By Eric Howerton
The title of Philip Metres’ newest collection, Sand Opera, derives from a strategic redaction of the military term “standard operating procedure” (“s
tand ard opera ting procedure”). The use of a title built from redaction—a practice most often employed by governments when “releasing” sensitive documents to the public—sets the stage for a dramatic battery of poems about the Second Iraq War, a skirmish enshrouded in and tainted by misguided and misleading origins, murderous Blackwater mercenaries, secret prisons, and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” aka torture.
Many of the speakers in Metres’ collection are victims of torture, and in this way we are often confronted with the imposed ugliness of torture on individual personalites. After continued episodes of torture, the inner spaces of the collection’s speakers frequently become fragmented and less operational on a human level. For tortured speakers, logic, time and language unravel in ways that communicate a sense of disappearing order, meaning, and sense of self.
The fourth poem in the “Hung Lyre” series illustrates how the disorientation of being a victim of tortured can be symbolically illustrated through the tools and methods of the torture itself. We see this below in Metres’ collagist couplets, as the Thanatos-driven lyrics of the song “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor” (performed by Drowning Pool, a Texas metal act who supports the use of their music in enhanced interrogation) are confusingly spliced with the theme song from the popular children’s show Barney and Friends. (Loud music as a form of sleep deprivation was one of many enhanced interrogation techniques used during the Iraq War, and some government officials have argued that this was not traditional torture and therefore not a prohibited practice because it did not induce physical pain.)
In the cell of else / in the pitch-white
someone’s hands shackled between ankles
in the nights & sunny days keeping the clouds
shaking the rib cage & no way
to keep the music from entering & breaking
the bodies hit / Let the bodies hit the /Barney
is a dinosaur / this is the touching without being
touched / this is the being without
silence / from our imagination / in wave upon
wave / in a shipping container & I love you
in a box of shock you love me / in a cemented
dream / we’re a happy family /
with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark
Won’t you say you love me too?
The effects of extended torture on the will to live are seen in “tried hanging myself…”, a poem told through the persona of another torture victim—Mohamad Farag Ahmad Bashmila. Bashmila was a Yemeni citizen who, after several years of imprisonment and torture, was released only to later be spoken of as being “wrongfully detained” by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Here, we see him in the midst of his detention, in between bouts of torture.
tried hanging myself
with strings I pulled
out of my blanket
this chain had 24
links in it tried by
swallowing pills I was
this chain had 110
third time I slashed my wrists
the doctor with disfigured
hand who shined a light
my head against the wall
I trying to lose
a diagram of the body
myself by concentrating
on the smallest details
A major thrust in Sand Opera—emphasized by the use of not only redaction, but also caesura and contrasting font shades—is the inability to know or understand the true human cost of torture. This inability stems from the presence of differences in perspective and narration, the muting of the stories of the deceased, and the gaps that still exist between what the people have been told and what those in power know. The provocations of war, capture, and torture have since generated countless stories of harming and harmed, stories that continue to bleed into the fabric of our present reality. These stories emphasize our national and humanist responsibilities for victims of the invasion. Sand Opera leaves no room for the propagandistic narrative of “war as solution.” Instead, Metres shows us that while war physically destroys cities, the people who are peripherally dragged into the war by being erroneously suspected and arrested, by losing family members, or by even being a low-ranking American soldier with little authority, are all equally damaged by the tumultuous violence surrounding them.
In the poem “The Blues of Charles Graner,” Meters adopts the persona of a real Abu Graib prison guard who—along with Lynddie England and others—was dishonorably discharged after the Abu Graib photo scandal of 2003. In taking on the persona of the American soldiers who posed with detainees, Metres allows for those doing the torturing to have a voice and an opportunity to address the complexity of their situation. Through this we see that even those in charge of the situation were profoundly confused as to how their personal principles were to be integrated with their roles as authority figures and cultural imperialists.
the Christian in me
knows it’s wrong
but the corrections
officer in me can’t
help but love
making a grown man
This short poem, in all its graphic bigotry, clearly and succinctly embodies not just a perplexing issue for Charles Graner to reflect on (perhaps as he served a six-year prison sentence for a list of heinous acts that need not be repeated here), but it presents a perplexing issue regarding our national character. The articulation of the question is not particularly complex, but the answer is: How can we be a spiritually responsible people if we are also a people who lust for power and feel wild glee in the misfortune of others?
Presenting us with more civilian preoccupations, the eighth poem in the section title “Hung Lyres” posits the perplexities of war as affecting not only those involved, but also those spectators trying to make sense of what their country is doing abroad.
She asks: is that man crying
or singing? How should I answer?
War takes him in its fingers,
raises his body, a punctured bone
flute, to its lips, and breaths
the living dust
to dust alone—
this is the air we scull
air of ancestors & ashpits
just five, the child’s baptized into this
she corrects the voices
she hears the butcher
the name of the country she’s never
This poem is as much a question of whether the man is crying or singing as it is a question of what America, as a nation, is doing? Are we crying ourselves to war, lamenting that such an enterprise will costs billions of dollars and countless lives? Or are we singing ourselves to war, marching to victory with a smile and squinted eyes that make it that much more difficult to see who we’re marching on and what we’re marching for?
Metres’ collection is at once vibrantly uncomfortable, horrifyingly stimulating, and urgently needed. I say “needed” because even though the official paper trail might say the Iraq War ended in December of 2011, this bureaucratic decree does little to ameliorate or repair the effects of the tragedies that occurred. I say “needed” because even many Americans who lived through this period of American history are still unaware that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the 9-11, or that much of the initial intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction reported by major media outlets turned out to be fabricated. I say “needed” because with an estimated 400,000 to one million dead Iraqi citizens killed in the conflict, the conversation about what happened and why it happened cannot be allowed to fall into silence. We need works like Sand Opera to remind us of the shameful, disfiguring truth—that America tortures—while also trumpeting the reparative truth—that we don’t have to and that we can choose to stop—in the hopes of advancing our understanding of these tragedies to more stable ground.
Alice James Books: Print $16.95, eBook $9.99
Eric Howerton is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, a graduate of the University of Houston’s PhD Program in Creative Writing, and a former fiction editor of Gulf Coast. In addition to teaching and writing, he is Vice President of the Salt Lake City non-profit Writers @ Work, an avid skier, and vocalist for the loud-music project Crisis in Consciousness. His work has appeared in Juked, The Masters Review, Treehouse, Revolver, PANK online, Night Train, and many others.