Notes on Prison Camp

Dan Chiasson on Poems From Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, edited by Mark Falkoff, in the New York Times:

Screenhunter_02_aug_24_1812This 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.”

More here.