We are approaching the 15th year of the War on Terror. While this is not a shocking revelation to many (a shock in itself), it seems that several generations will come of age in what Mark Nowak refers to as “our age of seemingly permanent war,” rooted, as all wars, in a level of persistent fear which has been modulated by political figures to achieve and sustain a level of paranoia no matter how high or low in intensity. Even the fear that Nowak is right (mournfully, he is) threatens to induce paralysis at a time reflected by a campaign season in which politicians seem to gain in public approval by furthering fear- and hatemongering language which creates the hazardous, binary discourse of “us versus them.” As global violence threatens the cores of human identity, perhaps it is simpler to take shelter in this war of synecdoche. But, as we must remind ourselves, it’s not that simple; we can’t let ourselves believe it is that inhuman.
It is against this reductivism that Philip Metres writes Sand Opera, an engagement with the music of rhetoric and resistance against the effacement of identity which the standard, processed narrative provides. Metres’ book title is derived from the erasure of the title of a commodifying document—the various Standard Operating Procedure protocols manipulated or ignored by the United States military in conducting the War on Terror, led to incidents at secret military prisons such as Abu Ghraib in which some soldiers commited heinous acts against prisoners held there. Pulling from several other historic and more contemporary sources to reflect, as Metres writes in the notes to the text, “the vertigo of feeling unheard as an Arab American in the decade after the terrorist attacks of 2001” a time when “Americans turned an ear to the voices of Arabs and Muslims, though often…a fearful or selective listening.”
The opening section, “abu ghraib arias,” enacts this feeling in a variety of ways—through visual redaction, juxtaposition of sources, creating textual “nets”—in addition to mixing and morphing the traditional American “blues” form, the last of which creates a lyric speaker under the name of several of soldiers convicted of crimes at Abu Ghraib. Metres’ erasures are split into two main series: “(echo /ex/)” and several poems subtitled “Standard Operating Procedure,” as well as others which take on the form of public address interspersed with greyed-out text to create dialogs between voices and sources. Metres’ focus on identity is apparent from the outset; as the speaker of the first piece in the “(echo /ex/)” series tells us, no matter whether we believe their testimony, the fact of the matter is that
[t]hey gave me // my ear // they name shall be // hanging there // over my head.
Created from a text net, the reader is able to see some degree of transparency as to the speaker’s true intention to detail the effects of the horrors enacted upon them and, slowly, throughout the section Metres begins to take this away from us, the final section of the “(echo /ex/)” reduced to only punctuation, a complete erasure of the voice, and a near-complete effacement of existence.
Metres also creates a sense of contradiction, paradox, and conflict among the voices of the established military authority in his use of texts to both display the essence of what standards should be and what the reality becomes. Though, in “Handling the Koran (Standard Operating Procedure),” the intended recipient of the protocol is to “Handle as if it were fragile // delicate art,” that of practice (“Document Exploitation (Standard Operating Procedure)”) demonstrates that the goal of these rules is to “skip lines” and the recipient is told “[d]on’t translate proverbs word for word. / Don’t translate poems word for word” in an effort to “translate letters, not / analyze them.” In this, Metres’ fear of “selective listening” is laid bare; though not directly contradicting each other, there is the sense that these documents (in their dialogic format) speak to each other in an ironic way as if to say “listen, but don’t listen; understand, but don’t understand.”
In adopting the form of the opera, Metres’ use of the dual modes of aria and recitative is a key structure to the book. While not every section explicitly calls to its parent form, the text is structured as a constant transition between the “formal” language (aria) and the “individual/personal” (recitative). In writing the latter, the personal is not always a near-poet speaker, but attains more of the mode of a recitative in that it adopts language different than the dominant discourses to attain a different kind of lyricism to reflect the intense emotional toll of the various languages of power that Metres adapts, adopts, and avoids. Metres engages with form through the use of manipulated and partially censored/redacted pantoum and ghazal, sestina, and epigram.
The integration of formic elements and the content of Sand Opera elevates a sense of the structured and resistance to structure which heightens the tension of the text through its engagement with received forms that the poet morphs to make them slightly unfamiliar.
Poems such as “Cell/(ph)one” create other forms made strange in its instructions to cut the poem out into the four voices it features in order to perform the poem as a simultaneity.
However, Metres’ engagement with discourse is not always through text. One of the hallmarks of this text as a book is its material construction and how this allows additional senses of imprisonment and constraint to be positioned in the text. While this review has abstractly discussed the notions of exile or confinement largely in terms of language and deed, the physical dimension of space is, outside of visual demonstration, often difficult to capture in language. As such, Sand Opera includes several vellum overlays featuring architectural drawings of the prison cells and interrogation rooms which serve as both an acknowledged and assumed setting for several of the poems in the collection. It is interesting that the first use of this in the book is not a drawing, but text, in the poem “Home Sweet Home,” which leverages the still relatively opaque transparency to deposit a smaller poem within a larger one, demonstrating the notion that even though these texts are co-present, they are neither co-planar nor commensurate. At this moment, the discourses of both poems exist simultaneously, but certainly not harmoniously.
Sand Opera combines and advances the projects of several other texts including Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, Mark Nowak’s Shut Up, Shut Down, and Travis Macdonald’s O Mission Repo, charging itself with, as Metres writes further in the notes to the book, the task of “Herodotus’ notion of writing ‘to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion’,” but there’s something more to Sand Opera that merely acting as a record, though the collage of text serves as a type of bibliography of implication. Though the text engages with the highly-abstract notions which create the fear and anxiety of a persistent state of war, Metres’ work sets itself apart into diving into the specific language of the systems that create and maintain it in addition to demonstrating the human impact and cost of the devices of discourse that ordain the relative ignorance that appeals to the seductively simple wartime narrative—the force of which is difficult to see, hard to remember, easy to forget, and for which Metres’ speaker begs in the final poem “Compline,” for “My God, My God, open the spine binding our sight.”