Like the indelible shadows of human beings obliterated by the bombs of Hiroshima and re-evoked by political protestors years afterward, the poems in Philip Metres's searing chapbook abu ghraib arias (2011) dwell in the space "Between the idea / And the reality / Between the motion / And the act" as T.S. Eliot wrote in "The Hollow Men" (1925). Metres's hollow men (and women) are soldiers and rebels, victims and torturers, broken followers and rule-breakers whose identities blur between lines that are fragmented, redacted, grayed—a carefully constructed mélange of found texts that include military manuals, documented boasts or confessions, phrases from religious texts, killing clichés.
To speak or read the name "Abu Ghraib" (in Arabic, either "place of ravens" or "place of the west"—both raven and west share the same root as the word Arab) after the tortures perpetrated by U.S. military personnel on Iraqi citizens imprisoned in the jail of that name is to feel disgust and/or the urge to look away. As Metres writes in an exchange with poet and Iraq War veteran Micah Cavileri, "Parsing Arias," from Jacket2:
Some poets fetishize horror, and some poets pretend the knowable world is the circumference of grass just outside their studio window. All I know is that I cannot not look away. But the horror of the world is not the (only) truth of the world.
How does Metres find the arias—literally, the air—in an enclosed space of horror, humiliation, and death? This poet creates music from all the instruments at hand, "song[s] of the bleeding throat," as Walt Whitman wrote in his elegy for Lincoln, "When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd (1865)." In abu ghraib arias, the eleven poems titled "(echo /ex/)" that Metres places on the left pages of the chapbook—reminding this reader that Arabic is read from right to left—are operatic duets or choruses that both mingle and separate each time one encounters them. The fourth "(echo /ex/)" on page 8 is a striking example of how a poem can be read as a whole or in two or three parts, and of how an initial, G—Charles Graner? God?—can carry both historical and mythical resonance:
his name is G "Do you believe in my broken ark which he had made I lostI lost G came and laughed lo, in her mouth it will break againarms behind broken because I can'tsever pain X X the hard site while the earth remaineth some pictures shall not cease
Every mark on these pages, including punctuation, is significant: the missing closing quotation mark in this (echo /ex/) is not found until the final line of the book, part of an (echo /ex/) composed completely of punctuation—a Rosetta Stone of repressed memory, but one that leaves dark traces.
Of the eleven poems Metres places on the right hand pages of the chapbook, six are called "Blues"—using American vernacular music to frame the words of individual American soldiers who were part of the operation. These mini-narratives span the emotional spectrum from dutiful reportage to coarse ignorance, from twisted sadism to robotic obedience, from agonized outcry to outright rebellion.
In "Parsing Arias," Micah Cavileri states that he initially was offended by the blues poems: "by the implication that those soldiers represented soldiers, the implication that soldiers lack any sort of depth or music, beyond their pathetic attempts at singing the blues." But he concedes, "The mindset is all about killing and proving yourself. But that's what war is."
Which brings us to the four right-hand poems taken from a Standard Operating Procedure Manual. There is an eerie beauty and irony to these poems, as demonstrated by the detailed care of "Handling the Koran (Standard Operating Procedure)" :
avoid handling or touching a language specific to open the one cover with one hand in an upright manner (as if reading not every page is to beclearly see the pages reverence two hands at all times...