The poetry, Nick Flynn’s “Seven Testimonies” embodies the issues that I have with the Iraq and Afghanistan narratives. The redacted poems cut out whole chunks, often the chunks that would most incriminate American soldiers. When I was reading the poems alone, I didn’t know what to make of them and tried to find some bit of the essence of what these testimonies actually contained. I thought that the poems should be trying to condense the emotional resonance of the testimonies or somehow delving deeper into them. Perhaps my expectations were wrong. But are my instincts? I had an angry visceral reaction when finally reading the testimonies in full. The poems seem like a misrepresentation of the actual testimonies.
Perhaps in creating nuance in certain poems, there was too much ambiguous joy. In the first poem and the last two, for example. The first poem has a sense of bewilderment that could be characteristic of a prisoner, but the sense of violence is redacted completely. The closest we get to it is the word “pipe,” and in the context it is uncertain what that actually refers to. “my hands always/ laughing” is horribly misleading. The use of line breaks could be different than I’m interpreting, though, indicating a shift away from the narrative “I” but that’s not how the poem appears. We lose the devastation of the initial beatings of the family–are we supposed to assume that with only the words, “I woke up, I asked why–/my children, my// wife, my leg”? “Cold/water at night” is the closest I felt to staying to the emotional reality of the testimony.
What is redacted from Corpse Washer? How does Corpse Washer fill in those redacted moments? The redacted moments of the Iraqi war “question”?
One moment I think of immediately is learning (for me as an American reader who isn’t especially well versed in this war or any war before 1965) that “Bush called on Iraqis to ‘take matters into their own hands’” (118). Antoon writes, directly after that sentence, “You know the rest of the story. They changed the tune a few days later and no one in the world helped those who rose up.” That fills in a blank in the narrative that “What’s happening in Iraq is a civil war against Saddam, and the U.S. will now go in to help clean up the mess civilians have made.” It also, in a particular twist, takes something that could be redacted since “we” already know the story. Instead of letting it fall into the void, though, Sayyid al-Fartusi says it all, and it puts a new slant on the story the world already knows, because this version of the story isn’t what everyone already knows. It’s only what the Iraqis know.
That’s why I had such an issue with the poems, I think. It takes experiences that these prisoners had and discards them by filtering them through a lens that I think is a) inappropriate and b) poorly done.
If I try to look at these poems from another direction, what can I see? What if Nick Flynn’s poems are an attempt to get into completely different characters? (I don’t think that’s the case and if it is, I would find that cruel.) Are they here to trick the reader into thinking something more idyllic or positive and then to reveal the true testimony? Are they here to simulate the fragmentation of the mind during war and/or torture? I can see how these poems might take a tortured dreamscape quality, not unlike some of Antoon’s short dream chapters, which are vivid and sometimes confusing. Nonetheless, there is a logic of pain that Antoon’s dream scenes maintain that Flynn’s poems obscure or excise completely. Misdirected, that’s sometimes how I felt.
I was most disgruntled by the romantic readings that are possible in the last two poems. They feature a female and a kiss or desire of some sort. It’s easy to misread the last stanzas in the “farmer” poem as hopeful, and the last poem as erotic or romantic. Reading the testimonies, though, is completely different and we see the sexual violence and violation that these previously intimate, hopeful moments actually are. I can’t help but feel that Flynn had to have a point to that combination, that juxtaposition. I wondered where the testimonies appeared in the book. It seemed to be an appendix or something because of the other references on either side, like they were explanatory details of other poems. Are they things intended to be read only by careful readers, and to languish unread like indices? Or are readers directed to that on the pages of the poems, informed ahead of time that the testimonies redacted are enclosed?
Just some of the thoughts I had. I really liked The Corpse Washer, though.