A Lenten Journey: The Sand Opera meditations
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.
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.
February 15, 2016.
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