March 2, 2016KR OnlineReview

“To open like the ear, when eye is shut”: Philip Metres’s Sand Opera

Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2015. 100 pages. $16.95.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

I have been thinking of Anna Akhmatova. Namely “Requiem,” which opens with Akhmatova standing in a long line outside Leningrad Prison waiting to visit her son. Another woman in line turns to her and asks “Can you describe this?” She answers, “Yes, I can.”

I’ve been thinking of Akhmatova because I’ve been thinking who in our generation of poets would answer yes. It seems to me we would, many of us, say no—in part because of the ineffability of atrocity, the failures of language, and other postmodern fallout—but I will leave that arena to better trained theoreticians. I have been thinking of the no that says I cannot write such things because I don’t have the right or ability. Because it would be morally naïve. Because I was not there; I didn’t see it. This stance is often a well-meaning one of humility, but in the end it serves cultural hegemony. History is left to historians and experts. In the case of American wars, narratives are left to vets and embedded journalists who invade and then get to write about their invading, doubling their power, and who often co-sign master narratives of warfare and their safe criticisms (e.g. it was not worth our boys; I have seen and done horrible things). More egregiously, this you-have-to-be-there-to-write-it argument drops the burden of actual critique on the survivors themselves. What I am trying to say here is that limiting narratives one can write about to narratives one believes oneself to exist in—well, how convenient for America! America, which ghettoizes its citizens and its various warfares. America of fractally organized gated communities—to have to only write inside its gates while destroying what is outside: what a gift this no proves to be.

I am looking for the poets who trudge through the no towards the impossible and outright dangerous yes. Enter Philip Metres.

Philip Metres’s poetry collection Sand Opera is complex, an untamable polyvocal array of clipped narratives in post-9/11 (if we are to believe such historical markers) America. And it should have been published years ago.

The book weaves found testimony from the US invasions of Iraq, Abu Ghraib survivors, torturers, alongside personal lyric on fatherhood and Arab-American life. What connects these narratives formally is the conceit of the opera, of layered narrative alternating with lyric, but what connects these poems spiritually is compassion and the simple fact of simultaneity.

The book opens and closes with prayer. The first poem, “Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholemew,” with its description of the torture and murder of the saint, echoes the nearly pornographic images of Abu Ghraib—“he balances / naked on an ankle”—and closes with supplication:

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

& rise again

The indefinite article here is the right opening for the book’s point of view, which often has an absent narrator deferring to a variety of voices more objectively than I would like. It is true that American access to testimony like Lynndie England’s and Charles Graner’s is far greater than our access to testimony from the invaded. Naming US soldiers beside titles like “Woman Mourning Son / —Najaf” and “The Iraqi Curator’s Powerpoint” may be reflective of this reality, but I am not convinced the role of the poet is to reflect power imbalances in narrative, even if in the name of nuance or humility. Unfortunately, when I reached the end of the book, I couldn’t help but think Metres had relinquished one of the more potent tools of interrogation and sensitivity by absenting the narrator and allowing for persona.

There are times where the more traditional lyric “I” appears, but not before we have made our way through “abu ghraib arias,” a back and forth movement between narrative moments—usually “Blues” poems in the voices of officers, a form I find questionable here since the Blues tradition is one written out of violence against black bodies and not out of those in violent power—and thinned testimony from survivors spliced against silences and verses from Genesis. This is Reznikoff’s Testimony meets Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os—a documentary marriage of social and formal necessity. Like Johnson’s erasure of Paradise Lost, Metres’s title itself—Sand Opera—is an erasure of the “Standard Operating Procedure” manual used by the US in Iraq and released to the public by Wikileaks in the last decade. This is the meeting, in other words, of the conceptual practice of erasure and state-sponsored erasure.

The book explores classified redactions, erased testimony, and US-controlled secret prisons, or “black sites,” renderings of which are included in the book. And like state-sponsored erasures, the silences in Sand Opera are multiple in source and purpose. An unpredictable structure of white spaces, grayscale, and black bars interrupt a multiplicity of speech. A series of vellum pages superimposed over lyrics, diagrams of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah’s renderings of cells he was held in, a curious facsimile of Saddam Hussein’s fingerprints, and pages of complete black also disrupt the narrative, preventing closure or easy cohesion. There is not only one sort of palimpsest, not only one kind of haunting here. The visual experience makes the reading synesthetic—I kept thinking of the turning cylinder in a music box, the visual floods and silences as musical braille, my eyes the instrument. Indeed, in the last poem in the “abu ghraib arias” section, the narrative has been completely obliterated so that only punctuation and the tacit emotional resonances of those marks are left.

I was surprised to find so little anger in the book, which is what I look for in a book of protest. Instead, it is more of a crucial elegy, an extended and choral keening, a grieving for the lives destroyed by the US’s interminable wars. Song and sorrow are nearly indistinguishable. As Metres’s daughter says in one of the “hung lyres” poems in the middle of the book—one of the more poignant sections—“She asks: is that man crying / or singing? How should I answer?” As Metres watches his daughters be born, he must repeatedly confront the world they are born into, often through metaphor and simultaneity.

When the bombs fell, she could barely raise
her pendulous head, wept shrapnel

More striking, the love:

When you emerged not mouth or fingers but cries
& whorls & folds to hold sound in

the first thing I saw was your ear

The ear, the vulnerable, sentient opening he cannot protect against—

I am so grateful for the poems in which Metres’s persona speaks in first person—namely in “hung lyres” and a later section of the book “homefront/removes”—as they feel the most embodied and grounded. In the flooding of visual information and voices, to be spoken to—simply addressed and allowed to rest in the awed gaze of a new father—is especially welcome. It makes the stakes greater and more viscerally known. The relationship between father and daughters here, after all, is tainted by warfare. “I Love You” from the show “Barney and Friends,” for example, is being used as a torture device at the same time it entertains our children. Babies are nursed—in the book and in life—in between the dropping of bombs. Where Metres refuses to let these be separated is where the book reaches its greatest power.

The invitation of the book is to recognize and rectify our own daily concurrent lives. To, as June Jordan said, “make audible the inaudible, visible the invisible.” It is the impulse behind the book I admire the most. Sand Opera is necessarily a lot to navigate. It is, yes, operatic, disorienting, decentered lyric bid to rise and rise again. It is ambitious, but more than that, it is a call. As one of his poems instructs: “Tear out these pages . . . Have the readers perform their monologues simultaneously . . . Improvisation is welcome.” It is a polyvocal work that requires our own voices to participate. If there is to be a yes, we will all have to say it.

Solmaz Sharif’s first collection of poems, LOOK, will be published by Graywolf Press in 2016. She is currently a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University.