The poem as a type of activism
A review of 'War Rug'
Politically charged investigation raises the stakes of poetry for both the poet (as producer) and the poem (as art object). This type of poetry not only invokes the bardic practice of speaking the wisdom of the group, but also uses the poem as a type of activism. When critics question the role of poetry in the real world or what it can accomplish outside of its own existence, activist poetics that enters conversation with contemporary political happenings offers one of the better answers. This activist poetry can reveal knowledge about real happenings through the conceptual relationship between the real and the world of art.
When it comes to the American wars perpetrated in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, several poets have offered works that interrogate the morality of the wars themselves and the agents of war (i.e., American soldiers, civilians, insurgents, etc.), respond to the patriotic climate of the age with counterpatriotic acts of civil disobedience and consciousness raising, and critique the political environment in the United States of the 2000s. These documentary, investigative, and political efforts are not new, calling to mind a lineage of long-form poems and poets that respond to oppression and outrage, including Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” Charles Reznikoff’s Holocaust and Testimony, James Agee and Walker Evans’s collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and Ed Dorn’s Abhorrences, to name just a few.
In the decade just past, the following poets have taken up this lineage of investigation and activism: Brian Kim Stefans organizes a group of poets during the buildup leading to the Iraq War in his blog-based digital poem Circulars; Kent Johnson employs the power of the poetic image to shock and indict those complicit in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in Lyric Poetry After Auschwitz: Eleven Submissions to the War; Kristin Prevallet’s Shadow Evidence Intelligence critiques the simultaneous escalation and failure of intelligence in post-Patriot Act America during the US push for oil-based empire; Juliana Spahr meditates on the global relation of bodies and minds in This Connection of Everyone With Lungs; Gabriel Gudding’s consciousness gets taken over by the wars and political climate as they invade his road-based epic Rhode Island Notebook; Eliot Weinberger uses a collage in the style of hearsay to critique the misinformation used to invade Iraq in “What I Hear About Iraq” from What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles.
And now we can add Francesco Levato’s War Rug to the pantheon of investigative and documentary poetry authored in response to the continuing wars. Levato’s War Rug offers a prime example of what Marjorie Perloff, in her essay “Screening the Page / Paging the Screen: Digital Poetics and the Differential Text,” defines as differential: “texts that exist in different material forms, with no single version being the definitive one.” I locate Levato’s book-length investigative poem sequence as occurring, in full or in part, in five locations, each site with its own distinct temporal and material concerns that affect how the poem is consumed by readers, interactors, or viewers. War Rug is at once a book-length investigative epoem, a work of contingent or relational poetics via the use of purposeful hyperlinks in the eBook’s “Author’s Notebook,” a gateway for continued investigations on the Internet via the works cited, a documentary work of cinépoetry, and an interstitial, conceptual artifact via Levato’s use of the afterimage as a motif to transcend the eBook’s own differential materiality. War Rug, echoing the Afghan art form from which the title is taken, is apt, as the discrete locations of Levato’s work are woven together, presenting a multimodal poetic device that can serve as a litmus test for how these contemporary American wars embed themselves in the public consciousness or slide away into broken links and lost domains.
To begin with, War Rug is a long poem delivered as a PDF ebook. I first experienced it as such, reading through it as I would any other book, although the “About This e-Book” page explains several possible ways of interacting with the book, acting as a means to guide the reader or interactor. As a book of poems, Levato’s long-poem sequence is divided into several recurring forms that reveal interwoven narratives based on an array of source texts, including “journal entries, firsthand accounts, and news reports to poetic constructs collaged from military doctrine, Freedom of Information Act released government documents (like CIA interrogation manuals, and detainee autopsy reports), and numerous other sources” (vii).
The first page of War Rug reveals important tactics Levato uses to create the poem. His poem includes portions that have compelling lyrical sound work that contrast starkly with the horror inherent in the poem’s content and imagery:
Flash a body reduced to beads of glass
fused in sand at the blast point’s edge
the lace of an exposed cheek
over tooth and jaw;
Pause the space between light (1)
The assonant run of “a” sounds in the first two lines (flash-glass-sand-blast) creates a musicality in the poem that urges me forward and belies the awful reality of “a body reduced to beads of glass / fused in sand” after an explosion. The long “e” sounds of “Filigree” and “cheek” and the full rhyme of “white” and “light” also cause this dissonance between the beauty of the language and the gory images I project mentally while reading it. Just as Levato might measure the worth of these lines in light of his own culpability in the war effort, I also began to question whether I ought to take pleasure in reading these lines, forcing myself to be mindful of what they represent and what the ethical wager is for this investigative, activist poem.
In addition to putting me face-to-face with these moral and ethical implications of engagement, the first page also introduces the concept of the afterimage, which is the central conceit in War Rug: “Afterimage / a thickening of scar tissue, the absence / of expression, of an eardrum, / of an iris.” By definition, an afterimage is an optical illusion in which the image or its inverse remains after the eye has literally stopped seeing it, like closing your eyes after looking at a light source and still seeing the light. In creating a poem that is differential, simultaneously textual, hypertextual, and cinematic, Levato encourages interactors to reckon with this idea of the afterimage (also aftermath) as central not only to his textual poem but also to the intertextual boundaries the poem, in all its forms, implies.
This dissonance continues on the second page as Levato sets up a tactic that controls the tone of the poem. He appropriates definitions, a recurring device within the long-form documentary text, to pull back from the awful lyricism of the opening page:
Enucleation: Complete surgical removal of the eyeball.
Evisceration: Surgical removal of the contents of the eyeball
with retention of the sclera or cornea and sclera.
Exenteration: Surgical removal of all the eyeball contents
which may include the removal of the eyelids.
Ocular Prosthesis: A plastic or glass fabricated eye
that replaces volume of the enucleated eye socket. ] (2)
These definitions, culled from another text, have a clinical sound that is different from the poetic sound work noted above. The lyrical portions of Levato’s poem are constantly balanced by found language, which gives the poem a restrained, journalistic tone. This is not to say that Levato’s stance in relation to the material is ambivalent, but that the documentary intertextuality, not the appeal of the poet’s “I,” does the ethical work of the poem by pulling me, as reader, into a zone of conflict or dissonance. This technique allows the poem to create a complexity that echoes the complexity of the war and its active and passive participants, rather than a moralizing rant against the status quo of the war.
On the third page, the poem begins to expand outward, offering interactors two prose segments, each with hyperlinks that lead to the annotated “Author’s Notebook” and then beyond it to the Internet. The first prose segment describes the relationship between a specific photograph and an Afghan war rug, both of which are afterimages, keeping with Levato’s conceit:
It begins with a photograph and a rug; that so much can be woven into
both, one in dyed wool, the other scar tissue against the undisturbed
surface of her hand. She is in white, he a dress uniform, three-quarter
view. The eye facing the camera is glass. (3)
Levato extracts images here in a fragmented-but-purposeful way. Several images are used, including photograph, rug, skin, military wedding, and glass eye, but the connection between the images and any narrative that might bind them together is cryptic, although the glass eye certainly refers back to the “body reduced to beads of glass” from the opening page of the poem. Levato withholds the full story tactically, entreating readers to mentally project their versions of these images and interactors to engage the links.
These links present the first crossroads of War Rug, revealing its differentiality, as I can now choose to navigate away from the long poem or to continue reading. Although the “About This eBook” page has already explained that each numbered link will take me to the “Author’s Notebook” and beyond, no instructions about a definitive reading of the eBook are offered. I chose to read the eBook straight through at first, finding myself comfortable in the mystery of images offered by the first three pages of the book.
During rereadings, however, I found out that in the “Author’s Notebook,” Levato explains that the prose poem quoted above refers to a series of photographs by Nina Berman called “Marine Wedding,” which features a soldier burned and maimed by a suicide bomber. Clicking the link takes me to Nina Berman’s website and a sequence of eighteen photographs featuring Sgt. Ty Ziegel and Renee Kline, his fiancée. Among the opening pages of the eBook, the “Author’s Notebook,” and the hyperlinks leading me to various websites, new meanings are created that complicate the idea of the afterimage (seeing when the eye has stopped seeing/reading) that undergirds Levato’s project.
Moving from poem to annotation to Berman’s website, the poem appears to realize, to become more real, more fixed, via the transition from poetic image to note to photograph. This movement, however, is an illusion, as I am transitioning between different modes of artistic representation, two ways of capturing the seldom-revealed aftermath of a real war, something that, despite Levato and Berman’s efforts, I can only begin to imagine.
The transition from Berman’s photographs back to the poem is ekphrastic. Levato, by not only textually documenting these images but also providing access, invites interactors to become witnesses, to share in authorship by reading it but also by peeling back the exposed edges of his documentary collage, giving the project a wider scope than if it were simply a textual poem.
At the same time, Levato shields interactors by way of the “Author’s Notebook,” which can function as a buffer between poem (images in imagination) and web-based image (fixed images). Levato does link to two graphic websites. One is Salon.com’s archive of photographs from the Abu Ghraib prison tortures of captured Iraqis. Page forty of War Rug alludes to another photograph — a face peeled off and tossed on the sand — that begins a list of horrible images. Levato quotes from a pornographic website called Nowthatsfuckedup.com (now archived on Unseenwar.com): “The bad thing about shooting them, reads one caption, “is that we have to clean it up” (40). In the “Author’s Notebook” Levato warns of “explicit content” after the link to the Nowthatsfuckedup.com archives, which includes extremely graphic photographs taken by soldiers of mutilated or killed Iraqis as well as crass comments. I have a difficult time describing these horrific images, especially juxtaposed with such disrespectful and cavalier captions.
These vivid and horrifying contingencies provide a counterpoint to Levato’s restrained tone in the textual poem created by the use of appropriated clinical and technical writing, which is the inverse of the photographs because of its dry description of how such destruction is enacted. The section titled “Notation” describes military protocol for informing next of kin about soldiers who are killed in action. Levato incorporates a long list of actual death scenarios from the wars on terror, and juxtaposed with technical instruction in how these messages are to be delivered (as well as other military documents about wound ballistics and other horrors written in the technical language of an instruction manual), the blending of registers devastates. (The documents can be accessed via both the “Author’s Notebook” and, if readers are interested in deeper investigation, through the “Works Cited” page.)
War Rug, as eBook and digital poem, juxtaposes pornographically violent images with the manuals explaining how the violence is carefully planned and perpetrated. This method pushes documentary poet and interactor beyond simply bearing witness to testimony about these wars, revealing the thin line between documenting work and voyeurism. Levato’s relentless investigations evoke Freud’s notion of the uncanny from his essay of the same name. In experiencing War Rug, I feel the interplay of heimlich (concealed/private) and unheimlich (unfamiliar and strange/frightening), and I get caught up in observing what is normally taboo or obscene. When I connect to the Unseenwar.com’s archive of Nowthatsfuckedup.com from the “Author’s Notebook” and spend time on the sight, I too become a voyeur, offered a glimpse of the gratuitous and horrible violence of these wars enacted on insurgents, civilians, and GIs alike, thousands of miles from my relatively safe vantage point. This violence, among other images like soldier’s caskets, is typically censored, controlled, kept from view, and silenced, but it lurks in its home on the fringes of the Internet. Through this interlocutor, what is normally censored is now “on/scene,” to use Linda Williams’s term. As War Rug extends further from long poem to digital poem to film, the differential texts beg a larger question about enculturation in the United States. Even though both graphic sexuality and graphic violence are rapidly becoming ubiquitous, mainly because the adult entertainment and war industries generate billions of dollars, why is gratuitous sexuality decried publicly more frequently than gratuitous violence?
Another text woven into the panoply of War Rug, Levato’s film War Rug, interrogates the question of enculturation, among others. Levato appropriates videos from different places, including old military training cartoons, on-board captures from Apache helicopters, 1950s Americana, and children watching a violent (but to their eyes hilarious) puppet show. The film layers image on top of image, using computer software that modifies sampled film clips to create transparency, showing us two images at once. The layered images are accompanied by an abridged version of the textual poem and a musical score by Richard Fammerée. As a mashup, the appropriated videos become recontextualized in such a way that they are put into dialogue by assemblage. Watching the film, I cannot help but recall the conceit of the afterimage, knowing that the glass eyes of two cameras captured videos that are being recombined to create something new and different. And yet, this afterimage also echoes the picture of Sergeant Ziegel, whose glass eye stares at the camera eye, even as the image is repurposed by Levato’s eye in his documentary poem.
Watching the film, I understand the reach of Levato’s work, especially in scenes like the puppet show, where young children in the 1950s (black and white) are watching one puppet beat on another. The children laugh. Violence is acceptable, permitted, humorous, and entertaining. Violence happens over there, away from me. Violence happens to an avatar, an idea, an image. The film gives a fixed image to accompany the enculturation of violence in the United States: the culture of violence is always up and running, to the point where it cannot be discerned whether it’s overt or covert. The film depicts Apache helicopter attack footage and bombs detonating buildings, both of which look like something from the newest Call of Duty video game. In the film and the game, shapes resembling humans are annihilated. It would be easy to say here that both are mimetic depictions of real or realistic events (but not really real). But neurologically speaking, these images are their own kind of reality, a representational layer of trauma.
The connection of eye to eye, of poem image to website image, of discrete film clips recombined into one, reveals how the afterimage extends to create an interconnected root structure in conceptual space. In her essay “New Media Poetics: As We May Think/How to Write,” Adelaide Morris notes, echoing Gertrude Stein, that “we are, each and every one of us, nimble citizens of an always newly technologized mediated world that hasn’t yet entered, much less altered, our categories of thought. The trick, for Stein, is not to be ahead of one’s time — ‘No one is ahead of his time,’ she says (521) — but in one’s time.” Levato’s poem and film are certainly kairotic, as Morris values and Stein prescribes, but Levato’s War Rug presents the possibility of a future for itself as a conceptual afterimage of the current American wars. Eventually, I imagine the hyperlinks in War Rug becoming dead ends that no longer serve the purpose of linking the eBook to the array of images and documents from the web that help it expand outward, enriching it through this contingency. In fact, as I write this, the link to the casualty notification procedure for the US military has changed locations.
New Media Poetics: Contexts, Technotexts and Theories (left) and one of its editors, Adelaide Morris
These dead ends can be an allegory for the conceptual eye of culture. Eventually these images and their locations, both in the poem and on the web, albeit having an illusion of permanence, will fade out of consciousness and memory, relinquishing their gravitas to time. In this way, I can imagine Levato’s War Rug as the ultimate afterimage: the poem as detritus after the eye of culture stops seeing, stops caring. It is this conceptual future — poem as mediated, differential afterimage, existing in different materialities and temporal forms — that makes War Rug an important new media poem with the potential to be both in its time and conceptually ahead of it.