Nick Flynn’s first collection of poetry in nearly a decade,the captain asks for a show of hands (Graywolf Press, 2011), is a difficult book to talk about. The poems are fragmentary and in the voices of soldiers in Iraq. Unlike most fragmented poems, these are not elliptical poems (which leap from image to statement to metaphor); rather, they are compressions of the fragmentary thoughts of the fragmented minds of their speakers. Take the opening “lines” of prose poem “the baffled king composing hallelujah,” the third poem of the second section:
Jubilee, our war’s almost over (again), we ship out / tomorrow
(again) / back to where it was / we began (again)—photographs
stuck to the fridge, a red plastic / donut underfoot, a bathtub filling
The central device of the captain asks… is collage and pastiche, not unlike some of the poems in his first book, Some Ether, and virtually all of the poems in his second,Blind Huber. The title, as well as the epigraph (“a spokesperson can only / state his surprise that it doesn’t happen more often”), are borrowed from Some Ether, and many of the poems borrow lines from the works of other poets, stage plays, and the pop music (such as Britney Spears and Metallica) used to torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. But the captain asks… isn’t just a book about the “War on Terror”; it’s a book that examines the psychological effects this war has on those fighting it and how those psychological effects have led to many of the heinous and shameful acts committed by American soldiers overseas.
Abu Ghraib figures largely in these poems and many of them are in the voices of soldiers attempting to navigate the Bush Administration’s now famous “Torture Memos”: “capt’n: the memo says we cannot bury / the prisoner, but does that mean we can bury his / son?”, “here comes the tub, here comes the board / here comes the cloth, here comes the bucket…”, “I hate the sounds of their prayers // I swim underwater I empty my lungs / if you think about breathing you can’t.”
The notion of redaction—not only in the editing of the words of others for public consumption but also in the fragmentary, nonsensical nature of redaction itself—is a metaphor (as well as the book’s controlling device) that extends throughout the collection. “The poems, in ['seven testimonies (redacted)'—the first poem of the third section],” Flynn claims in a lengthy end note, “are redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees.” Following this note, the full texts of these testimonies are included, and the inside flaps of the captain asks… look like a declassified CIA document with virtually all of the text of these testimonies blacked out with an ink pen; the text that remains acts as the text for the poem. Unfortunately, the seven sections of this poem are much less interesting than the full-text versions, and the poems in the book that operate like redactions but don’t, in fact, redact any known testimony, are much more interesting as well. Take the opening poem, “haiku (failed),” which begins
The thin thread that hold us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together,
what / do you call it—telephone? horizon? song? Listen / to yourself
sing, We are all god’s children / we are all gods, we walk the earth /
sometimes, two sails inside / until one day, for no reason, it sails—…
While this may not be the easiest poem to read, it’s clear our speaker is seeking some sort of connection between the internal self and the external world. Language, however, with its various forms (the haiku, the prose poem, the sentence) and its various marks of “clarifying” punctuation (the comma, the slash, the question mark), fails to allow the speaker to make this connection. Simple. Beautiful. And oftentimes arresting.
Now look at the seventh and final section of “seven testimonies (redacted)”:
My eyesight is years
I see up yes did this
Yes you this I saw
A sister you see
In he showers you this
In this with yes I
Was naked you this
Yes to me & wanted
While the statement being made here is clear (that the various facts surrounding the war, our reasons for going to war, and the various horrors that took place during war are turned to pure mush by redaction), the poem is turned to pure mush as well. It’s hard to make a good argument for why Flynn feels the need to make this statement at this point in the book in this particular way. It’s certainly nothing new (in the realm of Contemporary Poetry or in the realm of the captain asks… itself). It makes very little sense. And he’s already made this statement rather clearly and in more interesting and engaging fashion in earlier poems.
This approach to writing this book has been questioned by many reviewers as much as it has been lauded. But it’s not as if Flynn has anything to prove when it comes to crafting effective narratives (he’s done that a few times already), and it’s not as if these poems and the book don’t work. Thus, the question to ask of this collection is not Why is it written this way?; rather, it’s Who is actually going to read this?
I, for one, did and rather enjoyed it. This book is different. This book makes a large and needed statement about our government’s actions that, many argue, Contemporary American poets need to make more often. Overall, it’s clear what’s going on from page to page even in the absence of the standard tools of narration. I like the fragmented nature of the poems and how the compression of language creates an inundating effect on the reader that emulates the inundating affect of the war on the poems’ various speakers.
But I’m a poet, and, like most of us who spend inordinate amounts of time writing this stuff, I’m willing to read beyond my comfort zone and give something like this a try. As for the rest of the reading public (no matter how small that may be), I’m not sure this book will have much of an audience. It’s simply asking too much of someone who doesn’t read poetry every day, and it looks (quite frankly) like much of the fragmented fluff Contemporary Poetry and the Academics have been shoving down the throats of the American public for years.
That said, it’s hard to imagine how else Flynn could have written this book. It probably wouldn’t have been the best idea to take on the personae of a soldier and pretend he’d actually fought in Iraq or tortured prisoners in Abu Ghraib. And it’s hard to imagine Flynn venturing to Iraq to drive an ambulance across the Syrian Desert ala W.H. Auden. Flynn’s a poet and a memoirist, not an idealist, historian, or newspaper man. He’s made some good poems here. They deserve to be read.