Sunday, February 14, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 5: Temptations in the Desert (All of This Will Be Yours) + Tyrone Williams

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 5
Luke: 4:1-13

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread.”
Jesus answered him,
“It is written, 
One does not live on bread alone.”
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
“I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me.”
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.”
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
Jesus said to him in reply,
“It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.

The first recorded Christian conscientious objector was Maximilian, who in the 3rd century refused to serve in the Roman army and was beheaded for his faith. I learned about him from The Catholic Peace Tradition, by Ronald Musto, a book whose title felt slightly oxymoronic, given how many Catholics serve in the U.S. armed forces. In Luke’s cinematic story of Jesus’s temptations in the desert, the devil’s invitation to worldly power must have been particularly difficult to turn down; after all, what good could a person do, if they were in a position of great power, to change the lives of so many others? And all they would have to do is worship someone other than God.  

“After ‘The Call-Up’” by Tyrone Williams

One of the memorable, because romantic, songs from The Clash’s 1977 Sandinista! album is “The Call-Up,” a song that admonishes youth in general—from the Ukraine to the U.S.S.R., from the U.K. to the U.S.A.—to resist the call of the fathers to die in their wars: “you must not act the way you were brought up.” I like this song because in my imagination it refers not just to the theaters of war but also to the very process of induction into the normative structures and values (economic, political, social, cultural, etc.) of a given society. In others words, even before I read Althusser I was already ringing the changes on what it meant to be hailed, to be called forth. But if being called up, called forth, is a kind of initiation into human society in general, is the soldier  a sacrifice not only in terms of his or her body but also, and perhaps more important, a sacrifice in terms of what it means to be human? In other words, the soldier sacrifices everything—or almost everything—that makes one human in order to safeguard other humans. In short, the decision to circumvent the Geneva Convention in the context of “new” wars (e.g., the ‘war” on terror) means no-holds-barred.

Philip Metres’ Sand Opera raises this issue in general, and the “abu ghraib arias” section explicitly explores it, delineates it in a series of dialectical poems: the verso pages contain poems in the voices of Arab, Afghan and Muslim prisoners while the recto pages contain poems in the voices of U.S.A. soldiers. The dialectics that this sequence sets in motion cannot be simply reduced to innocent testimonials and guilt-ridden confessions. Rather, innocence and guilt haunt the voices of both prisoners and soldiers; both find themselves reduced to shame.

One pairing that I find particularly poignant is “(echo/ex/),” a general title for all the prisoner poems, and “The Blues of Javal Davis.” The prisoner has been reduced not to an ‘animal” or even a plant but, rather, to the first particle of Judaic/Christian creation: “In the beginning                    I was there for 67 days of” (8). I can’t reproduce here Metres’s use of black bars and gray shading to indicate degrees of redacted texts (like FBI files) but they work in concert to indicate broken, incomplete voices; these men will never be the way they were before Guantanamo. At the same time, Javal Davis “testifies” to his own sense of imprisonment: “much on our own working/ seven days straight ducked/ heads when mortars fell/ slept seven to a cell” (9) As the references to the seven days of creation suggest, these are boys in the process of being made into soldiers. Of course, there is no moral, much less military, equivalence between the prisoners of war and the bunkered soldiers. However, in exploring the psychodynamics of both Metres points to, by implication, the larger forces, the “gods” and/or “fathers,” whose deliberate choices set in action the violent encounters between these boys.

Born in Detroit, Poet Tyrone Williams is the author of a number of books and chapbooks, including c.c. (2002), On Spec (2008), The Hero Project (2009), Adventures of Pi (2011), and Howell (2011). He teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati. 

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