abu ahraib arias by Philip Metres is as disconcerting as it is beautiful. Metres writes in the book’s Afterword that the poem “began out of the vertiginous sense of being named but silenced as an Arab American.” In this small book of 22 pages, Metres captures both the horror of torture and its accompanying silence. He also captures, in a strange way, the possibility of hope, the hope that comes from giving voice to injustice.
This series of poems is in many ways a series of “found “poems. It draws from many sources, including the Guantanamo Bay prison camp’s “Standard Operating Procedure,” victim testimonies, American soldiers and contractors’ own words and various official reports on the Abu Ghraib prison “scandal.” It also draws on various news stories, the Koran and the Bible.
The actual paper of the book, was made by Chris Arendt, a veteran who served in the Army at Guantanamo Bay. The book itself, as you hold it in your hands, though light and almost unraveling, feels dangerous. It’s a document that tells a horrific story, but an essential story.
Some of the poems have lines that are blacked out, creating the sensation that someone’s hand is over the poet’s mouth. Some of the poems are scattered across the page, some poems are merely letters, initials, broken pieces of punctuation that cannot live on their own. It’s a stunning piece of concrete poetry, visual art, and confession. Metres writes, also in the Afterword, “Some of the poems began a way to read the testimonies of the tortured at Abu Ghraib which were too painful for me to read straight through.”
Indeed, this book is laced with pain. These poems are sometimes fragments, sometimes whole. The book opens with “The Blues of Lane Cotter.” The poem contains several blacked out lines but also these haunting lines: “four Iraqis at the gate / all of them missing / their hands or their / —– story.”
Metres also uses a two-toned printing that I can’t exactly create here, but it gives the reader a sense of a voice behind a voice.
In “The Blues of Charles Graner” we read: “The Christian in me / knows it’s wrong / but the corrections / officer in me can’t / help but love / making a grown man / piss himself.”
We also hear from Lynddie England, the young woman whose face was splashed across American newspapers in some of the dreadful photographs from Abu Ghraib. In “The Blues of Lynddie England” she tells us: “[G] played me / I guess I was blind / by love / maybe it was / [ ].”
Philip Metres has created an important document here, an important poetic document. It’s not easy to read; in some ways it makes true the cliche “beautiful but not pretty.” This series of poems reminds us of the misery war brings. It reminds us of the potential in all of us to disfigure one another, to treat one another as worse than objects.
When it comes to writing about war, Phil Metres has some experience. His blog Behind the Lines: Poetry, Peace, and Warmaking is almost a daily read for me. He writes insightfully and clearly about some of the most troubled aspects of human life.