The poetry of Guantanamo.

Examining culture and the arts.
Aug. 20 2007 7:35 AM

Shall I Compare Thee to an Evil Tyrant?

The poetry of Guantanamo.

(Continued from Page 1)

O Father, this is a prison of injustice.
Its iniquity makes the mountains weep.
I have committed no crime and am guilty of no offense.
Curved claws have I,
But I have been sold like a fattened sheep.

This protestation is among the more interesting ones in the book, because of the double attitude it asks us to hold in mind. The allusion to "curved claws" suggests that the speaker identifies himself with an animal of prey (a hawk, say, or a lion)—a menacing moment in a poem that otherwise underscores the innocence of the speaker, who ultimately asks God to grant him serenity. But a world in which an individual is guilty until proven innocent is one where any scrap of detail can be read into an overarching narrative that it doesn't belong to. Are the "curved claws" of the speaker an allusion to his hatred of America, or merely an allusion to his sense of masculinity? It is impossible to know on the basis of one poem. And so "To My Father" illustrates the problem of looking to these poems as evidence of either good will or ill intent. It is a method of reading Miller cautions the reader against, noting that it only reinscribes the kind of us vs. them thinking the poems themselves begin to complicate.

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Obviously, most of us don't judge a poem by its relative "truth" these days. But in the Guantánamo poems, the issue of authenticity keeps surfacing, partly because many of the poets collected here "admit that they have many concealed emotions," as Miller points out. If certain poems participate in the kind of generalized anti-American invective ("For they are a people without reasonable minds,/ Due to their supply of alcoholic drinks") we've been primed to expect from Muslims by the Bush administration, many others find a vocabulary of their own to express an individualized anger and dismay.

Even so, in crucial ways these poems are distinct from other genres of Western prison literature (and, one presumes, from Muslim prison literature, too). The goals of politically radical African-American prison authors were, for example, more transparent. These poets' goals are less so. And because the poems are lyric fragments, rather than extended memoirs, they do not leave us with a sense that we have a comprehensive handle on the author's point of view. Rather, these poems both humanize their authors and keep them obscure to us. It is unlikely, then, that anyone is going to come away from reading this volume with their minds changed about Guantanamo. But Poems From Guantánamo is not about innocence or guilt, or merely an instrumental artifact in a political debate. Instead, it performs a valuable service in humanizing the individuals incarcerated there, reminding us that even those charged with crimes are people, not faceless automatons—even as it also leaves us with a potent sense of how much we don't know about them.

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.