August 16, 2019KR Reviews

Between You and Information is the Undone Room: Nomi Stone’s Kill Class

North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2019. 81 Pages. $17.95.

Reading Nomi Stone’s second poetry collection, Kill Class, is like watching a play: each character in this recounted war game “lanterns awake.” The speaker, an anthropologist, attempts to lodge herself into the fabric of mock Middle Eastern villages (referred to collectively as “Pineland”) throughout the United States, where people of Middle Eastern backgrounds “are hired to theatricalize war” for soldiers in training. An outsider to these villages, the speaker becomes a student of the culture of the game, yet she never understands her position within this site of imagined and real violence. It is her inability to fully observe these half-truths and pretend ashes that calls not only war training, but anthropology itself into question.

The problems of witness are central to these poems, which resist narrative and present this story of disorientation largely through abstraction. Referred to as “a fly in a punchbowl,” the speaker’s role is fragmented: she is both required to participate in the game and is understood as someone whose existence threatens the game’s ability to function. She breaks character. At times, she embraces the space. There is an important difficulty in Kill Class’s refusal to name what is felt and who is feeling. No one is actually killed—except rabbits, chickens, and goats—but actors imagine killing, losing family members, being forced to eat the charred remains of the people they love, or enacting that force. Through her use of information gaps and literal white space, Stone demands the reader fill in what isn’t said, which works to show what we already know about violence and how it is learned.

This would be a much different and arguably less effective collection if, in the title poem, the speaker killed the rabbit. “How can we trust you? If you can’t kill / an animal,” a commander asks her during the “kill class,” where soldiers are presumably learning to butcher. The entrails of gutted animals fill a pit in the earth. Through line break—“kill / an animal”—Stone indicates that this class is meant to be linked psychologically to preparations for other kinds of killing. The ability to take a life is offered as a way of building trust, of entering the safety of the group. Stone concludes this poem with the rabbit bound and suffering in the speaker’s grasp:

you need to hold
the legs.        They are tying together
the legs            the animal
screaming            They raise
the stick                       The legs are in
my arms          The legs are in my arms

With that last image, we join the pine trees and men who form circles around her. We close in, holding the killing stick. She leaves the reader to struggle with the question of whether she will choose complicity, to cradle the innocent animal as it is killed against her body, or if she will turn and be hit. Through caesura, like a last breath, she implies that the men succeed in killing it. In this scene, the speaker becomes distant, becomes an object of study. The danger in the line she must occupy—between her own morality and her work as a student of this culture—is clearly illustrated.

As a woman reading this collection, I recognized the trauma that the speaker experiences while surrounded by men in a place designed exclusively for them. The fear of what men, especially men who are situated in a physically and emotionally demanding jobsite, are capable of is imbued in the landscape of these villages: needles, cum, guns that, when held wrong, will bite your thumb. I had to put the book down when I reached the image of the men in the woods acting-out rape:

They tell me this in a bar
right outside of these woods
where old boys act-out
a rape to teach war’s

do’s and don’ts, slapping
their hands together—
are you in on this joke?

We could blame the pedagogy of these deployment training camps for this behavior, but I’ve heard rape made light of in many classrooms. Through the work she does to familiarize her characters, Stone asks her readers to think of these villages not as isolated hellscapes, but as microcosms of the institutionalized horrors and systematic oppressions we live with every day.

Those oppressions are also represented by the camp’s attempts to, with little accuracy or specificity to country or identity, replicate Middle Eastern villages. The speaker states that she came to study the Iraqi diasporic population who “received asylum to Pineland after 1991.” In the poem “CAMERA BURNED A HOLE,” she speaks to an unnamed refugee who, after she asks why they worked for the Americans, tells her: “I did it to feed my family.” “I drove a truck for an Iraqi company that supplied the / US military.” “I didn’t know who I was working for exactly.” Again, information is withheld here, but we are given enough to know the person speaking was forced to flee Iraq after unknowingly aiding the United States Army. They have since lived in a place that attempts to replicate aspects of their home country, so that US soldiers can prepare to deploy to it. This person’s job is to act like an idea of a terrorist or a person in need of aid. To create a sense of the Middle East for the benefit of the nation that displaced them. “Say whatever you want / just say it in Arabic,” someone says to someone in Pineland (we never learn who to whom), and in doing so they demonstrate where, systemically, these ambiguous and violently flawed ideas of “otherness” cultivate.

“You have information. / between you and information is the undone room,” Stone writes in “CRYING ROOM.” There are four rooms identified in Pineland: broken-in internet café room, police station/jail room, mosque/school room, and crying room. The rooms are not physical places, but sites of confusion, anxiety, and pain. They are potential dangerous scenarios crafted into papier mâché structures on a stage. The woods are the backdrop and what keeps the secret safe. The secret is what maintains the game. One of the many urgencies of Kill Class is the concept of “country,” of nationhood, of the ambiguity behind what drives this work in the first place. What is being defended? What is good? Though not explicitly stated, there is an undercurrent to this work that points to a lack of motivation or drive experienced by the people in training, that all of the work going into maintaining the game is also the work necessary to generate excitement and pride in people on their way to a forever war. It is the anthropologist’s job—the candle in her that “won’t quit”—to show us what we know about the United States, about conflict as a traveling space, in hopes that language might strengthen our hearts as we learn, collectively, how essential it is that we name the many places where suffering begins.

Author photo
Taneum Bambrick is the author of Vantage, which was selected by Sharon Olds for the 2019 APR/Honickman first book award (Copper Canyon Press). Her chapbook, Reservoir, was selected by Ocean Vuong for the 2017 Yemassee Chapbook Prize. Her poems and essays appear or are forthcoming in American Poetry Review, Academy of American Poets, PEN America, Missouri Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, Vermont Studio Arts Center, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She is a 2020 Stegner Fellow at Stanford University.