Book of the Year: Guantanamo

12/16/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2015

In light of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's recently released "Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program," conveniently timed to coincide with the annual onslaught of the literary blogosphere's best of lists, leaned against December's door like so many limp wreaths, I've chosen a single book of poetry as my book of the year: Frank Smith's Guantanamo, translated from the French by Vanessa Place for Les Figues Press.

In the tradition of Heinrich Backer, French poet Frank Smith has re-appropriated the United States' official Combatant Status Review Tribunal transcripts from Guantanamo, released over eight years ago to the Associated Press by order of a judge in 2006, to emotionalize the de-emotionalized and dehumanizing linguistic treatment employed by the captors of 775 prisoners -- 136 remain today -- held captive 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, translated Guantanamo from the French.

The first volume in Los Angeles-based Les Figues Press new Global Poetics Series, 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, much more urgent meaning than it does in the great machinery of the contemporary MFA 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 officially released in English, despite these tribunal transcripts having been translated already, at least in part, from the Arabic and other languages -- that Smith later translated into French, Place chose to translate his completed French-language poem back into English. She writes: "... the language lesson of Guantanamo is there is no point of origin, no fidelity to any even that be counted by calendar or clock, because the text event as such is the only event which counts." In the text itself, the original translator -- the interpreter mediating the Guantanamo tribunal -- makes their 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 twenty-nine chapters, sometimes eliding the pronoun altogether to render fluid lists of subject-less 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 subject-less sentences, as well as the myth-like chapters beginning with "A man...," give 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 daily endure a regime intent on abuse and dehumanization.

The contents of the tribunal interrogations themselves reveal mostly mundane conversations about how the combatants were lured into capture, the seeming absurdity and randomness of why these prisoners wound up in their present situations and autobiographical sketches of life in Afghanistan, where one enemy combatant explains that "Vegetables don't really grow..." and 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 IEDs. Throughout the book, an unnamed "they" are held responsible for the prisoners' detention; 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 illegally detained at Guantanamo for over ten years, that hasn't always proven true.

Chapter Thirteen 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 humanizing and dehumanizing others. Guantanamo itself, with its strange, off-the-books location on Cuba and its strict policy of secrecy, bears witness to 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.

This review was originally written for the pan African gazette the Chimurenga Chronic.