Marwa Helal

Review: Sand Opera by Philip Metres

Sand Opera by Philip Metres Alice James Books, 2015

“When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.” —Audre Lorde

Timely and Timeless

In Sand Opera, poet Philip Metres places us behind the mirrored glass of the interrogation room to observe his deft dissection of the Standard Operating Procedure used by the U.S. Department of Defense during Desert Storm, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the torture in Guantanamo and other aspects of American war. Sand Opera was released shortly after the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program was released, proving its subject matter not only timeless, but timely. The first section of the work, “abu ghraib arias” was published in 2011 as a chapbook and received the Arab American National Book Award.

The work, divided into five sections, like an opera, opens with the arias, is followed by recitatives, hung lyres and a final section titled “homefront/removes” which is dedicated to the victims of the terror war, especially Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, who was held and tortured in secret U.S. prisons. Throughout the book, Metres incorporates Bashmilah’s prison drawings and testimony. The arias are composed both of blues poems written from the point of view of American military personnel and from the point of view of Iraqi detainees.

In a recent Los Angeles Review of Books interview with poet Fady Joudah, Metres expands on this: “Sand Opera employs the tropes of opera in its structure and themes. The book’s sections, as in classic opera, reference both ‘arias’ and ‘recitatives,’ the two dominant modes of opera, roughly corresponding to lyric and narrative/dramatic modes in poetry.” Each poem delicately draws us into the inner emotional lives of both the faces under the infamous hoods at Abu Ghraib and their tormentors. In the following excerpts, we go inside the minds of the young American torturers as they admit their guilt and also try to rationalize what they did to the Iraqi detainees. Metres takes us into the minds of the disturbingly familiar young officers:

The Blues of Charles Graner the Christian in me knows it’s wrong but the corrections officer in me can’t help but love making a grown man piss himself

The Blues of Lynddie England [G] played me I guess I was blind by love maybe it was [ ] for documentation maybe it was for his own amusement

The Blues of Ken Davis and I remember calling home that night and saying I can’t take this anymore if this is what we’re going to do if this is what we’ve become then I’m done

Forming Story from Omission

This is a work of erasure, from which the title comes: Standard Operating Procedure becomes Sand Opera. Here Metres tells us how to read this work, how it transforms military verbiage into art, and into meaningfulness.

Redaction becomes natural vernacular for writer and reader alike, as its placement in the text intentionally becomes a reminder of the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, of the crimes that remain unknown. A reminder of the work we must all do to heal from the collective trauma to the Arab body. The redaction also serves to give these texts new meaning, as the best erasure work tends to do.

An entire poem formed solely out of punctuation becomes a deft crescendo or constellation. It arrives on time, just as we need relief from the tension in the preceding poems. Here Metres shows us just how far a poet can stretch the art of erasure (or omission) into something astoundingly beautiful.

Even as the redaction speaks, so do the breaks between poems. Readers might find themselves experiencing sharp intakes of breath and gritted teeth as they brace themselves for the experience of the next piece of the interrogation. The real questioning happening is that of the soul reading this work. Metres as interrogator seems to be asking us repeatedly, how did we let these atrocities occur? And how do we make sure they never occur again?

In the final notes of this work, Metres explains that the collection was borne out of the feeling of being Other in America. Here, it is his hand that seems to reach from behind the pages as it shapes a narrative of inner-conflict, a delicate dance between wanting to be seen while simultaneously wincing at the pain of bringing these atrocities to light. The text sheds light on both this feeling of alienation as well inclusion, the spectacle, culpability, and vulnerability of all parties involved.

Quantum Theory of Suffering

In a recent Guernica/PEN piece, the poet Natalie Diaz posits that poems are hypotheses in the quantum theory of suffering. Metres work seems to be directly in conversation with Diaz’s “theory of suffering,” in which suffering does not exist until it has been written down. The collection becoming one large hypothesis in said theory, from which the reader can draw their own conclusions. Here Metres bears witness to the neglect that is present in war, the breaking of bodies, and how a country can be at war with another country whose name it can’t even pronounce correctly:

The Iraqi Curator’s PowerPoint Next slide: more damage by looters. If the eyes Are gems, they will be made into holes. If the skin is gold, goodbye. Now this is a sight: The bodies too heavy, so they took the heads Of these terracotta lions. A slide is missing

hung lyres When the bombs fell, she could barely raise her pendulous head, wept shrapnel

this is the air we scull air of ancestors & ashpits just five, the child’s baptized into this unhappiness: she corrects the voices she hears butcher the name of the country she’s never seen—it’s “ear-rock,” not “eye-rack.”

What Metres does so well is delve into the darkness of torture and comes out shining a light on the very raw human emotions of all of its subjects: tormented and tormentor. This is a work of extraordinary emotional endurance. The poet dives into piles of text and emerges having both transformed the text, himself, and us, the readers. Ultimately, this is a translation of the voice of the Other. Metres has extracted the various speakers’ innermost thoughts, complete with discrepancies and dissonance, delivering to us what is essentially a universal language of emotion.

But it would be unfair to label this work as one that is merely about war and its terrors. It is also about the ripple effect. It is about a poet raising a family in a country that continually maims and erases the people of his ancestral land(s). How Metres managed to wade through so much difficult content and come out with something so transformative is certainly miraculous.

Cell/(ph)one (A simultaneity in four voices)

  1. [Guantanamo] Please pass this on to my wife. Tell her it’s time for her to move on. I will never leave Guantanamo. She must understand I’m not abandoning her. That I love her. But she must move on with her life. She is getting older. But I will never leave Guantanamo. That I love her. But she must move on with her life. (repeat)

Listen to a rendition of the poem here

This is a necessary read, and a brave contribution to Arab-American literature, in that it explores our collective psyche as it is in the U.S., rather than the nostalgic tropes of looking ‘back home’ which constitute the majority of our canon. Metres’ work is as American as it is Arab. His transformation of these texts is also a reconciliation, a reconciliation of identity, politics, and what it means to be a citizen of the United States.

Suggested further reading: Fady Joudah interviews Philip Metres: At the Border of Our Tongue, Los Angeles Review of Books

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