Monday, January 14, 2008

Book Review: Poems from Guantanamo

The current state of poetry can be deduced from the fact that one of the most talked-about collections in recent times was borne of a marriage between terrorists and lawyers. “Poems from Guantanamo” is a slight book containing 22 “poems” authored by detainees at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The majority of the pages, however, comprise the accompanying introductory materials, biographies, and an afterward, which were written by others in an attempt to supply an aura of gravitas to the whole affair and to indicate the reason these poems were published at all, and the specific agenda of those responsible for it.

The Acknowledgements page is telling. This collection of poetry, we are told, would not exist were it not for the efforts of “hundreds of volunteer lawyers.” The bulk of the page is a recitation of the names of many of those counselors. As an afterthought, a short list of translators is provided at the end.

The Introduction by Marc Falkoff, a lawyer representing a number of the detainees, portrays them in devout religious terms, never once uttering the word “terrorist.” But these people didn’t find their way to Gitmo because they spent all their time in mosques praying for the welfare of people of all faiths. He outrageously compares the Gitmo detainees with the prisoners in Nazi concentration camps and the Soviet Gulag.

Most of the verses composed at Gitmo have not been released by the Pentagon, apparently for fear that they might contain secret messages. Falkoff admits the translators are not experts and that the translations “cannot do justice to the subtlety and cadence of the originals,” he writes, but when we look at the wretched poems themselves, Falkoff’s suggestion that they possess a superior quality in the original becomes ludicrous. It’s an absurdity only an advocate for terrorists would think to spout. He paints the Pentagon as an evil entity censoring many of the poems which still remain classified, but even so, “Representative voices of the detainees may now be heard.”

But before we see the literary output of the terrorists, we are confronted with another introductory piece, a Preface by Flagg Miller, who is described as a “linguist and cultural anthropologist.” Miller constructs a history of Muslims who responded to oppression with poetry, and places the detainees in that long tradition, but the Gitmo detainees are not oppressed without cause; they are terrorists and deserve incarceration. Many who were released subsequently resumed their terrorist activities. This alone guarantees a risk that any future detainees who are released would do the same. Few countries will accept any of the detainees: who wants terrorists in their midst? And since there is no legal smoking gun for some of them, affording them legal due process risks acquittals and setting free the likes of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (no poetry of his in this volume—perhaps the Pentagon has it).

One is left to wonder what poetry the victims of 9/11 would have written, if they had had the time, as they jumped from the Twin Towers, or as they smashed into the Pentagon. The Gitmo poets surely approved of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Perhaps they wrote a few lauding the 9/11 terrorists. Only the Pentagon censors know for sure.

As for the poems, they all have a banal sameness about them, leading me to conclude that we can speak of a Gitmo School of Poetry. The distinguishing features of which are: a profession of innocence, their captors are the criminals, anger at infidels, belief in Islam, Allah will one day destroy their oppressors, threats of revenge, no mention of 9/11 or Al Qaeda, absence of remorse or any sort of mea culpa, and a total lack of any poetic talent whatsoever. There is nothing unique here and little in the way of personalities. Any sad person or any inmate at any prison could have written some of the poems. The entire collection can rightly be dismissed as worthless. This book wasn’t published because someone thought the poetry possesses any intrinsic value. Perhaps we will see a future college course on the Gitmo School of Poetry coming soon to the University of Iowa English Literature studies department, as well as many other like-minded colleges? It’s doubtful we will see the University of Iowa Press publish a volume called “Poems from the Pentagon.”

Reading through the poems, one feels like a beggar rummaging through a garbage can looking for a diamond but finding nothing but rotten tomatoes. The entire enterprise—from the words carved in cups or written on paper, to the translation, to the editing, to the publication—is a complete fraud. This book was published to serve as a political tool as part of an ongoing effort by anti-war activists to shut down the Gitmo prison. Falkoff and the others believe the detainees are innocent of any crime—or that there isn’t enough evidence to convict them in a US court of law. So this book portrays them as the opposite of what they are: innocent poets who were somehow in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sympathy for terrorists and terrorist-wannabes is the order of the day. They’re poets! Political prisoners! Let’s turn reality on its head and see who gets dizzy.

It would be a nice touch if one of the Gitmo Poets wins the Nobel Prize for Literature based on the “strength” of his poems in this volume. The Nobel committee is in the habit of handing out its awards based on politics, and this book fits their bill. Falkoff and his cohorts have apparently won the propaganda battle, as the US government and military, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seek to close Gitmo due to its unsavory reputation, as detailed in the world news media. We’re a long way from poetry but so is this book.