Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

The following review was written by Louise Helferty, Split This Rock intern, Summer 2011.

Nick Flynn is the author of two memoirs, The Ticking Is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He is also the author of two previous works of poetry, Blind Huber and Some Ether.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is his first new poetry collection in nearly a decade.

From the offset of his latest collection, it is abundantly clear that Flynn’s time spent in Turkey interviewing former Abu Ghraib detainees, has unsurprisingly had a deep and lasting effect. As was the case in his most recent memoir, The Ticking Is the Bomb (2010), in which he chronicled his post Abu Ghraib work, collecting the testimonies of Iraqi men who were unjustly detained and tortured, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, is predominantly informed by the subject of torture. In around two dozen poems organized into three parts, Flynn considers the plight of soldiers trained never to question authority and the acute betrayal of trust encoded in orders to commit profound and disturbing acts of torment.

The style employed by Flynn in the captain asks for a show of hands, is often rather abstract. Indeed his content is frequently mimicked by his structure as he parallels the confusion inherent in our relationship to war and torment, with that of distortion of syntax and form. This is vividly portrayed in this opening section from his poem “earth”:

last night I wandered, capt’n, the earth
bright and poison, I

staggered, a forced march, yes, then
digging, a grave, made to dig my own

gave someone muttered ‘kiss
my ass’, a body walked into the

earth, I saw my own body, covering itself
with earth, my body becoming


Indeed, “earth” was one of my favorite poems in the collection. With its potent mix of frustration, urgency and naivety, Flynn’s heavy satire and social critique is somewhat underscored by the genuine earnestness of his speaker:

if I understand the memo right, capt’n, we can use
water, but we cannot use earth–that is,
we can simulate drowning, but not
burial–is that right, sir,
capt’n? I’ve read
the memos &; I want to do
what’s right

This almost blur that Flynn creates between torturer and tortured is further exemplified in his "seven testimonies (redacted)," which was for me, without a doubt, the highlight of this collection. The poem is composed of Flynn’s fragmented redact of testimonies given by Abu Ghraib detainees whereby he uses erasure to manipulate the pre existing words and phrases:

broomstick was I was
you are we want-

one better one blanket
for under & one

& fifteen days of food. One man had
a heart, a pill under

As with the above excerpt, Flynn’s technique paints a most disorienting and ominous picture throughout the entire poem. Figures and objects loom, suggestive of violence and suffering, forcing us to use our imagination to puzzle the pieces together. Flynn also, however, includes the original testimonies in the book’s notes section, where we learn, for example, that the above quoted broom is as reprehensible as suspected: “The broomstick was metal. I was hit in the face, back, legs...” For me this is most important as the knowledge garnered from the original transcripts provides a horrifying and potent depth to the poem, making it, and the voices of the detainees impossible to forget.

Flynn has created in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, a powerful and important book of poetry. By engaging with the contemporary world, and its atrocities, Flynn faces up to some of the most difficult and uncomfortable questions and confusions of our time, and his devotion to the consideration and confrontation of dark truths, compels the reader to do the same.

Nick Flynn
The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Graywolf Press

Graywolf Press provided a free review copy of this book to Split This Rock Poetry Festival.

No comments: