Book Review: The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

the captain asks for a show of hands

This post is part of the Found Poetry Review’s Book Review series. Questions or comments can be directed to the author, Douglas Luman.

What about horror is fragmentary? Nick Flynn’s poems necessitate the question even from the epigraph to The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands as Flynn prefaces the manuscript by writing that: “…a spokesman can only / state his surprise/that it doesn’t happen more often…” The statement seems to be pulled from the ether or at least jarred out of some context that readers do not get. But it is also a mis-en-scene for the poetry that follows—poems which behave like fragments both as poems and internal to themselves. Flynn endeavors to tell truths, but never all at once.

For many, the revelation of torture perpetrated at the hands of Americans at Abu Ghraib prison and the more recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture led to shock and disgust not merely at the information being presented but at its sheer volume;

Flynn is very aware of the potential for a volume of information to minimize the impact of horror, shaping his poems to focus on what is perhaps more horrifying: the chronicle of what happens at the edges of the darkest moments.

the captain asks for a show of hands

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands
Nick Flynn
Graywolf Press 2011


As Flynn writes in “false prophet,” “The book tells us to cling (cling?) / to the thought that, in god’s / hands, our darkest past in our greatest / possession” and later that “Cling– / maybe inside this word are more words, maybe”. The use of the slash is, used in both prose and traditional linear poems of the collection, not a line break, but a break in the pace of information—the chunking or patterning of information in order to reduce it to an understandable size or pace. In other poems such as “jesus knew,” he uses white space on the line to indicate a similar division, but more as if to instantiate a pause for the speaker’s sake instead of metering language. But, it is more common for Flynn to use the slash as a marker throughout such as in “kedge,” where

the bowl never empties / never darkens or fills / your body/fits into each breath

In this poem and other lineated pieces like it, Flynn is very careful to arrange the information on the line as to create layered meaning in addition to many of the turns on phrases and concepts that poets typically do with the unit of the line.

With the many encounters with the body that exist within the book, there exists a tension between the physical and metaphysical that is created in several moments, meditations, and addresses to a god or the persona of Jesus. In some places such as “jesus knew” it is more obvious in the speaker’s grappling when the speaker reasons that “he got tired everyday & then slept/sometimes okay       sometimes un-/bearable           the dreams            the father/pointing a finger at everyone           a finger we can’t/even look at” and poems such as “imagination” which use line breaks to create the tension “that//war, say, jesus/did we really just make it all up?” As the title of the books suggests, poems such as “fire”, “air”, “earth”, and “water” evoke the notion of both the physical construct of “cap’n”, but also the notion that there is another higher being to which the speaker of a section of “earth” appeals with the question that

…the memo says we cannot bury
the prisoner, but does that mean we can bury his
son? I mean, does it say we can pretend to bury his son?
cap’n, does the memo say we cannot pretend to bury
the prisoner’s son, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
dig his son’s grave, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
place his son in the hole? I’m trying, cap’n,
& he has still not answered my question.

Like many of the poems in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, the literal narrative of Flynn’s poetry and the patterned phrasing of the poems creates a layered meaning that, in this case, leads us to initially recognize the “he” in the last line of the section as the prisoner mentioned in the poem. But, coupled with the dialogue of burial rites and the context of the other pieces in the collection, Flynn makes us question who is truly giving the answers or conferring the permission—who “has still not answered”?

Another key aspect of the layers built into the poems is that of their use of sampled and found language. While many of the poems feature found text, clearly attributed where possible in the backmatter of the book, Flynn is using found text (in his words “pulled” or “twisted”) to both connect to a cultural moment and to, in the case of the wholly-found “seven testimonies (redacted)”, use language to sift for some kind of answer to his inquiry into who is truly at fault for horror and the kinds of mechanics or strategies that the speakers of his poems use to distance themselves from the present.

Much of what has been written in reviews of Nick Flynn’s The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands concentrates on the notions of failure in the book. Despite the pervasive presence of the concept in the poems, what Flynn really seems to be getting at is not failure itself, but the moments that lead up to failure or even if one can get or needs to have permission to do so. Certainly this idea is used in describing both the prisoners and imprisoners of Abu Ghraib; however, it is also employed to explore the realm of the personal and even the average person-as-monster. Even the title of the book evokes a call to the willing—who, then, will answer this call and what will they be asked to do? Once more, Flynn introduces a notion of the fragmentary; the request is broken up from the act—first one must be willing to commit an act of darkness before they participate in its creation. Throughout, Flynn takes text from The Kinks, Modest Mouse, Galway Kinnell, Hart Crane, and many other multi-modal sources. While not a completely found collection, the use of language throughout is masked and integrated well, distancing them from their own sources; thought not always the case, it is usually difficult to tell where sampled language enters—a feat made much more impressive considering the use of well-known source texts.

In many ways, this makes The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands a companion text to the ms of my kin, another project that explores the voices of similar personas involved on both sides of atrocity, considering more than just the moral cost of horror and war. Whereas both are built upon fragments, Flynn’s takes a more introspective route creating speakers that are nearer to our consciousness. In playing the personal and the public side-by-side, Flynn investigates the very limits of darkness in an effort to, as the speaker of “forgetting something” wishes, find “whatever still shines.”

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