Word this week hit the media that a book of poetry is being released in August that contains translations of poems written by detainees at Guantanamo. In all, there are 22 poems by 17 prisoners that will appear in a volume published by University of Iowa Press.
It is not at all surprising to me that the news of this is being greeted with mixed views. Some disapprove of the detainees having a public forum for their writing. Government and military sources have been quite concerned that the poems might hold some coded meaning and would not allow their publication without translation and vetting for such possibility. Still, others question the literary quality and perhaps value of these works. Indeed, these are not written by individuals who are known as poets or literary academics. Too, the whole matter of the impact of translation exists. Any work of poetry in translation perhaps loses something in the process and is only as good as the translator’s abilities with language, summation of the author’s intent and literary skills of the translator.
It is my opinion that these were not likely written for public consumption. I say that because initial indications are these detainees were crudely writing poems prior to them being allowed the use of pen and paper in 2003. Even in the general prison population in America it is not uncommon for inmates to turn to poetry in their solitary state to release emotion. I am assuming that in fact these were inspired by those same motives and not that of the paranoia expressed by Cmdr. J.D. Gordon, a Defense Department spokesman quoted in a June 20th article in the Wall Street Journal. Cmdr. Gordon said, “While a few detainees at Guantanamo Bay have made efforts to author what they claim to be poetry, given the nature of their writings they have seemingly not done so for the sake of art. They have attempted to use this medium as merely another tool in their battle of ideas against Western democracies.”
I have only seen the text of three of the poems. One riles on about President Bush, hypocrisy, and lies; it also denotes the anguish of his oppression and separation from family and references his religious faith. Is It True? by Abu Kabir has only the backdrop of nature against his fate and speaks of his family and his innocence. The third one written by a detainee who has made multiple attempts on his own life while in detention is largely laced with the sentiment of death.
The former poet laureate Robert Pinsky was asked to comment on the merit of these works. In the New York Times, Pinsky was quoted as saying, “I haven’t found a Mandelshtam in here,” referring to the Great Russian poet who died in a Stalinist labor camp. He notes also, the poems were written by amateurs in the Arabic tradition of poetry, and were translated into English by legal translators, not literary ones. But Pinsky seems to see a value in these words none the less. He is quoted by the publisher, University of Iowa Press as saying, “Poetry, art of the human voice, helps us turn toward what we should or must not ignore. Speaking as they can across barriers actual and figurative, translated into our American tongue, these voices in confinement implicitly call us to our principles and to our humanity. They deserve, above all, not admiration or belief or sympathy—but attention. Attention to them is urgent for us.”
The title is Poems from Guantanamo - The Detainees Speak - edited by Marc Falkoff.
Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak