Poems from Guantanamo is a small anthology of poetry
written by present and former detainees of the US detention centre in Cuba.
Its chief value is that it is yet another reminder that this detention centre
continues to exist flouting every convention; military, legal and political.
At some future date there will surely be much more information about what it
is/was to be a detainee,a range of different personal accounts of how
individuals have endured. Expressed in letters,short stories, plays, poems,
diaries and autobiographies such writing will enhance every bitter thing we know
about this place. The weight of expectation on these few poems is therefore
extraordinary and we need to exercise our critical faculties accordingly.
What is it that these poems might do?
From my own experience of reading poems from adults and children in war zones
and the poetry of political prisoners written recently, much of it smuggled
out, set against the massive testimony from concentration camps and torture
cells and occupations that forms the literature of modern war,there are
several reasons why poetry in particular can catch the horror and the
inhumanity better than any other genre. I think this comes from the voice and
sound of such poems and their originality and, of course,the quality of the
translation in many cases. The risk is that whereas the situation and the
subject matter are of great importance the quality of the writing may fall
What we are looking for is a voice that informs us beyond documentary, language that strikes
the soul,personal testimony, something that cuts into our previous awareness.
There is then a further factor relating to this anthology because we have all
read collections of poetry devised to raise awareness and fundraise and
recruit support for a cause. Purchasing such books has perhaps achieved
something tangible. In this case what might result?
There are twenty-two poems in this anthology,all written by Muslims, all
collected by volunteer lawyers since November 2004.These are some of the
poems that survived, that the military have not suppressed. Many will be lost
forever; those never written down and those beaten out of the detainees and
many more taken by the military.
There is a very useful introduction to the poems in the form of a short essay
by Flagg Miller describing the cultural roots of prison poetry and this is
essential in understanding why so many of the detainees have been expressing
their position through poetry. The military totally missed an opportunity
here to explore the Muslim mind and seem to have remained obsessed with brute
force and revenge and ignoring every rule in the book. The detainees have in
entering the world of poetry taken strength from something totally beyond the
minds of their captors. There will be some who will not read from this
anthology because they believe there is nothing to learn from such evil
There will be some who will not read from it because their objection to
Guantanamo is based solely on the lack of proper process and they cannot
conceive that any words from the detainees, from guilty or innocent,should be
the focus of attention.
Others will want to see what can be written when everything but pain and
terror and a small core of self have been taken away, when only screams are
Each of the poets represented here are briefly introduced and details are
given as to how they have come to be detained.Many are writers and it is
quite obvious that their poetry has prevented them going insane. There is
behind each bio the shadow of Catch 22 and increasingly one feels that just
process has been dumped for deliberate barbarity. When three detainees
successfully killed themselves in June 2006 the military called the suicides
acts of 'asymmetric warfare'. What is remarkable about these poems is their
restraint,their hold,their refusal to fall apart. There is some rough
rhetoric here and some will claim that there is a lack of originality but
this is to fail to understand that these writers are clinging on to what they
once were and many have a very small audience of readers in mind. They are
not so much writing to change the world as to demonstrate that they remember
a previous world. Poetry provides them with the proof of memory. There is
comfort in the conventional.
Othman Abdulraheem Mohammad writes
I am sorry,
bind my hands
And iron is
circling the place where I sleep.
I am sorry,my
That I cannot
help the elderly or the widow or the little child.
Do not weigh
the death of a man as a sign of defeat.
shame is in betraying your ideals
to stand by your beliefs.
['I Am Sorry,My Brother']
The writer studied law and his religion and culture have constantly been
affronted since 2001.
Jumah Al Dossari has been held captive for more than five years.He has tried
to kill himself twelve times and the oblational stance in Death Poem portrays
immense courage and determination to provide evidence that Guantanamo is
without conscience,beyond law,ignorant of justice.
Take my death
of my body.
photographs of my corpse at the grave,lonely.
Send them to
To the judges
To the people
Send them to
the principled men and the fair-minded.
And let them
bear the guilty burden,before the world,
Of this innocent
Let them bear
the burden,before their children and before history,
Of this soul
which has suffered at the hands of the “protectors of peace.”
The Director of Amnesty International UK has written about these detainees
taking sanctuary in poetry but I would suggest that these poems are far more
about identity and stressing beliefs and speaking out than seeking sanctuary. Robert Pinsky is right when he
says that they deserve attention. These poems actually seek somebody who will
take note of them. Adrienne Rich refers to a poetics of human dignity and in
the seventy two pages of this collection it is this that rings true.
In 'Some Notes On Poetry And Religion' the poet Christian Wiman has written
'Poetry is not written out of despair,which in its pure form is
absolutely mute. The poetry that seems to come out of despair... is
actually a way of staving it off.' [Poetry Review, Summer
2007] Poems from Guantanamo
is about placing faith in words,reaching for a respected method of
expression,making a message against gross violations. What will follow will
be much more political and technical and terrible to conceive no doubt and
therefore this collection is a cautious preparation,a small gathering seeking
attention. For a Muslim the Written Word is sacred and these detainees have
found themselves in a place where their words are reviled,rebuked,rejected.
Somehow they have remembered the power and place of the poet in their culture
and ironically it is American lawyers who have rescued at least some of these
poems from silence and oblivion.
© David H W