Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak


by Dan Chiasson





August 19, 2007 from The New York Times

Notes on Prison Camp




The Detainees Speak.
Edited by Marc Falkoff.


72 pp. University of Iowa Press. $13.95.

This short book prints 22 poems by detainees at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that have been cleared for release by the United States military. The poems — some by accomplished writers, others by first-time poets — suffer “some flaws,” as the book’s editor, Marc Falkoff, himself a lawyer for 17 detainees, puts it. It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don’t read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are.

All of which is to say, reading “Poems From Guantánamo” is a bizarre experience. “The Detainees Speak” is this book’s subtitle: but putting aside the real question of whether lyric poets ever “speak” through their art, in the sense of revealing a historical person’s actual life story (they have rarely done so through poetry’s long history, and often poets “speak” least revealingly precisely when they claim to be telling the truth), in what sense could these poems, heavily vetted by official censors, translated by “linguists with secret-level security clearance” but no literary training, released by the Pentagon according to its own strict, but unarticulated, rationale — “speak”?

Given these constraints, a better subtitle might have been “The Detainees Do Not Speak” or perhaps “The Detainees Are Not Allowed to Speak.” But the best subtitle, I fear, would have been “The Pentagon Speaks.” To be sure, it’s hard to imagine a straightforward propagandistic use for the lines “America sucks, America chills, / While d’ blood of d’ Muslims is forever getting spilled”; but you can’t help suspecting that this entire production is some kind of public relations psych-out, “proof” that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo. (Does that sound paranoid? Can you think of another good reason the Pentagon would have selected these lines out of thousands for publication?)

You have to be in the mood for some death-defying Orwellian back-flips, then, to read “Poems From Guantánamo.” When Martin Mubanga, an “athletic kickboxer” and a “citizen of both the United Kingdom and Zambia” (the poems come with extensive biographical notes, often more evocative than the poems themselves) refers to “hard-core detainees like you an’ me” — is this a case of the Pentagon’s missing the irony or, more likely, has the Pentagon deemed that analogy so absurd as to reveal a dangerous criminal mind-set? Since the poem, written in an absurd ersatz-gangsta patois, possesses exactly zero literary interest, what is a reader to do besides try to locate the governmental cunning in clearing it for publication?

But the bulk of these poems are so vague, their claims so conventional, that they might have been written at any point in history by anyone suffering anything. “What kind of spring is this, / Where there are no flowers and / The air is filled with a miserable smell?” Even though these lines were, we are told, carved into a Styrofoam cup (the detainees were for a time denied pen and paper), they mimic the kinds of things sad or frustrated people have always written. But surely being imprisoned in Guantánamo rises to a level of wretchedness beyond mere sadness or frustration. When Sami Al Haj, a detainee whose biography says he was “tortured at both Bagram Air Base and Kandahar” before ending up at Guantánamo, writes that “hot tears covered my face,” he sounds like a teenage sonneteer, not the victim of nearly unimaginable physical cruelty. Such are the unfortunate diminishing returns of poetic figuration, which, except in extraordinary cases, blunts where it purports to sharpen, blurs where it promised focus.

The effect of this volume is therefore curiously to make Guantánamo and our abuses there unfold on an abstract “literary” plane rather than in real life and real time. That’s too bad, since Falkoff and the other lawyers behind this project have acted in enormous good faith and some day will be recognized for their legal work as national heroes. But imagine a volume of Osip Mandelstam’s poetry released by the Soviet government in 1938, or an anthology of poems by Japanese internment prisoners released by our government during the Second World War. The government’s disingenuous resistance to this book’s publication aside (a wooden official statement denounces the book as “another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies”), the Pentagon ought to get an editor’s credit on “Poems From Guantánamo.”


Dan Chiasson is the author of three books, most recently “One Kind of Everything: Poem and Person in Contemporary America,” a volume of essays. He teaches at Wellesley College.