search for sympathy for the torturers as well as the tortured. We hear Lane McCotter, Javal Davis, and Lynddie England in their own words, and reading them is as difficult as reading the depictions of violence and torture. Of all the urges one feels reading abu ghraib arias, the urge to applaud is distant. A triumphant ovation and bow from the performers would be a strangely celebratory way to end a reading of such difficult content. The audience did end up clapping, of course. But first: we stared at them and breathed. The room filled with tension. We were there not only to give voice, but to give breath.

Danny Caine’s poems have appeared in Hobart, Mid-American Review, Midwestern Gothic, New Ohio Review, and other places. He is author of the Dispatches from the Factory of Sadness sports poetry column for Atticus Review's More than Sports Talk. He hails from Cleveland and lives in Lawrence, Kansas where he works at the Raven Bookstore and co-edits Beecher's Magazine

Final page of “abu ghraib arias” by Marwa Helal


this silent crescendo a warped series of starts and stops like breath abrupt gulps of constellations somewhere on the other side of these words are heart chambers where they are gasping clenching clutching for air just air as we stare all we do is stare and stars stare back with eyes inverted as nout exits day exits night exits day have you seen ancient temples where confusion transforms into clarity doubts knowing feeling drawing shapes from punctuated forgetting diffusion is a healing through the slippery osmosis count sheets of music on music of music and wash their atomic weight wait i remember the pythagorean theorem is good for shortcuts so move to the next mark a reminder of how intelligent we are so intelligent it is frightening us not knowing how we know what we know that we know what theyre thinking and it paranoias us as verb is reaction on their faces these familiar faces in the punctuation of all things left unsaid there are bodies punctuated punctured souls in the punctuation tell me what is seeing without light country without military without america a guantanamo build a new relationship with cuba to the tune of gil scott-heron rapping about a new route to china what is vitality if a life is forced between brackets an ending of lyric so quote your ability to forget and contract a concentration connecting you thought id say camp to remind you of our humanity to compare this to holocaust put a halo on because we are holograms the holograrabs of abu ghrairabs at this point you should be concentrating like juice in a box flipping pages so grab a colon while youre at it a colon a colon separates thought there is always separation c r e a t i n g distance in d i s t a n c e there is leaving and in leaving there is change reflecting the function of punctuation connecting and separating indicating the signs youve been looking for in what has not yet been written so save it while you listen to the ones who need saving do you hear them they are a symphony arriving and you are singing in this chorus of complicit a choir not of church nor of ameen in collective prayer not of scratchy microphones at dawn or of the silence before we break fast it is their chorus when i can see music in a constellation that is your name is an aria so please join in this recitative and dont let go

Marwa Helal's poetry has appeared in Day One and The Offing. Her other writing has been published in Poets & Writers, the American Book ReviewEntropy Magazine, and elsewhere. More at: or @marwahelal

1 comment:

Maureen said...

I've just listened to the recording of your brilliant reading. It is remarkably sustained in its evenness (all of you must have been exhausted by the end), and even knowing in advance how you chose to conclude the reading does not diminish its power. It overwhelms, gets under the skin, like an irritant that scratching only makes worse. The voices will be with me for a long while.

"We were there not only to give voice, but to give breath." : Yes, I think; "Lord, the giver of life. . . ." and, "I AM."

Marvelous piece by Marwa Helal as well.