Sunday, December 12, 2010

Nick Flynn's Seven Testimonies and all the backup stuff

I returned to Israel two days ago to rain and 120 kph winds. It was the first real rain of what is supposed to be Israel’s rainy season. After the wildfires that consumed much of the country’s Carmel Mountains a week ago, the rain is welcome. As the power flickered on and off with the flares of lightning, I opened the November/December issue of American Poetry Review to find a series of poems by a poet and author I much admire, Nick Flynn. The series titled “seven testimonies (redacted)” is, to quote the footnote at the bottom of the page, composed of redacted versions of the testimonies of seven Abu Ghraib detainees as transcribed by the artist Danile Heyman, in Amman and in Istanbul, from 2006 to 2008. Nick Flynn was present for those testimonies gathered in 2007 in Istanbul.

Each of Flynn’s seven poetic testimonies is short ranging from eight to thirteen lines. Each line is also short, two to eight words. The poems are in first person, but a first person that feels drugged, drained, yes, tortured. Flynn creates a nightmarish quality with the use of fragmentation, repetition, illogical combinations. Erratic use of punctuation and capitalization between the individual poems suggests that the seven testimonies are one, that one runs into another, that each punishment was done to one, to all, without relation to the individual suspect, to what he or perhaps she did or might have done, or didn’t do at all. Here is the last of the seven poems of the series in its entirety:

My eyesight in years
I see up yes did this

Yes you this I saw
A sister you see

In the showers you this
In this with yes I

I was naked you this
Yes to me & wanted

Moreover, the “I” in these poems shifts so that at points the tortured and torturer become one and same. The series is the crime of Abu Ghraib rendered lyric.

The entire series fits on less than one APR page, page 8. The rest of page 8 and all of page 9 are taken up by the actual seven testimonies or at least significant samplings from them. The testimonies make for hard reading. But then so do the poems.

Which raises a question—why do we need the actual testimonies? In my mind, it as though Flynn feels his poems aren’t enough to convey the urgency, the terror, the pain of what these men underwent. As though his poems aren’t authentic enough without the backup of the prose.

Flynn goes far to convince the reader of authenticity. The title contains the word “testimony,” implying the source. If he had added “Abu Ghraib," there would have been no doubt. He also adds “redacted,” in parentheses to the title. Redaction is a form of editing in which multiple source texts are combined. Often the author/editor may make minor alteration to the texts (i.e., transform them into a single poetic work) so that they cohere. With all of this, Flynn leaves the reader little doubt that his poems emanate from actual testimony of Abu Ghraib detainees. This is of course reiterated in the footnote I quoted earlier.

All of this to make the point that I don’t think Flynn’s poems require the support of the actual testimonies. In fact, I think the prose testimonies undercut the emotional impact of the poems by their wordiness, their specificity, their almost clinical description. I wish Flynn had left them out.

As an American living in Israel and writing about my experiences in Israel, authenticity is an idea I spend time thinking about. Moreover, as an American poet reading other the work of other American poets, who often, in my mind, have difficulty writing about conflict, about war, even about the state of the world, I find the issue of authenticity a part of the puzzle. I’m going to write more about this, but not today. Right now, there is an authentic storm raging outside my house, a river pours from every gutter drowning the grass, the twelve pine trees that line the perimeter bending back and forth forty five degrees. I’m curious what will be left standing.

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