September 4, 2019KR OnlinePoetry

Battlefields, Fieldpoems

From prebattle preparation to postwar explosives clearance

Series Introduction

Every poem shows its relations with the world. It’s true as grit that poetry is made from attention and awareness: of outer landscapes and inner weather. The poems in this series, Battlefields, Fieldpoems, were written out of our relationships with the world, shaped by our different academic histories and methods training, as well as our different investments in poetic craft. What we share is an investment in ethnographic poetry as a means of engaging with war and its social effects. We write ethnographic poems as part of embedded fieldwork, rooted in the attention for everyday life that characterizes ethnography. For both of us, poetry, like anthropology, is a mode of deep seeing and sensory aliveness.

Each of these ten poems developed out of long-term, ethnographic research in militarized zones. We are both anthropologists and poets studying militarism and cultures of war. For this series, we together present a selection of poems written during our fieldwork: first, Nomi Stone’s research with Iraqi role-players at United States military mock Middle Eastern village training sites; and second, Leah Zani’s research with humanitarian explosives clearance teams in the old air strike zones of the Secret War in Laos. While we have conducted these researches separately, we believe that our poems resonate when paired together. We present these poems as five pairs with the intention of evoking the scope of war from prebattle preparation to postwar explosives clearance.

Each of the following paired poems—one from a military training village and one from an explosives clearance site—is presented with photographs and brief ethnographic vignettes from our fieldwork. Each pair ties a slim thread between conflicts separated by decades and continents, thereby bringing into awareness how cultures of war are often shared across battle zones. Our poems are part of this process, for it is one of the qualities of poetry to break down assumptions while simultaneously drawing unexpected connections.

At their height during the 2003 Iraq War, and long used by the Special Forces, combat training centers fashioned to resemble the Middle East stud the forests and deserts of the United States. At these training sites, US soldiers rehearse cultural interface: individuals of Middle Eastern origin are hired to theatricalize war, repetitively pretending to bargain and mourn and die, acting out the mayor, the villager, the insurgent, the mourning mother. During the US military’s “Cultural Turn” and its accompanying doctrine of counterinsurgency, training soldiers were charged with understanding the “human terrain,”—separating out insurgents from the population. Stone’s work excavates the violence of these military projects otherwise lauded as “armed social work” and a “softer approach” to war.

Stone’s poems in Battlefields, Fieldpoems provide a door into the textures and rhythms of those war camps, as well as a space for inquiry into war, empathy, violence, and nation. However, she does not see poetry as data, analysis, evidence, or a research method. For her, rather, poems are a means of unknowing, a wandering deeper into our own bewilderment, wonder, and surprise. Her philosophy as a poet is inflected by the anthropologist’s mandate to make strange the familiar and familiar the strange. In that helix of estrangement and familiarization, she believes that the poem, through the tools of syntax and sonics recomposes the sensorium. Poems, perhaps more than any other representational form, control and release the rhythm of “outer landscapes and inner weather.” The five poems included in this portfolio are drawn from her recently published collection of poems, Kill Class (Tupelo Press 2019), and also live adjacent to her ethnographic monograph in progress, Pinelandia: Human Technology and American Empire, winner of the University of California Press Atelier Prize. The war camps are both strange and uneasily familiar spaces of Empire, populated as they are by archetypes and governed by logics of substitutability. Switch out the chickens for the goats, change the signs in the fake village from Arabic to Dari, replace one body for another body. These poems are, indeed, about a particular time and place—driven by years of ethnographic research. Yet perhaps more than that, they are a meditation on violence, complicity, and (un)belonging, a stepping-into the vertigo and fragmentation of our own seeing in times of ongoing war.

From its rehearsals to its aftermath, war’s impact on bodies and psyches across the world is pervasive, and in many sites untraced. We move from war training camps in America to postwar terrains in Laos.

Stone-Zani photo #1
A map drawn by villagers during a clearance survey in Savannakhet Province, Laos. Each red dot is a bomb. Source: Leah Zani.

From roughly 1964 to 1973, Laos was the target of a massive air war and counterinsurgency program run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in secret and without the knowledge of the United States Congress or the public. Generally known as the Secret War, the conflict in Laos remains the longest and most intense air war in history. The cluster munition (also known as a cluster bomb; or mae laberd, mother bomb, in Lao) is the prototypical example of this method of warfare: a large munition is dropped from a plane; the force of the fall breaks the munition open to release hundreds or thousands of small submunitions, dense over very large areas. In Lao, these smaller submunitions are called luk laberd: bomb children. Entire villages are blanketed in bombs, which may remain active and dangerous for generations after the war ends. People are born, grow up, and die in these contaminated villages: children of the bomb. Zani’s fieldpoems in Battlefields, Fieldpoems are an invitation to examine the messiness of life after an air war. After the war ends, the planes fly away, the soldiers are buried . . . then what happens?

Zani uses poetry as a research method, a way of crafting attention to everyday life. Fieldpoems, like fieldnotes, are written in the field. She writes her poems to be transparent to the field: the poems show their relationship to a larger world, the way that a window may kindle awareness of things outside the frame. The poems are distinctly analytical (some include quotes from interviews or other research materials) in the feminist sense of unknowing, what the theorist Marilyn Strathern describes as the evidence of absence. Poems resist themselves, and Zani writes poems to explore the meaning of things that rebuke language. Together, her poems shape a claim for ethnographic poetry as its own method of poetic attention. These five fieldpoems are drawn from a multiyear study of postwar life, which Zani describes further in her book Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos (Duke University Press 2019).

We envision this project as an exploration of poetry as a method of researching and writing against war. We have different but intersecting perspectives on the relationship between poetry and ethnography, but share a vision of poetry as an open-ended, possibility-laden mode for rendering experience and resisting singular meaning.  With this vision clearly in mind, we have selected poems that give glimpses into our fieldwork, windows to war in the present era.


War Game / Postwar

Stone-Zani photo #2

War Game: Plug and Play

Wait. Begin Again.
Reverse loop. Enter the stage.
The war scenario has: [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals],
and [people] in it. The people speak

the language of a country we are trying
to make into a kinder country. Some
of the people over there are good
others evil others circumstantially

bad some only want
cash some just want
their family to not die.
The game says figure

out which
are which.

This poem is a rendering of Empire’s logic of substitutability, through the prism of the war game. The entities enclosed in the parentheses [vegetable stalls], [roaming animals], and [people], could all be replaced with commensurate entities. In the war game, this was clear: switch out the chickens for the goats, change the signs in the fake village from Arabic to Dari, replace one body for another body. This poem originally appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly.


Stone-Zani photo #3

Fieldpoem 30: Postwar

My sight has changed forever:
I see the hulk of an army-green
in a farm field in rural California
among rusting tractors, threshers

Every one is a wreck of something

After completing fieldwork in Laos, I returned to my native California. I wrote this poem on the Amtrack train from Oakland to a family gathering in Fresno—the train passed by military training grounds, farm fields abandoned due to the extreme drought, protest signs claiming local water rights, laborers bent double picking fruit, shanty towns, strip malls, and new housing complexes on the expanding edge of suburbia.


Soldiers Parachuting into the War Game / Unsound

Stone-Zani photo #4

Soldiers Parachuting into the War Game

The fictional country stills
in the hour’s resin. Men glide
through pinedark
into fields of cotton. Eyeless
seeds above: is it, lord,
        snowing? They cross
into the mock village:
dome goat road row
Iraqi role-players whispering
in collapsible houses
made for daily wreckage.
Lights pulse, pixels
within them. In one room:
        a tiny fake coffin     no
isn’t here a body   no, nowhere
here my    body.   Input say
a kind word to the villager output
villager soaked clean of prior forms
of place.   It is (subtract
this footprint) snowing. Now

I wrote this poem after observing war games for almost two years. I wanted to simulate in its uneasy hush the way soldiers parachute in, trying to leave as little a trace as possible. I came to wonder: who is actually here? Soldiers are told to enter lightly, as imperceptibly as they can. The role-players are employed to inhabit archetypes—bodies and lives turned into pixels. And I, watching, feel suddenly that I, too, am floating in a globe of pines, likewise subtracted from this place. This poem originally appeared in Poetry Northwest.


Stone-Zani photo #5

Fieldpoem 21: Unsound

There is another sound
that I don’t hear
nothing makes it go off
—breath on a mirror; the word faintly reappears

In the first few months of fieldwork, before I had ever heard an explosion, I woke up afraid during an intense monsoon thunderstorm. I was half-hearing the explosion in my dreams, dreaming that the sound of the thunder was a bomb going off. To appease myself, I got out of bed and looked outside: The rain had temporarily abated, but thunder still resounded across the dark city. The streets glistened slick black, empty even of the lights and sounds of women rising early to prepare food for the Buddhist morning alms. No sign of alarm, no police, no rushing neighbors, no plume of smoke. Nothing looked out of place. Later, after taking my morning shower, I looked long at myself in the fogged bathroom mirror, tracing my reflection in the condensation.


Creation Myth / “The rice is more delicious after bomb clearance”

Stone-Zani photo #6

Creation Myth (How Role-Players Came to Speak)

Soldiers build our legs and arms:
newly made, we clap the fire,
leg lift, leg lift, wake the ache
in the new hewn chest, circle
the pit, steep the tea, slice
the Spam pink as cheeks, break
the bread, then cry! Mouths
light open and shut,
open, then shut, around
their words, their words,
their words,
words, words. . . .

Once I heard military personnel call the role-players “the Apparatus,” which deeply unmoored me. I try to enact these mechanistic logics in this poem, but with uneasy kinks (refusals) in the machine. The verbs are awry, not those you would predict; even if you are in control of input, you can’t control output. Thus the role-players “clap” the fire rather than light it. And their mouths “light” open and shut.” While their mouths are full of military words, the repetition sends that speech off the rails (“their words, their words, / their words, / words, words. . . .”). When I wrote this poem, I had already been interviewing role-players for months, and I was deeply aware of these individuals’ own pasts, their motivations, their longings, the painful difficulty for them of acting out a military version of themselves without being asked about the actual contours of their lives. This poem was published in Post Road.


Stone-Zani photo #7

Fieldpoem 15: “The rice is more delicious after bomb clearance”

dig this rice field with a shovel
so the rice will be more delicious—
each two white grains
precious as two eyes

Lao farmers are taught to use shovels (instead of hoes or other over-hand tools) because they are less likely to trigger explosions. If an explosion does occur, upper-body impairments (such as blindness) are most common. I once heard a Buddhist meditation in which novices were encouraged to treasure the rice in their alms bowl as if each two grains were as precious as their two eyes. The title quote is from a farmer interviewed for a postclearance assessment conducted by one of my colleagues.


Wound Kit / For an Unnamed Man and an Unnamed Photographer

Stone-Zani photo #8

Wound Kit

[Simulaids Deluxe Casualty Simulation Kit: $760.00. Stick-on Wounds, Eyeball (900), Foreign body protrusion (901), Eviscerated intestines (902), Large laceration 5 cm (903), Medium laceration 3 cm (904), Small laceration 1 cm (905), Compound fractured tibia (906), Small sepsis  wound (909), Large sepsis wound (910), Perforated Wound (828), BLEEDING STRAP ON WOUNDS (7) COMPLETE WITH BLOOD RESERVOIR BAGS AND PUMPS, Crushed foot (6730), Impalement lower leg (6729), Broken clavicle (6727), Laceration of forearm (6726), Projectile Entry (6728)

They’ll paint on the guts. Laith is rib-lean and theatrical. Choose him.

        A First Class Private, his braces glinting, kids: “Die, & I will
dig you a shallow grave.”

        Position Laith in the grass where he falls. Fiddle with his cell phone.
It is hot. It is preset.

        His fake wife, Nafeesa, makes a puking face. Around the field,
the trees sweat.

        They chose him because he knows about real war. In Iraq, he was told to leave
in an hour or be killed. Roulette.

        “What do you take with you? Your laptop? Your mother?”
Then, reset.

        Training soldiers arrive around Laith’s body.
Villagers flick droplets from their water bottles across Laith’s face.

        Nafeesa asks a soldier: “ha yemawt?” [Will he die?].
The soldier can’t understand looks panicked thrusts paper and pencil at her.

        If she writes it down he can look it up.
Nafeesa says: “Turid arsimh?” [You want me to draw


Predeployment exercises are marked by the presence of simulacra: fake houses, fake mosques, fake vegetables, etc., but most uncomfortably: fake wounds and fake limbs. This poem is about that encounter, as well as the dizzying effect of virtuality on all sides. Sonics here does an enclosing work: hot and preset, roulette, and reset; and the referent (death itself), dangles, an “it” that can’t be contained. Poem originally published in Painted Bride Quarterly.


Stone-Zani photo #9

Fieldpoem 5: For an Unnamed Man and an Unnamed Photographer

sight lines, twin radii
the long fingers of looking

raised thumb and index finger of his left hand
touch at their tips: the circle of existence

five fingers of his right hand touch
the ground: calling the earth to witness
victory over suffering

right hand rests at his folded knee, palm outward:
giving charity

his hands are small mute mouths
in a sleeping face, eyes closed
faintly spattered with blood

right hand touches the white tile floor:
Bitumen of Judea

a burst of black powder
and gently he falls, softening
into the white-hot flash

An analyst showed me an archive of anonymous photos of victims of bomb explosions. These photos were used in reports, circulated among aid workers, donors, and government partners. All of the photos were anonymous—no dates, no place names, no photographer names, no subject names, no notes on usage or consent. One image: a young man on a canvas hospital stretcher, unconscious, skin nearly white but dusted with black powder. His body was totally relaxed, as if sleeping. The photo ended at his hips, at the shreds of his green trousers. Little flecks of blood darkened his clothes. The analyst casually commented: “He’s just about to go into surgery. Almost certainly he lost that leg.”

The first word of the poem is a reference to Eva Hayward’s concept of fingeryeyes, describing a mode of examination at a distance that conflates seeing with touching. I use this concept to think through what these aid workers were doing when they circulated anonymous photos of extreme violence. The middle stanzas of the poem describe several common mudra, or sacred hand gestures, depicted in Theravada Buddhist iconography. Bitumen of Judea is a type of flash powder, an explosive, used in early photography. This poem first appeared in Anthropology News.


Human Technology / Building a House

Stone-Zani photo #10

Human Technology

Sunlit & dangerous, this country road.
We are follicle & meat & terror &

the machines leave their shells naked on the ground.
One soldier makes a museum in his basement.

Each mannequin in brass, incombustible coats:
I am walking between their blank faces

their bullets traveling at the speed of sound. One soldier
who roasted a pig on his porch   barbecuing until sinews were tender

tells me he waited above the Euphrates & if they tried to pass
even after we told them not to, they deserved it: pop (deserve it); pop (deserve

it). Euphrates, your dark tunnel out is rippling around us.
In the war, a child approaches a tank as a soldier counts the child’s

steps. In the town, I drink a bottle of wine with that soldier. I am alone
among barber shops, boot repair shops. Is she my friend? I weep to her.

I’ve lost who I thought I loved & she says I did
this thing & to whom was that child beloved?

Find common ground, the soldiers say. Humanize
yourselves. Classify the norm of who you’re talking to, try

to echo it. Do this for your country, says one soldier; we
are sharks wearing suits of skin. Zip up.

This spring, in the chilly, barely blooming city
Solmaz says enough of this emptied word “empathy.”

Ask for more: for rage. For love. On the porch,
as the sun goes, the dark pools around us & one

soldier says it is nightfall. I am tired. I did not mean for it to go on
this long. This soldier across the table, we lock eyes.

He tells me: in the occupied land we are the arm, they
are the weapon. The weapon

in this case is a person. Choose a person
who knows who is bad. Make them

slice open the skin of their country: only they can
identify the enemy. Say yes or no: if a man squints while

under the date palm; if a woman does not swing her arms
while walking. Sir, my child was not with the enemy.

He was with me in this kitchen, making lebna.
The yogurt still is fresh on his wrist.

I wrote this poem when I returned to the field after a long gap. This poem was only possible after two years of fieldwork and much reading and thinking about violence and empathy in the interim. The poem is catalyzed by interviews I did with four different soldiers over a several-year period, as well as conversations I had with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. But most of all, it is an index of dread and trembling, a thinking-through of violence—as well as its so-called “softer” side and military fantasies around cultural understanding and empathy. I offer this poem alongside a window out onto the pines that surround the war games, a place of military imagination and one site of Empire. This poem was originally published in Plume.


Stone-Zani photo #11

Fieldpoem 16: Building a House

The house that wasn’t there
was torn from its foundations

The builder stopped digging—
pushed back, out, came to rest, his tools down
at the bottom of a crater that dug itself
sleeping in a room whose walls were
blown away

The man in this poem returned to his family village after the war—full knowing that the village would not be there, would have been destroyed utterly. Many war refugees eventually returned to destroyed home villages: “We had nowhere else to go,” he told me with a shrug. When they arrived, his family began the process of rebuilding lost homes and village buildings; and later, of building new houses. Thirty years after the war, while digging the foundation for a new house, this man found several cluster submunitions. Whenever he found a bomb, he would pick it up and place it behind him in a pile, which he would later carry to a location outside the village for storing found ordnance. One of these bombs—he picked it up, and placed it behind him—exploded. He was instantly knocked unconscious. A day later, he woke up in a hospital to discover that he had lost his left arm. Slowly, over many years, he was able to secure a prosthetic limb and physical rehabilitation sufficient to return to the construction site and complete the house. When I visited him, the crater for the explosion was visible inside the new house: a softness in the ground that sagged into a small, but noticeable, depression in the floor.

Photo of Nomi Stone and Leah Zani
Nomi Stone, PhD, MFA, is an anthropologist and poet. Her second collection of poems, Kill Class, was published by Tupelo Press in 2019. Poems appear recently in POETRY, American Poetry Review, New Republic, Best American Poetry Tin House, New England Review, and elsewhere. Kill Class is based on two years of fieldwork she conducted within war trainings in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America. Her ethnography Pinelandia: Human Technology and American Empire won the University of California Press’s Atelier prize and is forthcoming in 2020. Her ethnographic articles appear in Cultural Anthropology and American Ethnologist. She is an assistant professor of poetry at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Leah Zani, PhD, is an anthropologist and poet. Her articles and poems have appeared or will soon appear in American Anthropologist, Cultural Anthropology, Environmental Humanities, Platypus, Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence Magazine, and Tikkun Magazine, among others. She has won two Ethnographic Poetry Prizes for her poems on explosives clearance. She further explores the concept of fieldpoetry in her forthcoming book Bomb Children: Life in the Former Battlefields of Laos (Duke University Press 2019). She is the poetry editor at Anthropology and Humanism, the journal of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.