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Extraordinary Renditions: Voicing Opposition to War

Alex Latter

 

Andrea Brady’s recent poem ‘Saw Fit’ and Alan Jenkins’ ‘Descent’ explicitly address the historical context of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq. Both poems voice their opposition to those wars and both poems identify those responsible for that violence. Their textual provenance testifies to this. Although these poems are written within very different poetic traditions, they are also situated within a broader context of social protest against these wars, and there is a sense in which both these poems and the manner of their publication are attempts to work out how poetry might be able to articulate this opposition. Both poems were first published in collections that explicitly announced its relationship to war, collections that appeared alongside anthologies like 100 Poets Against the War, published by Salt, and performances like Adrian Mitchell’s at the anti-war march in February 2003. 'Saw Fit' was first published in a special issue of Quid that gathered together poems written ‘in response to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib’. [1] Jenkins’ poem was a response to a commission by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy, who invited a number of contemporary poets ‘to bear witness, each in their own way, to these matters of war’; the commissioned poems were published in The Guardian. This article will explore the different ways in which these poems articulate their opposition to these wars.

Both poems frame their accounts of war in terms of its disorderliness. Jenkins’ opening lines establish this, cataloguing the miasma of ‘indistinct stuff’ that is the physical detritus of war:

                                                            the bandages that dressed

                                    Deep-tissue wounds acquired in recent wars,

                                    Moment-of-death evacuations (deliquesced),

                                    The slippery insides of bodies cut in two,

                                    Brain matter, bits of muscle and the rest

The explicit foregrounding of waste matter and dismembered bodies insists on a literal incoherence. The ‘matter’ of war Duffy mentions in her introductory note is figured here that has been shattered, an inversion of any natural order and a degradation of any notion  of human value. Vital organs are reduced to offal; ‘slippery insides’ are exposed, rendering the internal external.

 

How can poetry articulate opposition to the invasion and ocupation in Iraq and Afghanistan? [Image is public domain as a work of the US Military]

 

The disruption described in these opening lines is compounded by the poem’s formal disruptions: it begins mid-sentence, and mid-way through an iteration of its terza rima. The poem’s opening and closing ellipsis as well as its structural allusion to an epic Dantean scale suggests that the text at hand is itself a fragment. The allusion to Dante consolidates the expectations of a particular eschatology that is implicit in the poem’s title: it is describing a descent through the circles of hell. Within the context of this descent the poem describes an encounter with three ‘familiar’ figures, whose heads surface in a ‘lake of blood’. Their attempts to speak are repeatedly interrupted as ‘their words came quickly through a wall | Of vile breath and the noises that each made | In struggling to be heard.’ Jenkins figures this struggle in the lines’ fractured prosody, and their repeated use of ellipsis, nonce words and direct editorial interjection that disrupts any possibility of syntactic coherence:

                                                                              “I [burp] now call

                                    On our great nation, and the mighty shade

                                    Of Winston … [awk!] Churchill [blurp] … I mean, look!

                                    “Perhaps you dickheads think” – a fierce tirade

                                    Came now from his confrere – “that this [blurf. Flook!]

                                    War will be some kind  – of fucking – picnic –

                                    Though we could just make out a Don! or DickI

                                    Among his snarls of petulant disdain

                                    And “DON’T MISUNDERESTIMATE ME” (sic.)

Despite these repeated interruptions, we are still able to identify the speakers as Tony Blair and George W. Bush through the repetition of Blair’s verbal tic (‘I mean, look’) and one of Bush’s better known mis-speakings (the ‘Dick’ and ‘Don’ are Cheney and Rumsfeld respectively).

 

Descending through the circles of hell: Alan Jenkins' poem "Descent" structurally alludes to Dante's Inferno [Artwork in the public domain]

 

In ‘Saw Fit’, Brady identifies one particular perpetrator of violence: Pfc. Lynddie England, who was implicated in the prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib. But I would like to argue that there is a different logic at work in Brady’s identification of England to that which is at work in Jenkins’ poem. In ‘Descent’, the identification is resolved despite the local prosodic disruption, in a process that culminates in the Virgilian guide’s final pronouncement:

                              “To satisfy their vanity”, my guide said,

                                    A million, two million forsaken had to die.

                                    Now they must squabble in this place instead,

                                    But no lies they repeat will justify

                                    Their crimes, or earn forgiveness from the dead … ”

The voice of the guide is authoritative, completing the poem’s eschatology as their crimes remain unforgiven and unexpiated. It also initiates a movement away from the disorder of the poem’s opening lines; the resolution of the identities that takes place through the poem culminates in the resolution of that earlier disorder into an eschatological structure that is able to make sense of ‘the matters of war’ in terms of guilt and forgiveness. The authority of the final judgement is one to which, through the process of incremental resolution that takes place through the poem, we are expected to assent.

There is no equivalent resolution in Brady’s poem as there is no equivalent ascription of authority to any one of the voices at work in it. There are a multitude of voices at work in the poem, some of which connote an authority—Alberto Gonzales’ declaration that ‘nine eleven | “renders quaint some of Geneva’s provisions”’ is one such instance, and there are other—but they function less like the voices in Jenkins’ poem, which can be ascribed to identifiable subjects, than a working out of linguistic registers. In an interview with Andrew Duncan, Brady described her poems as:

inhabited by actors, rational or not, whom I would identify as the nodes from which different kinds of force emanate. That force can be rhetorical, political, social, amorous; its emanation can be weak or strong. The poems don’t suggest that these characters can be known in their wholeness; rather, the personal pronouns and names usually stand in for vocational identities (Brady qtd Duncan, n. pag.).

This conception of ‘vocational identity’ distinguishes itself from the more rational sense of identity in Jenkins, in which what is said reveals some aspect of the character by whom it is said. It allows for a greater degree of disruption, for voices to be operated rationally or irrationally, as their speaking is untethered from the ordering principle of a psychologised subjectivity that might be known in its wholeness. The voices in ‘Saw Fit’ work counter to such an understanding, insisting instead on their necessary mediation: England ‘speaks the voice of westerns’, that is, in a style of laconic violence. In ‘Saw Fit’, voices operate as nodes of (often-conflicting) force, from which different kinds of power emanate. The poem’s collage of different voices and linguistic registers resists the ordering principle at work in Jenkins’ poem and achieves no consensus. Even those moments of apparent disorder in ‘Descent’ work on a formal level to reinforce the poem’s structural control. The principle of the poem’s formal logic is made apparent in the interjection of ‘[sic.]’: this editorial control works to restore order to that which it presents as disordered. In so doing, it tacitly establishes an orderliness that sets the poem apart from the moral disorder it describes. We are distanced from the site of harm and tacitly invited to regard it not as something immanently present, but as a distanced spectacle. The damage it identifies—the ‘one, two million forsaken’—is contained within the poem’s formal procedures, so that the reader is protected from the ‘liquid shit’ of the poem’s moral opprobrium.

 

Witness against torture: Andrea Brady's poem "Saw Fit" bears witness to the abuses at Abu Ghraib using the immediacy of lyric [Image by Justin Norman under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]

 

There is no equivalent formal framework in Brady’s poem that allows the reader such distance from the matter of war. This effect is achieved in part by the poem’s conception of identity as something mediated, of war as the spectacle of violence as well as the act of violence: the spectacle is a composite part of that violence. Understanding voice as both something that is itself mediated and also a constituent part of the more general mediation of war, the poem is denied the consolation afforded by the eschatology implicit in Jenkins’ work: it cannot stand outside its own processes to make an unequivocal condemnation of these atrocities. Rather, the poem’s resistance to such a logic of control allows its own articulation to register that damage in a way that the editorialised control of Jenkins’ poem—‘[sic.]’—cannot. The understanding of voice as a node of force describes both the poem’s kinetics and also the structure of power within which such a voicing takes place. This is particularly pertinent in relation to a poem about Abu Ghraib, which relates to the abuses conducted in the interrogation of detainees—namely, in order to force them to speak, to divulge information which might be of use to the occupying army. England’s involvement in the abuse began as it was believed that ‘Our new targets | in this big hot war give more | in the presence of such women’. If voice is irremediably related to force in this sense, the alternative—that is, to be silent—is also complicit in the workings of power. It is ‘the silent partners in our food chain’—those states ‘famous for their facilities’ and record of human rights abuses—to whom the most resistant detainees are ‘flown on private-hire jets’, in a process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. Brady glosses this ‘rendering’ of detainees in the sense of meat production: 

the raw thrown into an auger-grinder

batch-cooked in the chef   skimmed                 sold-off as an enhancer

What is rendered here is not reconstituted: it remains broken down. Rendering also returns self-reflexively to the poem’s own processes: to render is also to ‘represent or reproduce’. The poem’s account of Lynddie England’s action disavows clarification that rendering—in the sense deployed by the military—works to effect, insisting time and again on their mediation: she is ‘the moon- | face of the 72-point matrix | of stress and duress’ who plays ‘cock-tease | to men modelling themselves on the Rock’:

                                                                        her own

                                    performance for her boys with a multitude of different

                                    stressed out by a tiger team                                 Madonna of the spectacle

                                    Shit-boy watches through a pair of her smalls.

Instead of clarification and resolution, the multiple formal and prosodic disruptions at work in ‘Saw Fit’ work insistently counter to the processes by which consensus might be achieved. This disruption is far more radical than those local instances in ‘Descent’ which are subsequently re-ordered by the poem’s subtended logic of control. Jenkins’s poem offers the reader a spectacle of crime and punishment that functions within the scope of its affective devices. In doing so, it establishes a kind of reassurance for its readers that fixes the subject matter within a moral framework that allows readers to view it from a distance, from a safe perspective that exonerates them from any closer inspection of their own relationship to that spectacle. The succession of rapid re-framings at work in ‘Saw Fit’ prevents the possibility of the spectacle being resolved in this way, and denies the reader the consolation of such a perspective. In doing so, ‘Saw Fit’ responds to the matter of war in a way that is perhaps particular to the immediacy of the lyric. It bears witness to the moral aberration of Abu Ghraib in a way that recognises both its distance from the site of harm and also how that harm is mediated into the spectacle of damage, as it simultaneously disavows the affective immediacy of pathos and establishes an immanent encounter with that spectacle as a process. This process remains unresolved and denies its readers the catharsis of moral resolution: the responsibility to bear witness does not finish at the end of the poem’s final line. 

 

CITATION: Alex Latter, "Extraordinary Renditions: Voicing Opposition to War," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 6 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 November 2012, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.6.04.

 

Alex Latter teaches at Birkbeck College, where he has recently completed his PhD. He is currently co-editing a book of essays on Peter Riley for Gylphi’s Contemporary Writers Series.

 

 

Notes:

[1] IRAQuid, 13 [accessed 1 November 2012]: http://www.barquepress.com/quid.php?i=19&s=p.

 

Works Cited:

Brady, Andrea. ‘Saw Fit.’ IRAQuid, 13 (2004/05). Reprinted in Andrea Brady, Embrace (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2005) pp. 54-57.

Duncan, Andrew. "Andrea Brady Interview." The Argotist Online. Web. n. date, n. pag. [accessed 1 November 2012]: http://www.barquepress.com/quid.php?i=19&s=p.

Duffy, Carol Ann. ‘Exit Wounds.’ The Guardian, 25 July 2009 [accessed 1 November 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/25/war-poetry-carol-ann-duffy.

Jenkins, Alan. ‘Descent.’ Published in Carol Ann Duffy, 'Exit Wounds,' The Guardian, 25 July 2009 [accessed 1 November 2012]: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/jul/25/war-poetry-carol-ann-duffy.

 

 

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