And Iron is Circling

Poems from Guantanamo, edited by Marc Falkoff
(72pp,$13.95,hb, University of Iowa Press)

Poems from Guantanamo is a small anthology of poetry written by present and former detainees of the US detention centre in Cuba. Its chief value is that it is yet another reminder that this detention centre continues to exist flouting every convention; military, legal and political.

At some future date there will surely be much more information about what it is/was to be a detainee,a range of different personal accounts of how individuals have endured. Expressed in letters,short stories, plays, poems, diaries and autobiographies such writing will enhance every bitter thing we  know about this place. The weight of expectation on these few poems is therefore extraordinary and we need to exercise our critical faculties accordingly. What is it that these poems might do?

From my own experience of reading poems from adults and children in war zones and the poetry of political prisoners written recently, much of it smuggled out, set against the massive testimony from concentration camps and torture cells and occupations that forms the literature of modern war,there are several reasons why poetry in particular can catch the horror and the inhumanity better than any other genre. I think this comes from the voice and sound of such poems and their originality and, of course,the quality of the translation in many cases. The risk is that whereas the situation and the subject matter are of great importance the quality of the writing may fall far short.

What we are looking for is a voice that informs us beyond  documentary, language that strikes the soul,personal testimony, something that cuts into our previous awareness. There is then a further factor relating to this anthology because we have all read collections of poetry devised to raise awareness and fundraise and recruit support for a cause. Purchasing such books has perhaps achieved something tangible. In this case what might result?

There are twenty-two poems in this anthology,all written by Muslims, all collected by volunteer lawyers since November 2004.These are some of the poems that survived, that the military have not suppressed. Many will be lost forever; those never written down and those beaten out of the detainees and many more taken by the military.

There is a very useful introduction to the poems in the form of a short essay by Flagg Miller describing the cultural roots of prison poetry and this is essential in understanding why so many of the detainees have been expressing their position through poetry. The military totally missed an opportunity here to explore the Muslim mind and seem to have remained obsessed with brute force and revenge and ignoring every rule in the book. The detainees have in entering the world of poetry taken strength from something totally beyond the minds of their captors. There will be some who will not read from this anthology because they believe there is nothing to learn from such evil people.

There will be some who will not read from it because their objection to Guantanamo is based solely on the lack of proper process and they cannot conceive that any words from the detainees, from guilty or innocent,should be the focus of attention.

Others will want to see what can be written when everything but pain and terror and a small core of self have been taken away, when only screams are left.

Each of the poets represented here are briefly introduced and details are given as to how they have come to be detained.Many are writers and it is quite obvious that their poetry has prevented them going insane. There is behind each bio the shadow of Catch 22 and increasingly one feels that just process has been dumped for deliberate barbarity. When three detainees successfully killed themselves in June 2006 the military called the suicides acts of 'asymmetric warfare'. What is remarkable about these poems is their restraint,their hold,their refusal to fall apart. There is some rough rhetoric here and some will claim that there is a lack of originality but this is to fail to understand that these writers are clinging on to what they once were and many have a very small audience of readers in mind. They are not so much writing to change the world as to demonstrate that they remember a previous world. Poetry provides them with the proof of memory. There is comfort in the conventional.

Othman Abdulraheem Mohammad writes

     I am sorry, my brother.
     The shackles bind my hands
     And iron is circling the place where I sleep.

     I am sorry,my brother,
     That I cannot help the elderly or the widow or the little child.

     Do not weigh the death of a man as a sign of defeat.
     The only shame is in betraying your ideals
     And failing to stand by your beliefs.
                     ['I Am Sorry,My Brother']

The writer studied law and his religion and culture have constantly been affronted since 2001.

Jumah Al Dossari has been held captive for more than five years.He has tried to kill himself twelve times and the oblational stance in Death Poem portrays immense courage and determination to provide evidence that Guantanamo is without conscience,beyond law,ignorant of justice.

     Take my blood.
     Take my death shroud and
     The remnants of my body.
     Take photographs of my corpse at the grave,lonely.

     Send them to the world,
     To the judges and
     To the people of conscience,
     Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

     And let them bear the guilty burden,before the world,
     Of this innocent soul.
     Let them bear the burden,before their children and before history,
     Of this wasted,sinless soul,
     Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”
                  ['Death Poem']

The Director of Amnesty International UK has written about these detainees taking sanctuary in poetry but I would suggest that these poems are far more about identity and stressing beliefs and speaking  out than seeking sanctuary. Robert Pinsky is right when he says that they deserve attention. These poems actually seek somebody who will take note of them. Adrienne Rich refers to a poetics of human dignity and in the seventy two pages of this collection it is this that rings true.

In 'Some Notes On Poetry And Religion' the poet Christian Wiman has written 'Poetry is not written out of despair,which in its pure form is
absolutely mute. The poetry that seems to come out of despair... is
actually a way of staving it off.' [Poetry Review, Summer  2007] Poems from Guantanamo is about placing faith in words,reaching for a respected method of expression,making a message against gross violations. What will follow will be much more political and technical and terrible to conceive no doubt and therefore this collection is a cautious preparation,a small gathering seeking attention. For a Muslim the Written Word is sacred and these detainees have found themselves in a place where their words are reviled,rebuked,rejected. Somehow they have remembered the power and place of the poet in their culture and ironically it is American lawyers who have rescued at least some of these poems from silence and oblivion.

         © David H W Grubb 2007