Compared to the generous amount of contemporary war fiction published in the last few years, volumes of war poetry have been sparse. The fact’s lamentable, because war poetry at this point, it seems to me, possesses superior potential to surprise and intrigue. Philip Metres’ Sand Opera is a case in point. A rumination on our millennial wars, particularly Iraq and especially the brutality of Abu Ghraib, told from a a variety of American and Iraqi perspectives, Sand Opera doesn’t disappoint at any level—line, stanza, individual poem, or as a comprehensive whole. The poetry world agrees, for Metres has just been honored as the inaugural winner of the Hunt Prize, a new poetry award sponsored by Yale University that comes with a $25,000 prize. The striking cover of Sand Opera prepares the reader well for what’s inside: Metres has created a “terrible beauty,” to use Yeats’ phrase, out of the grimmest of grim subject matter.
Abu Ghraib, what a horrible and embarrassing memory. Like the worst mistake we ever made, could we please pretend it never happened, never speak its name again, and pray like hell it never ever reoccurs? That’s not going to happen, nor should it, much as we might desire it, but writing about Abu Ghraib artistically in ways that aren’t crudely didactic and sputtering with obvious outrage would seem equally impossible.
The poetic imagination goes where it goes, though, and thankfully finds ways to solve problems encountered along the way. As the title of Sand Opera implies, Metres draws on the idiom of music to recoup one of the nation’s most cringe-inducing moments ever aesthetically while retaining the sting of indictment. Sub-sections within the work are named “arias,” “lyres,” and “recitatives,” and individual poems “blues,” as in “The Blues of Charles Graner” and “The Blues of Lynddie England.” Collectively the assembled voices and musical motifs function as a libretto of horror and anguish—when read cover-to-cover in one sitting Sand Opera easily renders the impression that it would work impressively as a script for a staged performance blending multiple voices, sound, light, movement, and props.
Metres has more than musical motifs at his disposal, too. About half of Sand Opera’s poems are lyrics—expressions of thought emanating from the perspective of discrete poetic personas and employing traditional line and stanza forms. But others are full of postmodern linguistic and typographic trickery. One poem, for example, of a series with the same title—“(echo / ex/)”—consists of nothing but punctuation marks. Other poems draw on “Standard Operating Procedures” (get it?), official chunks of text and diagrams drawn from government documents pertaining to Abu Ghraib (and Guantanamo) that Metres rearranges spatially on the page and then edits, if that is the right word, by redacting words and phrases with the use of black bars—a reenactment of militaristic truth-suppression put to the use of art. Poetry lives and dies on its ability to keep the reader snared in the ongoing language word-and-image web it spins word-by-word and line-by-line, and I for one enjoyed Sand Opera’s showy effects. Postmodern textual experiments generally work as highly self-conscious permutations of what might be called “standard language operating procedures”; poets also employ them to complicate conventional notions of distinctive personas and chronological narrative. But that’s too theoretical and not really even true to my sense of what Metres is doing with language in Sand Opera. For me, the flamboyant page-faces function theatrically or, dare I say it, operatically, to infuse the ideas and words floating therein with the magic of performance.
The limitations of my webpage make it hard to reproduce Sand Opera poems here, but examples can be found at the following poetry websites:
To what end does Metres go to such lengths? What does he want us to think about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo? Individual poems are related from the point-of-view of Iraqi prisoners and American guards with empathy, plausibility, and dramatic intensity. The perspectives of Iraqis are represented more cogently and compellingly than in any other contemporary war imaginative work I’ve yet read, while the poem-portraits of Graner, England, and their fellow military policemen manage the difficult feat of holding them accountable without bludgeoning them as sadistically as they tortured their prisoners or turning them into cartoons. Another set of poems report Metres’ own wrestle with the war from his perspective as an Arab-American whose father served in Vietnam. The last poem in Sand Opera, titled “Compline,” suggests that we are living in dark times, God-forsaken in ways that go past religious platitude, and the only thing worse than being God-forsaken will be to suffer God’s wrath if or when God returns. That idea, like Abu Ghraib, is so painful to contemplate that it can’t be done directly or for long, because it is like staring into a black burning sun. The only way to apprehend the horror is through artistic creations that leaven human and existential despair with as much imagination and love as can be mustered.
Los Angeles Review of Books interview with Phil Metres here.
Philip Metres, Sand Opera. Alice James Books, 2015. Cover art: “I am Baghdad II” by Ayad Alkadhi, Leila Heller Gallery, New York.
Thanks to Roy Scranton for recommending Sand Opera to me.