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Licking Dirty Hands

by David Shook.

Guantanamo Frank Smith (transl. Vanessa Place) Les Figues Press, 2014

Frank Smith (transl. Vanessa Place)
Les Figues Press, 2014

In the tradition of German poet Heimrad Bäcker, who turned quotations from the Holocaust into poetry, French poet Frank Smith has re-appropriated the official Combatant Status Review Tribunal transcripts from Guantanamo Bay, released to The Associated Press by order of a US judge in 2006. Like Bäcker, Smith seeks to emotionalise the de-emotionalised and dehumanising linguistic treatment employed by the captors of the 149 (as of June 2014) prisoners held, against international law, without habeas corpus or trial. It is fitting, then, that the lawyer and conceptual poet Vanessa Place, whose work includes the three-volume Tragedia series re-appropriating reports on the violent sex crimes from Place’s day job as a criminal appellate attorney, translated Guantanamo from the French.

The first volume in the Global Poetic Series from Los Angeles-based Les Figues Press, Guantanamo’s acknowledgements at the book’s end couldn’t be more straightforward: “The author would like to thank President Barack Obama, without whom this book would not be possible.” Its first epigraph, William Carlos Williams’ famous dictum “No ideas but in things”, here takes on a much darker, more urgent meaning than it does in the great machinery of the contemporary MFA in Creative Writing system, where short, imagistic lyrics can choose to ignore the atrocities of the outside world.

Place explains her process in her translator’s note. Rather than reading the original English-language documents – original in that they were released in English before being translated into French by Smith – she has chosen to re-translate his completed French-language poem into English. She writes: “The language lesson of Guantanamo is there is no point of origin, no fidelity to any event that can be counted by calendar or clock, because the text event as such is the only event which counts.” In the book itself, the original translator – the interpreter mediating the Guantanamo tribunal – makes his or her presence known just once, in a request for clarification from the alleged enemy combatant. The interpreter asks, “Excuse me, could I clarify this?” If only.

One recurring issue in the book’s translation is the handling of the French pronoun “on”. Place explains: “Of the series of usual substitutes – you, we, he, she, they, one – none were sufficiently close yet impersonal, particular yet universal, i.e., inclusionary yet exculpatory or vice versa.” Her solution is a clever one: rather than choose a single translation, she employs several different translations throughout the poem’s 29 chapters, sometimes eliding the pronoun altogether to render fluid lists of subjectless actions, as in Chapter Three:

“Asks if the garden was large or kept in a small yard.
Answers the garden only fed the family.
Asks if the house they stayed in was home to just the immediate family or if other people lived there as well.
Answers no, just the family.
States, however, when captured, other people were also found in the house who were not members of the family. Asks if that’s right.
Does not respond to the question.”

Elsewhere “on” is translated “it is said” (Chapter 7), “they” (Chapter 15), and “we” (Chapter 8): “We ask questions, we do not answer questions./…The interrogated answers the question./ We certify the accuracy and truthfulness of the answers to the questions of the interrogator./ We terminate the interrogation.”

Place has done an excellent job of pacing the poem in English, and the repetition of the “we”, “they”, and subjectless sentences, as well as the myth-like chapters beginning with “A man…”, gives the poem a textured lyricism at odds with its subject matter. The question-and-answer format also employed throughout the book serves as a reminder that no matter how lyrical, how sometimes even comical these poems are, they come from the very real lives of men who are living a regime enforcing daily abuse.

The contents of the tribunal interrogations themselves reveal mostly mundane conversations about how the combatants were lured into capture, the seemingly absurd randomness of why these prisoners wound up here, and autobiographical sketches of life in Afghanistan, where one enemy combatant explains that “[vegetables] don’t really grow”, while another claims to have grown “[green] peppers, tomatoes, green beans and sweet potatoes”.

The interrogators most often seem to be grasping at straws – the same enemy combatant who explained his migration from Afghanistan because of agricultural hardships is told that his watch, a commonplace digital Casio, is potential evidence of his connection to Al Qaeda, which has employed such devices to produce improvised explosive devices. Throughout the book, an unnamed “they” are held responsible for the prisoners’ detention, while the interrogators opt for the good cop routine, vaguely referring to invisible higher-ups: “We’re trying to understand why you’re being kept here… They don’t keep someone for over two years for simply growing vegetables.” Unfortunately for the prisoners who have now been at Guantanamo for more than 10 years, that hasn’t proven to be true.

Chapter 13 is especially difficult to read:

“The man says he had nothing to say
and wants to proclaim his innocence.
The man had no business here.
I have no business here, he says…
The man says he has young children…
The man says again,
you’re good people, you respect human rights…
The Americans beat me so badly I’m afraid I no longer function sexually.
To the point that I don’t know if I’m still able to make love to my wife.
Since then, I’m really very sick,
I can’t control my urination
and sometimes use toilet paper
so as not to soil my pants,
he says again.”

Guantanamo is a powerful reminder that language is an instrument of power, equally capable of humanising and dehumanising others. Guantanamo itself, with its strange, off-the-books location on the island of Cuba and its strict policy of secrecy, reminds us of the impunity of the powerful. In one of his early poems, José Saramago wrote that “we are used to licking the hands of the powerful”. Frank Smith’s Guantanamo, in Vanessa Place’s superb translation, is a sickening reminder of just how dirty those hands are.

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