“a new shape of knowing”: poetry and the virtual witness

September 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

In the winter of 2003, when I was a graduate student at McGill, I participated in the massive peace marches in the freezing streets of Montreal, and later watched the invasion of Iraq begin, from the initial attacks on “targets of opportunity.” Images from street cams set up in Baghdad were broadcast live that first night. There were the shadows of men running through the streets with rifles; and at dawn, the sound of birds singing, picked up by the camera mics. I sat inside my apartment on rue Outremont, on the Ile de Montreal, but I looked out the balcony windows onto the streets of Baghdad.

From that point on I watched the war obsessively, as it was possible to do, live on television and through constant updates on the internet. This experience was therefore always mediated by a screen, heightened by the US military’s use of embedded journalists. In particular, I remember a report by Walter C. Rodgers, embedded with the US Army, in a live broadcast on CNN as he travelled through the desert with the 7th Cavalry of the 3rd Infantry Division as the invasion began: the jagged, granular look of the tanks fanning out before him, the “wave of steel” travelling towards Baghdad.

Photographs appeared on my computer screen: a woman with a tattoo of shrapnel burns on her face; a dead, swaddled infant, lying on its side on the ground, its eyes stitched closed with wet lashes. The war was so closely scrutinized and documented it was possible to track the path of a single missile that fell on a busy market in the heart of Baghdad, and killed many civilians. Later, the reporter Robert Fisk retrieved pieces of the missile and identified the serial numbers on the fuselage — 30003-704ASB 7492 and MFR 96214 09 — confirming their U.S. origins, which had been officially denied.

Fisk’s reports in the Independent became a lifeline for me — if the North American television channels offered a sanitized version of the war, Fisk tore off the bandages to show the rotting flesh, the smell of it, the injuries and waste that lay beneath.

In Praises and Dispraises: Poetry and Politics, the 20th Century, published posthumously in 1988, Terrence Des Pres explores poetry’s role amid the suffering of the 20th century; he notes in his prologue that human society has always been violent, there has always been suffering. The difference then — he was writing in the mid-80s — was that this violence had become a transmitted spectacle,  known through new media. Through this transmission of suffering a “new shape of knowing invades the mind” (p.xiv):

“The miracles of modern communications — the instant replay of events on TV, the surfeit of images provided by photojournalists, the detailed accounts of inhumanity given by survivors of all kinds, and then too the documentation from organizations like Amnesty International and Americas Watch, every page of it open to those who would know what can be known — all these sources combine with the cold-war order of things to make a uniquely twentieth-century sense of reality, a consciousness that began in the wake of World War Two with the film footage, miles of it, that gave us our first window on ‘the world.’ That shock of recognition, that climate of atrocity, is now our daily fare.” p.xv

Writing in the 1980s, Des Pres couldn’t have anticipated the evolution of the web, itself the military offspring of the US Department of Defence’s Arpanet, and the advent of new social media in the 21st century, which have the capability to limn the finest details of this shape of knowing. With this “technological expansion of consciousness”, we can know in the most graphic and precise detail — if we wish to look — of the suffering of others, of the injuries and damages inflicted on other flesh by a US drone, or by depleted uranium missiles used in the invasion of Iraq. How easily we can now look into the bodies of others.

Des Pres then speaks of the traditional role of the poet, which has been at times to show the stamina of language, to face such suffering and to provide “language to live by”; language “sufficient to hard times.” This has for me the ring of Seamus Heaney to it — Des Pres uses two lines from Heaney’s “The Haw Lantern” as the book’s epigraph; the haw as a small light to guide us by, modest but sufficient. Des Pres also quotes Kenneth Burke, who observed that “‘poetic forms are symbolic structures designed to equip us for confronting given historical or personal situations'” p.xviii.

These are some of the questions that interest me. How much suffering can a poem admit? What happens to it there? How is it spoken to? Transmuted or transformed? How does this suffering alter or transform the shape of the poem? How is the shape of knowing, the new technological consciousness,  expressed through the poem’s form? At a most practical level, the answers to these questions can only ever be worked out through the writing of a given poem.

I tentatively began to frame some of these questions in a poem I wrote several years ago called ‘”In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s.”‘ I took the title from the headline of a column by Robert Fisk. In this report he described being in his hotel room at night, and of hearing the constant terrifying drone of the B-52s sent in by the Americans to bomb the Iraqi soldiers who had set up positions in the desert, on the outskirts of the city.

I first read this column in Montreal at the height of the invasion, and was touched by the personal detail he included — the book he was reading as he lay in bed listening to the B-52s, the sound of the bombers, the drop in air pressure as they passed over, the way the vibrations travelled through the walls of the building and made even the flowers in a jar on his window sill tremble. He described how terrified he imagined the soldiers must be, many of whom were essentially untrained civilians.

I was also disturbed by the disparity between Fisk’s eye-witness experience of the invasion in a hotel room in a city on the Tigris, bounded by desert, and my own virtual experience of the war in the safety of a sheltered room in snow-bound Montreal. The form for the poem—which I wrote many years later in Vancouver— took two parts, although I think this was a spontaneous, not a consciously made, decision: first, the description of a man in a hotel room in Baghdad, hearing the drone of the B-52s all night, and tracking this noise out into the night where the soldiers are hiding in the dark; and second, my perception of the war mediated through the television screen.

‘In the long hours of darkness, Baghdad shakes to the constant low rumble of B-52s’ *

In a hotel room by the Tigris a man writes.
A jar with a clutch of flowers trembles
on the windowsill as the air pressure drops,
while out in the desert
soldiers hide in furrows of night.
A pale red stain seeps through—
its penumbra blooms
and is extinguished.
The man writes about the war
about the smell of burnt flesh
along the road north of Nasiriyah,
about this dark sound.
The air pressure drops again. A tremor
runs through the water in the jar
the thin stalks, the petals’ flesh.

Membrane of ice on the windows of this room in Montreal.
I cup my hands, peer into the television’s blue cave, and see
pale slivers of tracer fire in the desert
missiles scattered like black seeds
a pale red stain on the horizon that pours back into the dark.
Through a live street cam, somewhere in Baghdad,
the shadows of men. I can hear them—
they call to one another in their language,
and at dawn, the birds sing.

*My thanks to Prairie Fire, where this poem was first published, 33.2 Summer 2012.

Beyond the two-part division of the poem, the lines are relatively free, organized by phrase and syntax and internal rhyme. I realize now, as I read it again, that each part ends with the observation of a detail from the natural world mediated by technology: the vibration from the B-52s travelling through the flower’s stalk and petal flesh, and, as heard through the street-cam in Baghdad, the birds singing at dawn.

All of the details I record in the poem are true — both the details described by Fisk in the first section, and what I saw and heard through the street cams in Baghdad on the first night of the invasion, as they were broadcast live on television by all of the major networks. This was the night of the “targets of opportunity,” when the Americans said they had received information on the location of Saddam Hussein and attempted to assassinate him in the first strike of the war. The newscasters soon found they had little to report on, so would cut away to the live street cams to “listen in.”

And so, at one point in the dark silence of my room, I listened as men rushed past with rifles, shouting to one another as they ran; I listened as the birds began to sing; it was dawn in Baghdad.

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