BY RUSTIN LARSON
Poems from Guantanamo, a new book from the University of Iowa Press released in August 2007, presents 22 poems by 17 detainees.
The thing I remember about the morning of September 11, 2001, was the crystal clarity of the sky. I didn’t have any classes to teach until evening, so I was going to spend the morning at a table, admiring the sky through a breezy window, drinking coffee and reworking my poems. Then the phone rang. It was my daughter, Katie, who was at her tutor’s house, gathered with a dozen or so other home-schooling teenage girls. She sounded excited, confused, said that she had heard Afghanistan or some country or someone had attacked the World Trade Center with an airplane. There was no television at the tutor’s, so she asked if she could bring her class over to watch the news reports. Soon my living room was filled. Wide-eyed, silent, they stared at the endlessly repeated footage. “Remember,” the tutor said after some time had passed, “whoever did this wants us to be afraid. If we are not afraid, we will not give them what they want.” For a few days afterward, it seemed the world had great sympathy for the United States. A clergyman advised during a memorial service for the thousands of victims, “Pray that we, in our pursuit of justice, do not become the very thing we hate.” Now, six years later, it would be difficult to prove that advice was heeded.
In the pursuit of justice, “Since 2002, at least 775 men have been held in the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. According to Department of Defense data, fewer than half of them are accused of committing any hostile act against the United States or its allies. In hundreds of cases, even the circumstances of the initial detainment are questionable.”
Poems from Guantanamo (University of Iowa Press, 2007), edited by Marc Falkoff, presents 22 poems by 17 detainees. Most of these men are still held at Guantanamo under no specific charges and with no apparent hope of trial.
Always under close surveillance, frequently denied the materials to communicate with others, these men would often write their poems with toothpaste, or scratch them onto foam drinking cups with pebbles. When the opportunity arose, they would discreetly hand them to their lawyers.
The poets of this book share similar stories. Abdulaziz, for example, “who wishes not to reveal his last name, had just graduated from university in his native Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when U.S. Forces launched their attack on Afghanistan. He traveled to the region to find his brother and bring him home safely. Soon after Abdulaziz found him, both men were picked up by Northern Alliance forces. After being tortured in an Afghan prison, he was turned over to the U.S. military in early 2002 and eventually sent to Guantanamo along with his brother. Both were classified as enemy combatants. His brother was subsequently released, but Abdulaziz remains in detention.” Abdulaziz writes:
I shall not complain to anyone or expect
grace from anyone
other than God, so help me God.
O Lord, my heart is plagued with troubles.
I shall not complain to anyone other than You, even if the seas
complain of dryness.
My spirit is free in the heavens, while my body is overpowered
Praise God, who has granted me patience in times of adversity
and gratitude in times of gladness.
Praise God, who placed a garden and an orchard in my bosom,
so they will be with me always.
Praise God, who has granted me faith and made me a Muslim.
Praise God, Lord of the world.
Not all the poems in this slim volume are as courageously god-seeking as this one. Some are sardonic, others spit vindictiveness, others yearn simply for the presence of family and home, and yet others are laments and cries for justice. Such captivity and degradation is a nightmare few of us wish to imagine, let alone endure. Yet it is, as Arial Dorfman says, “wondrous . . . The fact that men held in the most appalling, the most desperate conditions, [turn] to poetry as a response to the violence they are subjected to.”
Dorfman, a Chilean American poet and human rights activist, writes in her essay “Where the Buried Flame Burns” at the close of the book: “[The U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay is] Shameful because it is the United States, supposedly a democracy, that is treating its detainees in the same brutal manner that dictatorial Chile and countless other desolate governments across the planet have treated their own captives. Shameful because it is the United States, supposedly a beacon of freedom, that has tortured these ‘enemy combatants’ and denied them the basic human rights all men and women on our earth possess, regardless of whatever crimes they may or may not have committed. Shameful because it is the United States, supposedly a model of justice to be globally envied and imitated, that has locked up these men indefinitely, refused to charge them or put them on trial, blocked them from communicating with their families and the outside world, degraded their humanity, and abused their religion and convictions to pressure them into ‘confessing’ their ‘terrorist’ links.”
This is all too familiar. The actors and setting may change through history, but the story is depressingly the same. It’s tempting to say nothing can be done to change what we are. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and human beings gotta do the worst possible things to each other.
And yet, what is it that I sense about the angels of our better natures? They must have ears. And hearts. They must be able to listen. Who are the invisible faces we write to when we write our poems? Under the clarity of a blue sky, or behind the barriers of barbed wire, do they listen? Do they send us their aid, their protection, the light of liberation?