Poetry and torture.
Ariel Dorfman provides one of many examples of poetic engagement with horror. With the support of Amnesty International, Dorfman published a collection of poetry entitled Missing in 1981, much of which appears in his recent bilingual collection, In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land. These poems, sent to soothe the pain of those suffering in Chile under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, were Dorfman's first effort to bear witness to the agony of torture. They are worth rereading today. In this excerpt from the poem "Hope," Dorfman describes a world where a father and a mother find hope in their soils pain.
My son has been missing since May 8 of last year. We heard from a companero who just got out that five months later they were torturing him in Villa Grimaldi, Someone tell me frankly what times are these what kind of world what country? What I am asking is how can it be that a father's joy a mother's joy is knowing that they that they are still torturing their son?
Torture destroys more than bones and dignity. It destroys language. Writing about these poems in 1985, John Berger, himself a poet, suggested that Dorfman's words were able to capture the complex problem of how to write about torture. According to Berger, torture is so heinous because it destroys the possibility of mutual comprehension; it replaces communication with oppression. "Torture smashes language: its purpose is to tear language from the voice and words from the truth." Page DuBois adds that in Greek democracy, slaves were thought to speak the truth only as a result of torture. Following this legacy in contemporary times, torture so often is used to elicit a "true" confession, as if torture could lead to the truth. Still, isn't language produced by violence merely language that justifies violence? The evidence is that torture creates a false language, a language wrested brutally from the body, a language that the poetry of torture is uniquely able to confront. Acknowledging its mediating function, its unbridgeable distance from the experience of the victim, and its inherent imperfections, the poetry of torture recognizes the impossibility of describing torture at the same time that it registers the need to bear witness.
Torture requires a breakdown in the way that pronouns traditionally mark variation among members of the same group. It depends on a vast space between us and them, between you and me. It requires that these words signify a difference that is insurmountable, where what I do to you will not be later done to me because we dues not exist. The only we is one without you. Poetry shows us, in ways that can never happen in an editorial, a news report, or a court proceeding, the way that torture depends on the conflation of linguistic violence with physical violence. Poetry helps those who cannot make such separations in pronouns feel that they are not alone. Villa Grimaldi is Abu Ghraib. Abu Ghraib is Villa Grimaldi. Here the subjects change signifier, but they mean the same thing.
In Argentina during and after the Dirty Wars, many communities lost words that could no longer be spoken without reexperiencing physical pain. They could no longer say capucha (hood) or parrilla (barbecue). Marguerite Feitlowitz has called this use and nonuse of language a "lexicon of terror." In The Little School, the Dirty War survivor Alicia Partnoy writes of the ways that she held tightly to words for sa fety while being tortured. In the current atmosphere of torture, we should ask: What words are being lost today? Which will we lose tomorrow? What words were lost to us yesterday? Which words must be saved tomorrow?
Susan Sontag cites U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's refusal to use the word torture, and she calls on others to resist the censorship that attempts to erase pain, suffering, and loss. "Words alter, words add, words subtract," she writes. One thing is clear: the White House exploits the relationship between language and power. Shortly after the photos of torture were publicly circulating, Rumsfeld took a trip to Abu Ghraib. While there he told soldiers, "I am a survivor," in reference to recent calls for his resignation. (1) If Rumsfeld is a survivor, then what are the torture victims? During his trip, a new complex on the Abu Ghraib grounds was christened "Camp Redemption." Who needs redemption? The survivors? The torturers? Who determines what words like redemption and survivor mean? Do people hear redemption and survivor and think of their own salvation, or do they think of the redemption of others? What would it take to think of all of ours? In Optimism Blues, Michael McIrvin confronts this problem:
... How can I erect towers of air to say: children are tortured here in the name of belief, raped before their mother's eyes, forced to watch the murder of their fathers, then slaughtered too ...? How do I offer ceremonies of dust and air to those who survive to return the favor, to rape and torture the small and blameless, to move us one step closer to the dark water where history pours finally into the waves of oblivion? No, I must look away, Grandmother, or at least look with eyes of glass....
This poem was written in response to news reports of the war in Bosnia, yet it resonates now with references to "towers of air" and "eyes of glass." Like Dorfman, McIrvin is committed to a poetry that has weight in the world, that searches for words to speak the unspeakable, that brings the reader closer to the urgent.
Once in exile from Pinochet, Dorfman began to work with human-rights activists across the globe, who courageously risked their lives to publicize the abusive treatment of others. Some of these voices are collected in his play Voices from Beyond the Dark. In recent poems that recount the struggle to preserve language in the face of horror, Dorfman writes:
To preserve one word. What is it to be? Like a question on a quiz show. If you could take one word with you to the future what would it be? Find it. Plunge into the garbage heap. Stick your hands deep into the ooze. Close your fist around the fragment of a mirror fractured by feet that dance on what should have been a wedding night.
Even though this poem was not inspired by the bombing of weddings in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can speak to them now. This poem, like many others, opens that door. It is testimony to the power of poetry in times of horror. Dorfman ends his poem with a reminder that even though poetry helps one to remember, record, and recall, often it is impossible to tell the story of those you don't know: "Let them speak for themselves." But who will listen? Berger suggests that "to break the silence of events, to speak of experience however bitter or lacerating, to put into words, is to discover the hope that these words may be then heard, the events will be judged." How will poetry find the words to express torture? How will we find the courage to listen and remember?
Writing about Vietnam from the perspective of a torturer, Yusef Komunyakaa gives his readers searing images surrounded by powerful words. In "Prisoners," he writes:
Usually at the helipad I see them stumble-dance across the hot asphalt with croaker sacks over their heads moving towards the interrogation huts How can anyone anywhere love these half-broken figures bent under the sky's brightness? When they start talking with ancestors faint as camphor smoke in pagodas, you know you'll have to kill them to get an answer. From half-a-mile away trees huddle together, & the prisoners look like marionettes hooked to strings of light.
The cadence, the lurching of Komunyakaa's verse, combines rough edginess with smooth lyricism and creates an eerie tone that chills the reader and graphically portrays the scene of torture. How do these poems about other conflicts, other wars, and other tragedies seem to be written for the present moment? The poetry of torture, war, and violence has the uncanny ability to excavate particular historical events at the same time that it echoes outward. It evokes a quality in literature that draws the reader to it, speaking directly in the present moment and simultaneously taking one there to the moment of the poet's discovery. Reading the poetry of torture today raises some of literature's most pressing questions. How does a text speak to the universal through the singular? How does literature construct a relationship between self and other? Where does it fail? Where does it succeed?
Across the globe, poetry has appeared as a way to make sense of the atrocities witnessed since 9/11. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times held a contest for Iraqi war poetry, the winners of which were published on June 12, 2004, and he found that the "most moving focused on individual tiles rather than the larger mosaic." Unsurprisingly, poetry in the current moment has itself become a battlefield. Bill Nevins, a high-school teacher in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, helped his students turn to poetry to make sense of the world. When poetry enabled these students to find their critical voices, to express their rage and fear, he was fired and the students were censored. (2) Sam Hamill, organizer of Poets Against the War, has tried to unify and organize poets worldwide to use their craft to address the current political crisis: "The many faces and voices of poetry in the world connect us all to one great family. The uses of our art are countless, but the political remains one of our responsibilities.... I want to know what poetry was in the lives of the prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib, what poetry is in the lives of their torturers. What poetry is in the life of a man who slits the throat of another to make a political advertisement? Are there verses Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Ashcroft know by heart?" Poets Against the War has sparked a flurry of critique and political invective. Conservatives who conflate patriotism with uncritical acceptance ask why poets should be involved in politics and call for their censorship. (3) Or do they want their banishment? Which leads us to ask: How can poetry best support the "state"? In turn, the question hinges on how we define the state, on whether to favor the notion of democracy and free expression or to favor obedience to authority. If poetry makes us think critically, is it necessary or dangerous? in a moment when apolitical relativism has deflated the social role of literature, the poetry of torture confronts the reader. It demands, it begs us to engage with the world.
In its visual graphics, its images seared into minds, this recent phase of torture has taken horror to a new level. What will people think the next time they see an image of a woman giving a thumbs-up gesture or walking a dog? How do we watch children build human pyramids and not cringe? There is now a lexicon and a graphics of terror that far exceeds images from Vietnam. Sontag examines the role that the photographs of torture play in representing the war and addresses the extent to which these images forever change our understanding of the atrocities committed in Iraq. As citizens, we receive information about war increasingly through visual means, whereby the text functions merely as a caption. Should the viewer look or look away? How do we bear witness without participating in this gruesome display? Sontag asserts that "the pictures will not go away. That is the nature of the digital world in which we live.... Will people get used to them? Some Americans are already saying they have seen enough. Not, however, the rest of the world. Endless war: endless stream of photographs."
Finally, how does one convert what is seen into language, into words of protest, sorrow, shame, anger, activism? No easy charge. The answers, however elusive, find inspiration in poetry, in the work of those thousands upon thousands of poets who have grappled with these very same questions and whose work is testimony to the struggle to bring language to experience. Against propaganda that dictates meaning and video that flashes on the screen, poetry asks the reader to collaborate with the text, to merge image, word, and thought. For each reader, there are poets who stir the emotions, whose words prickle the skin, whose verses call upon us to acknowledge the horror of torture and to fight for hope. Now more than ever, we should seek them out.
Pennsylvania State University
(1) Rumsfeld is quoted in Poole and Russell, "I Am a Survivor," n.p.
(2) See Hill, "Hard Lessons from Poetry Class," 5A.
(3) See Pollack, "Just Shut Up," n.p.
Berger, John. "The Hour of Poetry." In The Sense of Sight: Writings by John Berger. Ed. Lloyd Spencer. New York: Vintage, 1985. 243-52.
Dorfman, Ariel. In Case of Fire in a Foreign Land. Tr. Ariel Dorfman & Edith Grossman. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.
--. Manifesto for Another World: Voices from Beyond the Dark. New York: Seven Stories, 2004.
--. Missing. Tr. Edith Grossman. London: Amnesty International British Section, 1981.
DuBois, Page. Torture and Truth. New York: Routledge, 1991.
Feitlowitz, Marguerite. Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Hamill, Sam. "An International Day of Poetry, September 11." In Poets Against the War. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press / Nation Books, 2003.
Hill, Bill. "Hard Lessons from Poetry Class: Speech Is Free Unless It's Critical." Daytona Beach News Journal, May 15, 2004, 5A.
Komunyakaa, Yusef. Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 2001.
Kristof, Nicholas D. "The Art of War." New York Times, June 12, 2004, late ed., A13.
McIrvin, Michael. Optimism Blues: Poems Selected and New. San Diego, Ca.: Cedar Hill, 2003.
Partnoy, Alicia. The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival in Argentina. Pittsburgh, Pa. Cleis, 1986.
Pollack, Neil. "Just Shut Up." The Stranger. Feb. 20-26, 2003. http://www.thestranger.com.
Poole, Oliver, and Alec Russell. "I Am a Survivor, Rumsfeld Tells His Troops." Daily Telegraph (London). May 14, 2004. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news.
Sontag, Susan. "Regarding the Torture of Others: Notes on What Has Been Done--and Why--to Prisoners, by Americans." New York Times Magazine, May 23, 2004, 24-29, 42.
SOPHIA A. MCCLENNEN is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature, Spanish, and Women's Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her interview with Ariel Dorfman immediately precedes this essay.
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|Title Annotation:||WLT Interview|
|Author:||McClennen, Sophia A.|
|Publication:||World Literature Today|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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