Interviews - April 2012

Unrehearsed chemicals

A conversation between Joshua Marie Wilkinson and Rosa Alcalá

Joshua Marie Wilkinson: I know that there are a number of manuscripts — half-finished? completed and shelved? — which predate your first book Undocumentaries. What was the evolution of your first book? How many years went into it and how did it develop?

Rosa Alcalá: My first manuscript was my MFA thesis. When I was at Brown, my work started changing, so the thesis poems range from very traditional lyric poems to more experimental ones. Because I learned English shortly after Spanish, and because I’ve always moved between the two, I’ve always been struck by the materiality and aural qualities of language. So, my poems have this thread between them, for me anyway. I’m fond of some of the poems in that thesis (I think it was called In Translation; the title has changed many times since), but I’m just in a different place right now. Still, the concerns of those poems — identity, language, class, etc. — are clearly in Undocumentaries, which I wrote in my first four years teaching at the University of Texas-El Paso. The manuscript that followed the thesis and precedes Undocumentaries, is now titled The Lust of Unsentimental Waters and is forthcoming from Shearsman Books. I wrote it while doing my PhD in English at SUNY–Buffalo, where I was reading lots of translation theory — lots of theory in general — and as a result, the poems, very sparse and economic, are a thinking-through of some of those theories. I started translating in the mid 1990s — after a childhood of interpreting for non-English speaking parents — and as I read Barthes, Glissant, Mignolo, Anzaldúa, Benjamin, Kristeva, others, I felt a real emotional connection to some of those ideas. Sometimes I didn’t understand them very well; I’m sure I misunderstood them or battled with them or couldn’t quite make sense of what they were saying, but I felt like I “got it.” And some of the poems — not all of them — came out of that dialogue with the texts. I was also translating a book of poems (Lourdes Vazquez’s Bestiary) at the same time, so those concerns (anxieties?) are there, too. I think translation is the hardest job in the world. Certainly harder than writing poetry.

Wilkinson: For me, “Undocumentary” resonates somewhere between undocumented laborers and what cannot be documented in a “documentary” — what escapes the document, the record, or even recognition. What is the figure of the “Undocumentary” for you in these poems, and how does this word loom over the book for you?

Alcalá: I like that you use the word “loom,” with its reference to weaving, since this book is full of textile work. All my work is textile work, to some extent.

The book was originally titled Fact & Act, which gets at a similar idea, but Mónica de la Torre suggested Undocumentaries, after the first poem in the book. I love her work, and we translated a book together (Lila Zemborain’s Mauve Sea-Orchids), so I do what she tells me. I think her reasoning was that this title could be understood in many ways, including as a reference to undocumented workers. The term “undocumentary,” however, came about as I began to do research for the book. I knew I wanted to write about work/workers, particularly the type of work/workers that are often invisible, not represented in popular media. Rather than rely on my own experience — both my parents were factory workers, in textile and other industries — I felt compelled (fresh off my dissertation) to do research. I read articles, watched documentaries (like American Dream, about the Hormel Food factory strike in Minnesota, which is mentioned in the book), and took notes. But I felt that this didn’t quite get at “it” (and I didn’t know what the “it” was yet). I started weaving my own unstable file of experiences with what I was reading, and this lead to other research, which was woven in as well. I was rereading Williams’s Paterson at the time, so I took his collage technique as a guide. So, the “undocumentary,” for me, is the lyric’s “unrehearsed chemicals,” which in the archive or document becomes “a brighter or stiller image.” I say “brighter” because I think the archive has the ability to seduce with its certainty, its proof, but it’s “stiller,” less able to communicate the slipperiness of experience. The lyric, on the other hand, can continue to act out “the tensions of progress.” And, ultimately, this book — written in my first years as an assistant Professor — acts out those tensions, which felt so dizzying to me at the time, and still do to some extent.

In the end, however, this book is (in part) about the ways in which the working class — including undocumented workers — are not represented at all or are represented in clichéd or one-dimensional ways. I always felt — in very painful ways — the invisibility of my own parents’ working-class/immigrant lives in the representations of “American” identity. I remember someone asking me at Brown what my father “did.” No one had ever asked me that before. In my neighborhood, it just wasn’t a question. Maybe this book is an answer to what he — all those forgotten workers — did. But I don’t think it’s an easy answer — this question of representation — which is why many of these poems are fragmented or discursive, or in Glissant’s term, “errant,” and why the speaker of the last poem contemplates arson. It’s like Williams burning down the library in Paterson, for the possibility of new forms, new knowledge. Because he knows that presenting the “document” — even if that document is the poem — is a risky endeavor, a danger that can lead to a kind of reification of identity and experience. And also because he wants to move on from the past.

Wilkinson: You mention Williams’s Paterson a couple of times, which is where you’re from right? What are the effects of being from a hallowed American poetry city, where Ginsberg is also from. Does that influence your poetic thinking much? Is that something you try to court or escape? Do you recognize your Paterson in Williams’s work?

Alcalá: As I was reading your question, I had this memory of talking to Allen Ginsberg in his apartment in New York many years ago, and he was asking me if such and such place still existed in Paterson, and it felt so incredible to share this place — and to be able to give the “current” Paterson to Ginsberg, who was so well known for being from there. It felt a bit like that moment in Paterson when Ginsberg writes to Williams because he senses a kinship. Like Ginsberg, I always felt a kinship to Williams (who was actually from Rutherford, NJ), but I think it has more to do with the “Carlos” — you know that otherness book-ended by such Englishness. I mean, no matter how many Williamses you shingle onto it, “Carlos” stands out in Anglo-American modernism. He could have removed it from his name for matters of publication, I suppose, but he really would have had to put something in its place, because the measure of that name would have been fatal: William Williams. And in addition to fatal, if he had proceeded without the Carlos, he wouldn’t have been the poet he is, one who interrogates American identity, one who sees “Carlos” as part of the national fabric. And I think Williams was quite aware that this made him different, which Ezra Pound confirms when he says in a letter to him: “And America. What the hell do you a bloomin foreigner know about the place.” Although Pound acknowledges in the same letter that Williams, born in New Jersey, is an “Amerkun (same as me),” he also adds, “You thank your bloomin gawd you’ve got enough Spanish blood to muddy up your mind.”

I mean, on the one hand Pound seems to admire Williams’s work for its opacity, which he says is “not an American quality.” But there’s no getting away from the fact that he reinforces this native/foreign paradigm (alive today!) in American poetry, and Williams is most certainly, to him, not quite American enough. Pound, on the other hand, is a real American because he has had the “virus … of the land” in his blood for nearly “three bleating centuries.” Another real American, according to Pound? Harriet Monroe, who had “the swirl of the prairie wind in her underwear.” The native, as you see, are also the gatekeepers.

In short, Williams does influence me, but I’m aware that my understanding of identity, as well as Paterson (the city, as well as the book), is also tuned by growing up working class, and by having been a girl and now a woman. In Williams’s book the perspective is decidedly male and is certainly privileged and not from the city proper — someone who could walk freely, look around, accrete, ask questions, reconstruct. This “confession” makes me nervous, but I think it’s appropriate here: I was sexually assaulted near the Paterson Falls when I was in my early twenties; I’m aware of the dangers, like most women, of walking around freely, then and now. Even in my own poems.

Sometimes when I read the Cress (Marcia Nardi) letters, I think, oh, that could have been me (“I know myself to be more the woman than the poet,” or “But it’s never so simple as that to get on one’s feet even in the most ordinary practical ways for anyone on my side of the railway tracks — which isn’t your side.”) You know, I always want to identify with the authority of the book’s speaker, with Dr. Williams, but the truth is that perhaps I feel closer to the characters/people Williams puts to use, especially the female ones, even Madame Curie.

This comes up for me often in other ways. For example, the role of the bohemian woman artist in Mad Men (season 1) appeals to me, I want to be her, but I know that I would have more likely been in the secretarial pool. So, in some ways, my book gives voice to the secretarial pool, while the woman constructing the book is the artist; she really runs the show. Therein lies one of the book’s tensions: who can assemble and who is assembled — the gap and similarities between them. That is why so much of the book is informed by avant-garde art practices (land art, performance art, aleatoric practices, etc.): the speakers or characters referenced are imagined as works of art or as works in progress, as artists who work outside of the institutions of art. (As a side note, I recently learned that Williams, who as you know was a doctor, delivered Robert Smithson, the artist famously associated with land art! Which just feels perfect to me.) 

Wilkinson: And speaking of place, having met you in El Paso where you now live, what’s changed in your work since moving to the border of Texas and Mexico?

Alcalá: El Paso made the book possible for it created distance in some ways from my own perceived working class identity and from my place of origin.

I envision El Paso coming in more concretely, too in a future project, particularly its textile history. It was one of the primary finishers of jeans in the US prior to NAFTA. So, many of those stonewashed jeans you wore (yes, you) came from here. I just want to find a way to situate myself more fully in the place where I live and I seem to always do it through textile, which, as one person told me recently, is in my blood.

In the last few years here, the level of violence in Juárez, a city in Mexico that can be seen from El Paso, has risen to staggering heights. When I arrived here, there were women, many of them maquiladora workers, being raped and killed, and now the violence has spread throughout the city’s population, mostly related to drug wars. And I’m trying to get my mind around that and what my relationship to it is, how to talk about it in a way that’s meaningful and not exploitative or reductive. Meanwhile, I teach Benjamin Saenz’s The Book of What Remains, which I think takes on this issue, among others, in a complex, yet direct way.

Wilkinson: Obviously, violence and sexual violence must permeate your work — and life — in direct and indirect ways. What are your strategies? What have you learned about how you process violence? How does it shape your work?

Alcalá: That’s a good question. I know that others have detected anger in my work, but violence? I don’t know. Do you see violence in Undocumentaries? I am writing some things now that look at how we are connected to violence that doesn’t affect us directly. I think that violence (in all its forms — towards others in other countries, towards the oceans, etc.), our complicity in it, is very difficult to write about when it hasn’t happened to us, partly because the lyric is often seen (and taught) as a vehicle for first-hand experience. Extending (or reimagining) the “I,” without seeming predatory, romantic, or exploitative is hard (but necessary).

Wilkinson: I think many of the poems in Undocumentaries have a way of articulating a self (or selves) through a violence implicit in other matter of fact activities. As in the lines “Remembering is a trucking / yourself in” or “A dirty song, an ethnic dance. / A disappearance.” It’s not always violence as such, but an implication of it throughout, or a sort of permeation of it through the fabric of the book’s terrain. It doesn’t take long for a poem beginning with a description of John Cage “playing a chance operation” to leap to “My mother, the girl, is bleeding from the procedure.” I think that’s what I mean. A kind of subflooring of violence permeating the poem’s shifts and turns. Does this make sense or resonate for you? Is this conscious in your writing?

Alcalá: A “subflooring of violence”! Yes, that makes perfect sense to me. A subflooring so buried beneath layers of linoleum and tile (writing) that I was hardly aware of it. That isn’t quite true; I’m aware of the violence that is part of the fabric of these lives I’ve represented in the book. After all, the book begins with the bodies of workers scattered beneath lawns. But in my own thinking, when you asked me the question, this violence had become so part of the landscape, this rumbling beneath our feet, that it seemed separate from other acts of violence we were referring to. And, yet, it isn’t.

Wilkinson: I want to ask about the officiality of many of the poem’s titles versus the intimate landscape the poems actually draw from. Titles like “Party Line,” “Economic Crisis,” “National Affair,” “What It Means to Be Civilized,” and “Governance” all hearken to a kind of whitewashed, official idiom. And this seems to allow you a lot of contextual material to pivot from — since these are often very personal, introspective poems artfully belying their very titles. What draws you to titles like these? Do they come before or after you’ve written the poems? How do they work for you?

Alcalá: The titles come mostly after I’ve written the poems. I’ve been reading Spivak’s “The Politics of Translation,” and thinking of her clever — and complex — assertion that “Language is not everything. It is only a vital clue to where the self loses its boundaries.” For me — and for others, of course — the self is defined by boundaries; we are labeled in terms of nationality, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, etc. But those boundaries are “frayed,” to use Spivak’s term, in our rhetorical use of the language. For me, poetry is meant to show the fray between the self and larger structures that aim to contain or name or stabilize the self. But also I’m not necessarily interested in telling my “story” but in using the autobiographical as a way to explore these boundaries. That moving out — and that fraying between the language of the “true events” and the rhetorical moves of the poem — disrupt any inherent veracity, but the act of translation that I see as the poem respects that original “story” in a way that mere retelling could not. Spivak urges “intimacy” with the original, a surrender to it, and I think trying to understand what these experiences or lives connected to my own are saying — and not saying — and how they have been shaped by certain things (including my own maneuvers) — is more important than literality.

Wilkinson: I’d love to hear more about the avant-garde practices that most inform the work as well. You mention land and performance art, aleatoric practices — are these approaches in line with the kinds of artistic and working class tensions you cite?

Alcalá: I think that the poems map a kind of ambivalence regarding avant-garde art — any art perhaps, even poetry. On the one hand, there’s this feeling that art and poetry allow us to understand our world and to be in it more fully. That the poems I write are necessary as part of a larger ethical engagement with the world. There’s also a bit of this feeling that maybe poetry and art are inconsequential, especially when they don’t relate to “real lives” — that it’s all about being clever, ironic, “making it new” or “experimental,” writing for each other. My work struggles with these two polarities, and you can see that in the poems. I try not to shy away from it. I vacillate between glib and downright sincere. I want to just say “it” — whatever “it” is — and then I realize I don’t, because that feels false, too.

The other way I think of the book is as a kind of land art or assemblage/performance/installation of memory, which attempts to map out and draw attention to experience or a place in a way that acknowledges my own intervention. The book isn’t about something that “happened” but something that is constructed out of things that are remembered, imagined, invented, found, present. So the artistic or literary references are partially how I make this construction apparent. I am saying, there is a hand at work here. In “Land Art in the Silk City,” there’s a boy who keeps looking for a way to draw attention to both himself, as well as the place in which he lives — he wants to restore it to its original stature, to expose its beauty. He keeps sending away for guides that will allow him to develop special powers, to bring himself and the place that defines him into evidence. I feel the work of this book as connected to that boy’s desires. For me, those special powers can be found in language and art.

Parsing arias

A dialogue through 'abu ghraib arias'

Note: This email correspondence/dialogue elicited by the abu ghraib arias between Iraq War veteran and poet Micah Cavaleri and poet and peace activist Philip Metres took place between June and September 2011. The conversation ranges from poetic analysis of particular poems of the arias to asking larger questions regarding ethics in wartime, in light of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of 2004. Throughout the dialogue, they engage the theological, political, and aesthetic questions embedded in this book and in the wider poetic practices that employ documentary texts and the voices of others.

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Apologies for getting to you a day late. A new baby, a reading, and the chance to teach a philosophy course at Michigan Tech this fall overwhelmed me all at once. Many good things coming at me these days. Which is a good thing as well as a segue into your arias. The religious fragments of your book transform an account of torture into a sort of theodicy, sort of like the Book of Job … an attempt to … not find the good, I suppose, which was how I intended the segue to work, but to confront or transform evil. Although evil may be too big and airy a notion. Disgusting, maybe, is the word. An attempt to confront the disgusting. 

In “The Blues of Charles Graner” there is the explicit acknowledgment of the disagreement between Graner’s Christian values and what he values in his role as a corrections officer: “can’t / help but love / make a grown man / piss himself.” (As an aria, I imagine these words worked over and over, climbing up octaves and then falling down as deep as the human voice can go … which makes me wonder how the idea of an aria is operating in this book.) The arias don’t leave me with a mere conflict of values, however.

The “(echo / ex/)” sections combine ancient religious/moral texts with accounts of torture at Abu Ghraib, which, initially, draws attention to the conflict Graner noted, by the difference on the page between the style of the notes on torture, sometimes faded, sometimes an ordinary black type, while the ancient texts are set in darker lettering or italicized. Strangely, though, the ancient texts intermingle with the Abu Ghraib accounts to produce beautiful, musical pieces, where I am drawn away from the conflict of values and wonder at what is being said about notions of holiness and scripture. For instance, the character of G functions as both Graner the torturer and God the creator and torturer:

G came and laughed

                                                            lo, in her mouth 

                        it will break again

arms behind

                                                broken because I can’t

sever pain

Again, there is this perfect instance of the melding of the role of torturer and creator/life-giver:

In the beginning                                      I was there for 67 days of

████████████                        torture I saw myself on the face

of the deep                   And the darkness he called Night

                                                  And Graner released

my hand from the door and he cuffed my hand in the back. 

The con-fusion of torturer and creator challenges the place of religion as anything like a moral guide at the same time it places religious values next to roles Americans (claim to) value, in this case the role of a soldier at war, undermining the claim to be able to hold both … what … religious values and patriotic/American values? What is most interesting to me, though, at least right now, is the way that your weaving together of what we consider such radically different texts leads to a reading that finds holiness in an act of torture. In the second quote, for example, “67 days of/ torture” resolves itself with the victim falling into some sort of mystical vision where he says “I saw myself on the face / of the deep And the darkness he called Night / And Graner released / my hand from the door.”

I am going to leave my comments here for the moment, as I want to give you a chance to respond. This book is a wonderful challenge for me, so I look forward to digging into it more deeply with you.



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Dear Micah,

First, congratulations on your new life, both your child’s and yours. It’s strange to think that it was right “in the wake” (as we are wont to say) of September 11, 2001, that my first child was conceived, and so there has been the twinning of my life as a father and the years of the War on Terror. And even stranger to realize a decade later that we’re still very much still “in the wake,” “in the dream” or “in the nightmare.” I think of John Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy,” where “in the very temple of Delight / Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine.” Or Wallace Stevens: “Death is the mother of beauty.”

But you capture something exactly when you call the “arias” a theodicy, my poetic witness to and struggle with the question of — for lack of a better term — evil, and whether one might believe in a God that would allow such suffering. As I’ve written in the afterword, the “arias” emerged from long meditation on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which I decided that I could not write my way into or out of those photographs of abuse taken by the military police at Abu Ghraib. Only when I stumbled on transcripts of the testimony given by the Iraqi prisoners themselves did I discover a way to slip inside that prison. I think of Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “through me many long dumb voices, / Voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, / Voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs.”

And yes, the Charles Graner poem highlights the contradictions at the heart of each of us who professes to be Christian and yet finds ourselves acting against the primal love of Jesus. Nowhere is the contradiction of Christian life as extreme as in war — yet ironically, many American soldiers profess to being deeply religious, even devout. (As I’m writing from Northern Ireland, I should just note that Gerry Adams, one of the leaders of Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army, went to mass every Sunday, even as he was planning bombings and assassinations.) Reading the transcripts of Iraqis abused at Abu Ghraib, one feels as if we are reading a perverse version of Genesis, in which God is a decreator. Graner, perhaps, as Obscene Father (to quote Slavoj Žižek).

You’ve put your finger on what is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of writing this poem, and perhaps writing any poetry that confronts disaster, that witnesses to violence; are we making such violence beautiful, and therefore somehow missing its profoundly traumatic core? Are we aestheticizing other people’s pain? I hope not, but it’s not for me to say. I recall my annoyance at a dear friend, a poet and a Marine, who is wont to quote Dostoyevsky’s line “beauty will save the world.” Conversations about beauty make me a little uncomfortable, because I’m not sure what anyone means by beauty. Robert Hass’s poem “Winged and Acid Dark” has become for me a guide for how one can write affirmatively and humbly about the difficulty of navigating the horror and beauty that exists simultaneously, always, often in the same spaces and times:


A sentence with “dappled shadow” in it.
Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

The other man, the officer, who brought onions
and wine and sacks of flour,
the major with the swollen knee,
wanted intelligent conversation afterward.
Having no choice, she provided that, too.

Potsdamer Platz, May 1945.

When the first one was through he pried her mouth open.
Bashō told Rensetsu to avoid sensational materials.
If the horror of the world were the truth of the world,
he said, there would be no one to say it
and no one to say it to.
I think he recommended describing the slightly frenzied
swarming of insects near a waterfall.

Pried her mouth open and spit in it.
We pass these things on,
probably, because we are what we can imagine. 

Something not sayable in the morning silence.
The mind hungering after likenesses. “Tender sky,” etc.,
curves the swallows trace in air.

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.

I’m writing to you from Belfast, Northern Ireland and have been leading a group of students and faculty in a course on peacebuilding. For a number of the people that we have met, the moment of metanoia, or conversion, was when they recognized in the pain of the other their own pain, when they saw how they were suffering together. Bill Shaw, a Protestant who grew up in the Unionist enclave of Sandy Row, said “I was 17 before I met a Catholic.” It wasn’t until Bill met “Sean,” a Catholic, at their workplace, that he began to see that Catholics were human beings, that the two of them just wanted to have a pint together and meet girls. Yet every night, after their pint, they each took the bus back to their separate neighborhoods. How long it took for them to be able to reach outside of their enclaves, their boxes, and forge a friendship that would overcome those barriers, both internal and external.

The work of grassroots peacebuilding is fundamentally about relationship, and that the situation of war as we know it constantly ossifies our roles and identities as “national beings.” You know better than I how being a soldier narrows the possibilities of human being, human relation, despite the amazing opportunities that one may have with working with fellow soldiers and local people. I’d be curious to hear how you respond to this poem as a soldier, in particular, if that is not too difficult!


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It is interesting that you bring in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”. In some way, it is the ability of Whitman’s “Song” to embrace everything that gives it a claim to the status of scripture in my mind. (My mother always recited bits of the Song when I was a kid, the most important part for me being, of course: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / {I am large, I contain multitudes.}” I took that as permission to be everything.) The embrace of contradictions is at work in abu ghraib arias as well … in a way that brings to light contradictions that are maybe talked about but, usually, talked over at the same time. For instance, in the “(echo /ex/)” sections, which I absolutely love, we read:

of my clothes, even my underwear. They gave me women’s

underwear, that was rose color with flowers in it and they put the

bag over my face. One of them whispered in my ear “today I am

going to fuck you,” thy name shall be and he said this in Arabic.

Whoever was with me experienced the same thing … cuffed my

hands with irons behind my back to the metal of the window, to

the point that my feet were on the ground and I was hanging there

for about five hours just because I asked about the time, because I

wanted to pray … took all  my clothes and took the underwear and

he put it over my head. After he released me I don’t know if they

When I am reading, I distill this section down to read: They gave me / my / ear // thy name shall be / hanging there / over my head.” Which is two acts: an act of torture and a magical act of naming/claiming (or, possibly, an act of creation or blessing) all at once. It is biblical. And the grayed out text is a sort of whisper, the reality of now that is … well, the instantiation of the perverse scripture … which really may not be perverse at all, when compared to scripture. But, yes, I agree, there is a danger of fetishizing horror by taking it into the holy. (The danger of justifying the horror or calling it mere nature … the danger of anything that gives some sort of moral permission or necessity to the torturer.)

The arias tap into a perversion at the heart of holiness, though, which I think is what just a minute ago I was suggesting is acknowledged but talked over. You mentioned, for example, the idea of Graner as a sort of Obscene Father and the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a sort of perverse version of Genesis, an astoundingly visionary insight, by the way! You see Genesis in those transcripts because Genesis is there in those transcripts, I think. I mean, there is the section quoted earlier where an Iraqi sees himself “on the face / of the deep               And the darkness he called Night” after enduring sixty-seven days of torture, a clear reflection of the world before creation, as if the Iraqi is forced out of himself into a mystical state where he sees as God saw. These mirror images return again and again. There is Noah’s flood: “G        pouring / water / screaming  ‘my heart’ / And the waters shall          flood / all flesh.” And Creation, of course, though a sick creation, a nightmarish, disfigurement: “on the third day                         G         came / made me           no clothing / wires on my fingers                         penis.” And so many other echoes, not just of Genesis but the Gospel story of re-creation/redemption.

Strangely, the perversion of scripture is in some way natural to scripture, so that is one of the ways I see the arias questioning holiness, goodness. The perversion is highlighted and interrogated openly. At first, I read these poems as a conflict between two sets of values, Christianity and the American soldier, but then I asked myself, what conflict? Isn’t this an updated scripture? I mean, how twisted are the stories of both the Old and New Testaments, right? The sacrifice of Isaac, a commandment to wipe out the Canaanites, psalms celebrating the murder of infants, and on and on. Familiar stuff, but it is, I think, at the heart of the notion of holiness. The sublime. I am thinking of Kant here right now, his notion of the sublime, that formless object that threatens to overwhelm us.

Hass’s absolutely astounding poem is definitely relevant here. We celebrate soldiers. In America, we have celebrated the Spartan quality of our special operations soldiers. I know that in the army, General Lee is nearly a god … or at least a saint. And the movie “The Last Samurai” idealizes the samurai as grounded in Buddhism. But what are soldiers in reality and what is war? No one seems to want to really answer those questions. Our answers are usually something like the movie “Black Hawk Down,” a wonderful movie that skips over guys going home and beating their wives or killing themselves. “The Last Samurai” ignores the thuggish nature of the samurai as a mercenary. And General Lee … well, he said it best: “True patriotism sometimes requires of men to act exactly contrary, at one period, to that which it does at another.” Or, more gently, war and soldiering is:

Something not sayable
spurting from the morning silence,
secret as a thrush.

War is disgusting. The people involved in it are often disgusting. (You see I avoid the word evil.) War and politics (and scripture/holiness) transform everything unrecognizably. I mean, we want to justify our wars, call them moral, but I am not sure how morality applies. War is a sublime, formless object.

One final thought was how your Soviet poems have a different aesthetic than these Abu Ghraib poems. The arias are more immediate, felt and horrifying, and the Soviet poems of yours that I have read are moving but also meditative. I am not sure if that is due to how I came to the poems or if that is part of the poems themselves. I do find a subtle and overwhelming meditative/reflective quality in the Abu Ghraib poems, as they reach so deeply into religion, but it is something the Abu Ghraib poems make me work for.


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Dear Micah,

Speaking of contradictions, I knew the poem was emerging when the arias found their “other half” — that is, the words of the Standard Operating Procedure and of US soldiers. Before that, I’d focused entirely on the language of the prisoners, which was the big gap in the mainstream narrative of Abu Ghraib; yet I wanted to pull back a little, as in that photograph from the Abu Ghraib scandal where Ivan Frederick is visible either clipping his fingernails or looking at a camera, in the foreground of the picture where the infamous picture of the hooded detainee is standing on a box with wires attached to his hands and feet. When that conversation could be seen — between official procedural discourse, soldier testimony, and detainee testimony — something larger emerged; it felt less like a poem of witness and more like a document of the war, writ large.

When I think of perversion at the heart of holiness, I return to Job. In this rather unusual text, God essentially makes a wager with Satan that Job will maintain his faith despite whatever suffering may befall him. So Satan takes away Job’s family, wealth, friends, and physical health, stripping him of all worldly things. Job cries out in protest against his plight to God, and God’s answer is something like, I am mightier than you, mightier than can imagine. Sound familiar? In other words, there is no ethical argument for Job’s suffering. Job does not “deserve” it. It’s one of the most frightening and strange moments in the Bible, right up there with God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice his son, or to the people to commit genocide in the Book of Samuel. This is a very human God, the flipside of Graner.

Which is why being a soldier puts one in the most difficult moral space; one is both Abraham and Isaac, at the same moment; the obedient one who listens to his commanding officer, and the one put in harm’s way. And sometimes, that soldier is also God, in those moments where no God is.

The immediacy of the incommensurable, mediated and yet unmediated, is what I was after in the arias. I wanted the reader to feel very strongly both the ways in which this text was a constructed thing, a borrowed thing, at the same time that it was marked by a human voice, struggling against all “mediations.” My poems about living in Russia were “cooked,” to use Lowell’s distinction, in a kind of distance that took years to develop, but perhaps at times they lost some of the raw wildness, the tangled wilderness, of what it meant to live there at a time of economic implosion and societal crisis.


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Dear Philip,

I did actually pick up on the SOP sections as the flip-side of the (echo /ex/) parts of the arias. The violence of the (echo /ex/) sections definitely stands in opposition to the care demanded by the SOPs … care that is given to a book or a dead body, but not a person. For instance, we read in the SOPs:

thereby reducing the friction over searching

                        will avoid handling or touching

            may or may not require a language

pages in an upright manner (as if reading


like sandalwood                     

the whole body                                   a prayer                                 
                                                                                    folded .

These sections are wonderful in how they show a concern with perfection on the part of the military couched in striking, sometimes musical and sometimes strange language. At the same time, the concern with perfection seems proper to art and ethics, but is instead given to the handling of a book, a mere object, or a dead body, more than likely the body of someone killed by the same forces handling the dead man.

Another way the SOPs seem to operate in the arias is that they give us a glimpse of the conflicting directives given to soldiers. So, in “MUSLIM BURIAL” a body is a prayer arising out of … well, so much … out of the way the body is handled, or maybe the way we handle the body is the sort of prayer we make … or the body is a prayer in its amazing folded geometry, geometry found in its chemistry, its DNA. In the same poem, the same Standard Operating Procedure that directs a soldier to handle a body as a prayer, I find a cold diagram of how to prepare a burial trench … not at all prayer-like. The diagram is concerned with perfection, but perfection of action. A coldly formal perfection, maybe, that confuses the ethical description of “the whole body [as] a prayer” with the outward acts of prayer.

“Handling the Koran” also questions the conflicting rules soldiers must work under. It is almost as if the poem is organized in conflicts. The first line, “avoid handling or touching” challenges the last lines, “handle     as if it were fragile / delicate art”. This repeats throughout the poem, so we get “to open the one cover with one hand” impossibly set against using “two hands at all times”, and the lines “in an upright manner (as / if reading” are immediately followed by the order to ignore the text of the Koran: “if reading / not every page is to be.”

Finally, there is the strange way the Koran is treated both with reverence and as an object of ridicule or danger. So we read, again from “Handling the Koran,” that soldiers are to “avoid handling or touching / a language specific.” And earlier on, in “Searching the Koran,” which implies the Koran is either being interrogated or is a source of intelligence regarding the enemy, we learn that “handling or touching / may or may not require a language / to / open” and that “the book is / contours or protrusions / binding / the binding.” That is, the Koran is not a piece of culture to be appreciated and understood. It is a mere object made of leather and paper and ink. We can ignore reaching beyond our own view of the world, via Arabic and the Koran, and remain safely in our own language, English. So, again, while the SOPs demand perfect care, they also deny the value of what is handled.

In all of these contradictions, I continually wonder, what ethic? What ethic guides our actions in war? Is there such a thing? I mean, if we go back to the notion of the sublime as a formless object that threatens to overwhelm us, then, in some way, war and its perversions are not perverse on their own level. And that is why I thought I was too close to justifying disgusting acts by bringing up the sublime earlier. But I do question what it means to talk about ethics at the level of war … as I think the arias do, in how they confront the difficulty of making sense of the perversion of holiness (that is to say, the difficulty of making sense of the notion of holiness as perverse and perverting the notion of holiness).

And maybe that is where your idea of witness or an account of war comes in. That is, the account is all that can be given. But then, where is the value of protest or opposition? (Maybe the value isn’t in the protest at all. Where is it, though? Or is that the wrong question to ask when discussing the poetry of witness and the poetry of protest.)


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Dear Micah,

I find myself rediscovering the poems through your readings of them; it’s as if I were some sort of mole snuffling through the dirt of the words, and suddenly you open up a light into the tunnel, and I’m blind and I can see all at once.

That the poems have become a way to ask the questions — about ethics in war — seems to me the gift of a thoughtful and ethical reader, since too many of our conversations about poetry tend to reduce poetry to a series of language games or political gestures. When I was in Belfast with the peacebuilding class, a suddenly heated conversation blew up after our visit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the renamed police force (formerly the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had a history of being Unionists who committed crimes against Catholics in the North). One student, an ardent supporter of Irish independence and fan of Michael Collins, argued that during the independence movement, it was “acceptable” to order the killing of police. Another student, the wife of a police officer, was appalled, and called him out on it. One of the faculty entered into the fray, and argued that “it is never acceptable to kill anyone.” The situation devolved from there, most of it relating to the intensity of a day in which we spent thinking through what peace might look like from inside a Crimestopper armored police vehicle. I think basically my colleague was right, though his phrasing sounded as absolutist as the student sounded relativist. How can we not be disturbed by the killing of another human being? Can we ever say that it is “acceptable”? We may cede to its necessity, perhaps, but to call it “acceptable” feels like a sudden plunge into rationalization. We could talk about Just War Theory — and we have, for centuries — but we need new paradigms, such as Just Peacemaking, which aims to manage conflict before it comes to killing, and to adjudicate killing within the modes of restorative rather than retributive justice. It’s all easy for me to say, however, from the safe distance of civilian life. Basically, we as citizens have failed our soldiers, when we have failed to brake imperial power, when we rationalize wars of convenience rather than wars of necessity.

Which leads to your question about whether poetry is the right medium to protest, to resist, and whether the witnessing function is in some sense more apt for poetry. I spent an entire book — Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront — exploring these questions, articulating a series of arguments for poetry as a mode of resistance, and a mode of resistance which is most fruitful when in dialogue with the peace movement and when it contains in itself a vision beyond resistance. I hesitate to boil it all down to a couple sentences, but that is a start. The question of efficacy is a torment, because we know of the seemingly-inexorable powers of imperial war — but ours, at the bare minimum, is to refuse to justify the unjustifiable. As Herodotus wrote in his History, I write to “prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion,” striving not only to chronicle what has happened, but also articulate the contours and fleeting images of a more just, peaceful, sustainable world. Naomi Shihab Nye articulated this vision of belatedness and hope well in her poem “Jerusalem”: “it’s late but everything comes next.”


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Apologies for taking so long to write back. Family visited and everything was pushed to the side and then I was playing catch up on every project, which means everything was neglected.

So I have been thinking about my original reactions to the poems in arias and your last note, especially your discussion of the heated debate between the student who saw it as “acceptable” to order the killing of police officers and the professor who declared killing is never acceptable. In some ways this same debate is present in me and in the arias. In “The Blues of Javal Davis,” you write: “stay open about drawing an opinion ████ / ████████ from / the comforts of your living.” And I often sympathize with Davis’s sentiment … I mean, things we do in war are very different from what we would find acceptable in day-to-day life. And we can’t have war without those usually unacceptable acts, regardless of what people seem to believe regarding just war. (Or, at least, that is my take. We can’t expect people to act like gentlemen when they are focused on dismembering each other.) Normally unacceptable acts are acceptable in times of war, assuming war is ever justified. QED. At the same time, when I was reading the arias for the first time, I was taken in by the mixing of the victims’ statements with the ancient, religious language, but stumbled when I came across the blues sections. I think I read through “The Blues of Lane McCotter” as I would any other poem, taking in the multiple layers of meaning or ways of reading, thinking about how interesting it is that terms are blacked out but easily inferred from the context, reflecting on the ridiculousness of that sort of redaction. But when I read the Javal Davis poem, I thought about how stupid his character is …even though he is a real person. I was offended by him and his lame attempt at self-justification through the statement that others simply don’t understand, as if that provides a justification rather than just shutting people off. I was offended by his argument that “CNN says we’re dumb / poor kids from Garbagecan USA / it didn’t turn out to be that way,” which, to me, indicated a complete lack of self-awareness, as Davis and the other soldiers at Abu Ghraib pretty much proved CNN correct. But I was also offended, at first, 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.

The thing is, I see most soldiers in the way I objected to initially. I remember soldiers telling stories about their tours in Iraq, how one sergeant I worked with recalled looking out over a crowd of civilians during some protest and wishing he could pull the trigger of his .50 cal machine gun just so he could kill someone, or how another sergeant bragged about sabotaging a civilian’s truck out in the middle of the desert just because the truck matched the description of an insurgent’s vehicle. The soldier with the .50 cal even admitted he would have pulled the trigger if his partner would have done so first, which called to mind “The Blues of Lynddie England” and her completely unbelievable denial of any sort of responsibility, as if she had been hypnotized.

No one really talks about the beautiful little girl who was always outside Cedar (a base in Iraq) when we pulled in from our missions early in the morning. The mindset is all about killing and proving yourself. But that is what war is. If I tell guys I thought the desert was beautiful or that really all I wanted to do was practice my Arabic (which didn’t happen much at all), they always look at me as if I lost something.

That is “The Blues of Joe Darby,” I guess. Or the corollary to Joe Darby’s blues. The military is rigged against anyone trying to live out the ideal of the gentleman soldier. Joe Darby was outed and his life put at risk by the same Secretary of Defense who is supposed to enforce the regulations that Darby was attempting to adhere to. That is the way military life and ethics are structured. If your friend shoots into a crowd, you are expected to do so … or at least, you are expected not to say anything. At best, you kick his ass later on for being a hothead. (I often thought about what I would do if my guys stepped over the line. I think it would have been easier to kill them than to turn them in. Luckily it never got that far, although some guys did get too twitchy for my own moral comfort when civilians got too close.) But if someone turns against the unit!

Actually, I was talking to an army doctor about these problems not all that long ago, saying that I hated working with these kinds of people, that I was tired of their view of the world. The response was similar to what you write in “The Blues of Ken Davis”: “they say talk to a chaplain / they say it’s all your perception / it’s how you perceive.” But I did not have any sort of glamorous notion of America’s Army when I joined … I just wanted to “live the dream” as we say. War was neither good nor bad to me … it just was. What I objected to wasn’t due to a great shift in my moral perceptions, as the doctor suggested in an attempt to explain away my disgust with the people I worked with. My objection was to the contradiction between the quality of the people in the military as well as those in charge of it and the (probably impossible) ideal of the gentleman soldier who goes out to fight a war, regardless of its causes, in a way that demonstrates courage and a concern for honest humanity and a fascination with all aspects of life.

So my initial reading of the arias was a mixture of fascination at the uses of found texts and the melding of different sorts of language with a confused set of reactions that both recognized the depravity of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib and their all-too-common view of “the enemy” as well as a knee-jerk desire to somehow complicate soldiers and defend them. With everything I have said, though, I do think there may be a way of deepening our view of soldiers. I just don’t think it is going to be done by pretending they are morally outstanding people. They are just people. Maybe the way to complicate them is to see how ordinary people behave in times of war. Ideals just don’t have a place?

I just now noticed that I haven’t said anything about poetry as witnessing …which is something I think I definitely want to tackle, but in another email.


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I imagine that this last message had been working its way out of you for a little while, and I’m glad for it. It’s funny, because at the same time that it enraged you for its moral relativism and excuse-making, “The Blues of Javal Davis” worked aesthetically and ethically for me as a kind of admonishment, to slow down my judgment, to remind myself that I should be careful that my personal distance from the atrocity of Abu Ghraib didn’t become a shield from the morally complex position in which soldiers found themselves, and the range of responses to that moral complexity.

There was, in addition to Darby — the kind of classic voice of conscience — a man named Joyner (the “J” of the poem), who would give a blanket to prisoners who had been stripped or beaten the night before. Joyner didn’t blow the whistle as Darby had, but he did act humanely toward these prisoners. But could he have gone further? Maybe. But he knew, as Darby invariably knew, that crossing the line of silence would expel him forever from the brotherhood, the brotherhood and all its conditional love.

So there are Darbys and Joyners and Davises and Graners, and each ultimately has to live with what they did. Some have had to serve time in prison. And of course, as we all know, there are the unnamed operatives who are culpable for acts not only of torture but also of murder who have borne no punishment, because they have acted with the blessing of the state. And of course, this problem is not new to the Iraq War; Achilles’s rage at Agamemnon’s abuse of power is what opens The Iliad.

Maybe you will be the writer to continue to complicate our vision of what soldiering is like, in ways that we civilians can only imagine!

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I will definitely add more to the conversation in the next week. I am off to Minnesota for a week, so I will once again be moving slowly but I will have time in the evenings to write. Just to be sure, the response as a soldier was honest but does not reflect any sort of unfriendliness to you or your work. I just wanted to be clear about that as email and not actually having met each other in person can make these sorts of exchanges strange.


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No offense taken, truly and earnestly. If war, and the conditions of war, do not enrage, perplex and cause us grief, then it is not war. And if the poetry of war does not enrage, perplex, and cause us grief, it is not truthful!


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So I want to shift gears slightly for a bit, though I am sure we will someday have to come back to the gut-based reactions to the arias. I want to look for a bit at the arias as a purely aesthetic work … if that is possible. You discussed the notion of witness and finding the Abu Ghraib transcripts as a way to “slip inside the prison.” But the poems are not just an act of reporting, given the haunting but beautiful text and linguistically layered form. Since the texts are documents that are there as a witness on their own … why poetry? Is there something to the act of making use of a text, juxtaposing it with other texts, cutting the text strategically that does something more? Are there aesthetic or theoretical motivations for the choice of texts you worked with that can be separated from the moral/ethical concerns of the arias?


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I came to this textual strategy as a result of my years of researching war and war resistance poetry (in Behind the Lines). My increasing interest in the employment of documentary materials in poetry (see my article, “From Reznikoff to Public Enemy” at the Poetry Foundation website) came partly from the exhaustion of the lyric — or its misemployment by civilian poets distant from the scene of battle.

I’m thinking in particular of Denise Levertov’s struggle to find an adequate position from which to write about the Vietnam War, and the concomitant resistance to it. In Behind the Lines, she becomes a figure of the Romantic excesses of the New Left’s relationship to the Vietnamese struggle. In short, while she was a fine poet, and wrote some important antiwar poems, she also wrote a number of poems that were bad in all the ways that antiwar poems can be bad — self-righteous, dichotomous (“us” / “them”), blood-lusting, unbelievable, naively idealizing, etc. But one poem she wrote during the Persian Gulf War, “News Report,” always stuck with me, for its cut-up of a news story about the mass burial of living Iraqi soldiers holed up in a trench. I saw in poems like that, and of course in Reznikoff and Rukeyser, an acknowledgment of the distance and mediatization that marks most peoples’ experience of war, while still acting as a kind of witness.

One of my arguments about documentary poetry is from Muriel Rukeyser’s notion of a poetry that “extends the document,” — that gives the factual another life. I would not know about the Gauley Bridge mining disaster without Rukeyser’s great “Book of the Dead,” nor would I have been introduced so aesthetically, so empathetically to Steve Biko were it not for Peter Gabriel, or Bloody Sunday without U2, or the Mothers of the Disappeared without Sting (yes, sadly, ironically, Sting contributed to my political awareness!). Perhaps I’m mixing pop and politics, documentary and songs too fluidly here, since documentary poetry is often considered part of the Objectivist tradition, in which one allows for the language to speak for itself, almost in a machine-line way, and popular music is such an affect-laden mode. Yet what each can do is that they direct our attention to other voices not always given the stage in our grand narratives.

Perhaps the most notable difference in the arias from typical documentary poetry (if there is such a thing) is in the attention to affect. All documentary poetry engages in revision, juxtaposition and collage. But the arias are pretty busy, with cut voices (the tortured), more fully-syntaxed voices (the soldiers, mostly), operational legalese (the Standard Operating Procedure Manual), Biblical quotes (almost entirely from Genesis). I kept moving from minimalism (typical of documentary verse) to maximalism (where noise was turned up to eleven). My hope is that the mixing and mashing work to cumulative effect, and not too much to the loss of those Iraqis voices, already contorted, translated, and subject to loss. The ethical concern remains part of the equation, attempting to leap the abyss between appropriating (the modernist “great artists steal” mantra) and representing/signifying/crying out (the postmodernist desire to open the voice to polyvocality).

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So while we are having this conversation I am also working my way through your book Behind the Lines. It is quite informative to hear you discuss your theoretical background together with Behind the Lines as a resource. The arias are so layered, it is a very satisfying experience … although I have to confess that I struggle to keep up with the conversation. 

Levertov, as you mentioned, is viewed as an example of the failed use of lyrical poetry as a mode of resistance in Behind the Lines. I take it, though, that you view her as evolving and learning from her earlier mistakes, attempting to rebuild her poetry in light of the “dictum that the best war poems in a television age foreground the very mediatization of the imagery of war.” The fragmentation in your work is also an attempt to take that same dictum seriously, I think, maybe learning from Levertov and pushing forward to give “the factual another life.” I mean, as noted before, the documents you are drawing from are there in the public domain for anyone to read. But you are certainly giving new life to them by reworking them and highlighting deeper possibilities of meaning vis-à-vis our beliefs regarding the place of religion, ethics and individuals in the face of war (and don’t let me forget to add the life you give to the documents by uncovering their interesting lyrical possibilities). To say it another way, those documents taken separately tell us about ancient Middle Eastern religion and law, legal and practical principles guiding US military intelligence, or the testimony of a “single” horrific event, Abu Ghraib. But separated in that way for the purposes of presentation and digestion, which they are not in reality, the full challenge of Abu Ghraib goes unrealized … the result of a “few bad apples,” maybe even the effect of bad policy, but never a reflection of an entire corrupted culture. Whether that corrupted culture is limited in its scope to that of the military and the war or is national (the United States) or worldwide in reach is unclear. But the critique is there.

I think the use of language and collage throughout the arias is also interesting in that the cutting up and rewriting/remixing of texts allows that, as the arias say themselves, “the meaning of some words / further clarify / names.” At the same time, the arias “don’t translate proverbs word for word/don’t translate poems word for word” as they work “to translate letters, not / analyze them” by a method that “clearly and legibly   skips lines / as close as possible / to the original.” (An absolutely brilliant formula, by the way.)

So maybe I am off here, but part of the challenge of the arias as I read them is how we treat linguistic and cultural artifacts (and I mean this in an aesthetic rather than ethical sense). The method of the arias is to take words as building blocks, bits of syntax rather than semantic units … and the meaning arises after the bits are brought together as a whole. The prohibition not to translate word for word and the demand to skip lines are taken from one of the SOP sections of the arias, so it reflects a practical, military-oriented vision of meaning and language as a set of tools to communicate actionable intelligence, which may be hidden within poems and proverbs, while the culture in its literary and linguistic forms is unimportant, irrelevant. That same set of rules at work in the SOP is also at work in the construction of the arias, but to a different effect, and that is the challenge. Where the SOP’s intent is “to translate letters, not / analyze them,” the arias wish to uncover meanings through working to “further clarify / names.” But the arias must first approach pieces of language as building blocks rather than bits which are meaningful on their own and untranslatable from one context to another. Which is, maybe, one of the fascinating aspects of language that poetry has worked to uncover … language is at once completely void of fixed meaning and able to be reworked almost as we see fit as well as forcing itself and its meanings on us as we see in the many-layered, polyphonic arias.

I hope that is intelligible … at least a little. I am off to Austin for a week, but I hope to hear from you soon.


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Your reading of the arias is precisely what I hoped for. And your distinction — that the Standard Operating Procedure is centrally concerned with “actionable” intelligence, rather than something else — is the knife that separates the kind of thinking required of military intelligence and the intelligences outside of its ken. I’m reminded that my father, while teaching counterinsurgency after his active service in the Vietnam War (1967–1968), focused on the writings and theories of Ho Chi Minh; it was critical, the US counterinsurgency theory went, to know the enemy … in order to win the war. Not to know the enemy to know the enemy, but to anticipate the enemy’s future moves.

I’m struck, to move obliquely from the point, that in the warrior tradition, there often was a great deal of respect for the “worthy” enemy, who demonstrated courage and nobility, because defeating such an enemy would make the victory more honorable (and even defeat, perhaps, less dishonorable).

With modern war, technowar, bureaucratic drone war, insurgency/counterinsurgency, it would appear that the enemy is reduced to body counts (or worse, not even worthy of counting). Similarly, the term “actionable” in this context means something that one might use for defeating the enemy. What is the opposite of “actionable”? The useless? The beautiful?

Actually, the original title of the arias was “   u   r  arias.” On this version’s title page, the “u” and “r” are printed in the “bold” font, the rest is in “ghost” grayscale font; for me, the poem has always been a mirror, in which we see ourselves. The way we look, and how we read, and what we do, reflects back upon us, whether we like it or not. We always hope our reading and our action moves us outside of ourselves, but does it? Also, I hoped to echo the idea of an “ur text” — all of the documents to which the poem points — which itself points back to the original Ur, one of the earliest cities of human civilization. As long as we have had writing, we’ve had laments about war, beginning with the Sumerian priestess Enheduanna’s “Lament to the Spirit of War.” Perhaps Thomas Merton was right: “that which is oldest is most young and most new. There is nothing so ancient and so dead as human novelty … It is the very beginning itself, which speaks to us.”