A Review of Sand Opera

Candice Amich
Sand Opera
by Philip Metres
Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2015.
100 pages. $16.95 (paperback)

Philip Metres’ second full-length collection of poetry, Sand Opera, demonstrates the poet’s considerable fluency in both modes of postmodern experimentation and the execution of traditional lyric forms. An ambitious collection, Sand Opera brings into collision classical and profane language, found texts (sacred and secular), visual iconography, and experimental technique, agilely held together through the structural conceit of an opera composed of arias and recitatives. While the volume’s title calls to mind a cacophonous desert of sound — polyphonous voices disrupting the StANDard OPERAting Procedure from which the title is scratched out — paradoxically, it is erasure and silence that are most effectively staged in these pages.

Sand Opera creates its own “black sites” through the incorporation of blacked-out text and pages interrupted by vellum-like inserts of secret prison drawings (more on these below). The volume’s spiritual core resides in the gap between flesh and text — the torture of the body and the occlusions of testimony; the intimacy of touch and the distance of language. Prayer, the yearning voice stripped down to its essence, is the bridge the poet offers, the protective frame enclosing the book’s five interior sections.

The contentious relationship between flesh and text is literalized in the prefatory prayer-poem, “The Illumination of the Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew,” which opens with the image of a sacred text constructed “from the dried hide of calves / carved & sewn in quires” (1). The representation of the martyr’s “flayed” body imprinted on the animal skin, “the eye” at the center of the poem cannot escape the violence of representation: “& if the flesh is the text / of God / bid a voice to rise // & rise again” (1). The parchment “quire” transmuted into a homophonous choir’s song, the poem wants us to shift from the act of looking to that of listening.

The poet thus lays his claim to a post-9/11 poetry of witness in the opposition between sight and sound. If we cannot see atrocity, perhaps we can hear it. Metres turns away from the scandalous images that escaped Abu Ghraib and tunes into testimonies — leaked and official — instead.

abu ghraib arias, the book’s first section, was previously published as a chapbook, winning the 2012 Arab American Book Award for poetry. In an interview with fellow Arab American poet Fady Joudah, 1 Metres discusses his refusal to write about the Abu Ghraib photos for fear of freezing “the position of Iraqi as objectivized victim.” Instead, he turns to the testimonial transcripts of Iraqi prisoners and US soldiers.

The melding that follows — of procedural discourse (from the Standard Operating Procedure manual for Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay) with lyric frailty — encompasses competing voices. The testimonies of soldiers are enmeshed with the words of prisoners and various sacred texts. I am not the first reviewer (or interviewer2) puzzled or frustrated by Metres’ use of “blues” to house the poems from the perspective of torturers (repentant and not). I concur with Solmaz Sharif’s poignant critique of the “‘Blues’ poems in the voices of officers, a form [she] find[s] questionable here since the Blues tradition is one written out of violence against black bodies and not out of those in violent power.” 3

From the beginning, voices of the tortured and torturers mingle across the book’s spine — the work of “binding” (7) another key trope of the volume. A volume such as this, which critiques the pursuit and erasure of state violence, inevitably raises political and ethical questions about “binding” — at the local, national, and global levels. I think of Adrienne Rich’s antiwar poem Atlas of the Difficult World (1991), written during the First Gulf War, which announces “that every flag that flies today is a cry of pain” before asking: “Where are we moored? / What are the bindings? / What behooves us?” 4

The answer to these questions is approached in “Hung Lyres,” the third section dedicated to Metres’ young daughters. Here, the vulnerability of a daughter’s ear is painfully and powerfully wed to the knowledge of song — that is, the obscene blasting of children’s songs — as torture technique in US prison camps:

in a box of shock you love me/ in a cemented

dream / we’re a happy family /

with a great big hug and chains that leave no mark

Won’t you say you love me too?

The question is left perversely hanging, but as a reader, I want the “love” the volume extols to extend beyond familial ties, to stretch beyond borders, to begin to map a way out of our neoliberal malaise. The poems dedicated to Iraqi exiles who feed the poet at their tables, begin to move in this direction.

As capacious as Sand Opera is in its incorporation of voices and bodies, I cannot help but think of those which have been left out, have slipped the frame of representation. The millions of bodies, for example, that marched across the globe on February 15, 2003, in protest against war. The Sunni and Shia Iraqis who united in resistance against the US invasion. Where are these voices? Those bodies? The erasure of this alternative may be the deadliest effect yet of endless war on terror.

The collection’s most compelling voice and presence is that of Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, a Yemeni citizen whose testimony and drawings are interspersed across the book’s five sections. Metres cites from Bashmilah’s legal case against a Boeing subsidiary that participated in the CIA program of extraordinary renditions. For nineteen months, Bashmilah was physically and psychologically tortured in a series of secret prisons. These “black sites” are depicted in drawings Bashmilah made of his cells, which are replicated on the vellum-like inserts throughout the book.

The poems in which Metres allows the paranoia of terror to infect and betray his speaker’s consciousness are the volume’s most gripping. The volume’s final — and for me, most effective — section, “homefront/removes,” beautifully binds the poet-speaker’s voice to that of Bashmilah’s (stripped down testimony) through its confusion of inner and outer projection:

… A white woman across the aisle eyed me the entire flight. Her gaze widened and neck craned as I (her eyes) slowly removed (her eyes) my shoes. What could I say? Sometimes I’m afraid I’m carrying a bomb. That I’m a sleeper and don’t know when I’ll awaken. I should have said: Identity isn’t an end — it’s a portal, a deportation from the country of mirrors, an inflection within a question, punctuation in the sentence of birth. I said nothing … ” (93).

The self-interrogation of these lines extend towards Bashmilah’s documentation of horror endless — were it not for the bravery of his recording. We are nearly prepared for the book’s final prayer-sentence: “My god, my god, open the spine binding our sight.” The dressing and undressing of wounds and words achieving a momentary marriage.

  1. Fady Joudah interviews Philip Metres. “At the Borders of Our Tongue.” The Los Angeles Review of Books February 23, 2015.
  2. Michah Cavaleri interviews Philip Metres. “Parsing arias: A dialogue through ‘abu ghraib arias.’” Jacket2 April 5, 2012.
  3. Sharif, Solmaz. “‘To Open Like the Ear, When Eye is Shut’: Philip Metres’s Sand Opera.” Kenyon Review Online Spring 2016.
  4. Rich, Adrienne. “Atlas of the Difficult World.” Adrienne Rich’s Poetry and Prose. New York: Norton, 1993. 156.
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