about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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A Review of Guantanamo by Frank Smith,
Trans. by Vanessa Place

Spencer Dew

1) “They answer that we think the Americans didn’t listen to anyone, at the time. That the Americans would only stick to the official reports.” The things done in our names: already an appropriation. I found myself, last week, walking past a small crowd holding signs stating that the unborn wanted us all to vote a certain way, then at a debate, for a senate seat, in which one of the three candidates declared that, unlike the others, he was one of us, one of us, that he had fought terrorists in the air—his phrase—and wanted America to return to when it was pure and good, wanted a president his grandson would recognize, wanted to rip up by the roots—his phrase, again—certain changes made to the health care system and certain shifting standards in regard to who can count as married in the eyes of the law. He was not the worst candidate, nor the most absurd. There were moments of comedy, and human glimpses, much mention of children and parents and, in an odd farewell speech, love, love of God and each other. “We say we have nothing to add or ask, / that God is good, let Him come to our rescue.”

2) The voiceless speak, in a text assembled from transcripts, the meticulous record of questioning. “What is this, to witness? / When will I take my oath? / Is this the paper that shows my approval or consent? / Is it the one that was done with the Personal Representative? / Is it the same one that’s with the Personal Representative?” Sometimes, as above, slashes punctuate the original, which is already a pastiche, a translation, with Smith employing in his appropriated version the French pronoun on, which means, sometimes, “one,” but more importantly for the present purposes, also either “we” or “they.” When poet and artist Place renders the text into yet another language, then, she plays with this introduced ambiguity, “to shift these relations commensurate with their possible alliances, linguistic and otherwise. For the language lesson of Guantanamo is there is no point of origin, no fidelity to any event that can be counted by calendar or clock, because the text event as such is the only event which counts. Put another way, the only person telling the truth is on.”

3) “We ask the interrogator, we are the interrogated. / We ask a question, we answer the question asked. We ask a second question, we answer the second question asked. / We ask a third question, we answer the third question asked. / Once again we interrogate the interrogated, once again we answer the interrogator. We ask questions, we do not ask questions.” At the debate, the name of the president of the United States was booed. The idea of airstrikes was applauded. A question was asked: “This is the last yes/no question. On a scale of 1 to 10....”

4) “We apologize, / but one of our testicles was damaged / when we were beaten.” This is not a book about innocence, nor is it a book about guilt. The interrogated are surprised by certain accusations, offer alternate explanations and stories; the interrogators are in turn surprised, offer evidence and interpretations, alternate stories. This is, surely, a book about power relations, but these power relations are complex. The last time I wrote about Guantanamo, I examined the practice of using artificial menstrual blood as an interrogation technique, the smearing or the threat of smearing such substance on the interrogated. Power relations, then: the interrogator and the interrogated and those in whose name the act is performed, those who, in turn, do not listen to the interrogated, no matter how much the interrogated speak: “Answer: I’ve already told you this a hundred times in prior interrogations, but I don’t see any harm repeating my story to you. I met a man at the mosque. He had a wife in Yemen. Someone told him that I did not have any regular work in Yemen. He told me that he would help me find a suitable job in Afghanistan. He asked me if I’d like that, and said I could be useful to him. I accepted his offer. I did not imagine the extent of the conflict in Afghanistan, I’ve never had the slightest interest in politics.”

5) “That what they learned in Afghanistan is that nothing is certain / That when we were handed over to the Americans, we decided to talk and tell everything we knew, what we knew, not through experience, but by hearsay.” Terrorism, after all, is rhetorical: an act of violence, spectacular, that stands in for some argument, some point. A colleague, for instance, had a crossed burned on his lawn. But the terrorist have become, too, rhetorical, fulfilling a need, a desire. We fight them in the sky because they hate our freedom. They cross our borders because they exploit our legal system, claiming rights. Smith responds both to silence—writing from Guantanamo—and noise—Guantanamo as so many holding pens of rogues, masterminds. “The Americans beat me so badly,” one voice recorded here is quoted as saying, “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.” Who can hear this without some shiver of the scale of the situation, without wondering how this nameless, faceless man, humanized here by his admission that he must “sometimes use toilet paper / so as not to soil my pants,” is speaking of a wife, a family, a home, a life to which he somehow still seems to take for granted that he will be allowed to return. We know that this is not the case. We want him locked away forever. They want to destroy our way of life.

6) “The other day, soldiers confiscated / our pen. / Yet we had permission to have / this pen / in the room.” Permission, or responsibility?

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