A Bizarre Review of a Bizarre Book: "Poems from Guantanamo - The Detainees Speak"

Times Watch normally doesn't delve down the liberal rabbit hole of book reviews written by outside critics - "Lefty Author Praises Another Lefty Author" is the broadsheet equivalent of "Dog Bites Man." But a strange review penned by Wellesley College English professor Dan Chiasson (no political tip-off there, eh?) provided an unusually stark and illuminating look at the mindset of what the typical Times reader nods his head to at brunch.

Chiasson read "Poems from Guantanamo - The Detainees Speak," a slim book of poetry from University of Iowa Press edited by Marc Falkoff, one of the Guantanamo Bay lawyers, consisting of poems from inmates at Guantanamo Bay that were cleared by the Pentagon for publication.

"This short book prints 22 poems by detainees at the military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that have been cleared for release by the United States military. The poems - some by accomplished writers, others by first-time poets - suffer 'some flaws,' as the book's editor, Marc Falkoff, himself a lawyer for 17 detainees, puts it. It is hard to imagine a reader so hardhearted as to bring aesthetic judgment to bear on a book written by men in prison without legal recourse, several of them held in solitary confinement, some of them likely subjected to practices that many disinterested parties have called torture. You don't read this book for pleasure; you read it for evidence. And if you are an American citizen you read it for evidence of the violence your government is doing to total strangers in a distant place, some of whom (perhaps all of whom, since without due process how are we to tell?) are as innocent of crimes against our nation as you are."

Chiasson apparently thinks the Pentagon is censoring the good stuff that would truly speak truth to power (or terror to decency, or something).

"Given these constraints, a better subtitle might have been 'The Detainees Do Not Speak' or perhaps 'The Detainees Are Not Allowed to Speak.' But the best subtitle, I fear, would have been 'The Pentagon Speaks.' To be sure, it's hard to imagine a straightforward propagandistic use for the lines 'America sucks, America chills, / While d' blood of d' Muslims is forever getting spilled'; but you can't help suspecting that this entire production is some kind of public relations psych-out, 'proof' that dissent thrives even in the cells of Guantánamo. (Does that sound paranoid? Can you think of another good reason the Pentagon would have selected these lines out of thousands for publication?)"

He assumed that past propaganda by released prisoners on conditions at Guantanamo is factually accurate:

"But surely being imprisoned in Guantánamo rises to a level of wretchedness beyond mere sadness or frustration. When Sami Al Haj, a detainee whose biography says he was 'tortured at both Bagram Air Base and Kandahar' before ending up at Guantánamo, writes that 'hot tears covered my face,' he sounds like a teenage sonneteer, not the victim of nearly unimaginable physical cruelty. Such are the unfortunate diminishing returns of poetic figuration, which, except in extraordinary cases, blunts where it purports to sharpen, blurs where it promised focus.

Near the end, Chiasson nevertheless promised that "Falkoff and the other lawyers behind this project have acted in enormous good faith and some day will be recognized for their legal work as national heroes." I'd take that bet.

Power Line found it one of the most "weird" things the Times has ever published on the war on terror. High praise indeed.