The Air in the Cages is Dust

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One of the great strengths of this book is Flynn’s refusal to luxuriate in self-importance. Instead, he displays a consistent awareness that the poetry of war is not war itself, but dwells in the incorporeal rather than the actual.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Nick Flynn’s first collection of poetry in 9 years, is an unflinching attempt to use poetry to grapple with some of the most shameful monsters of this new century–the torture of detainees at Abu Ghraib and the terrible cost war enacts on everyone caught up in it, both civilians and soldiers.

The book begins with a fourteen-line prose poem called “haiku (failed)” whose long lines, broken by backslashes to indicate pauses or the idea of line breaks in the absence of line breaks, stutter out a message of the impossibility of accurate communication. Not only is the title itself a clear acknowledgement of certain inherent limits of language and poetic form, but the poem’s speaker revises his previous statements in search of an elusive better articulation, saying “The thin thread that hold us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together, what / do you call it–telephone? horizon? song?” This focus on language’s lack is consistent through the poem, which ends with a deft nod to the multiplicity of meanings contained within individual words as the speaker asks “is it still, your heart, is it well / well welling.”

One of the great strengths of this book is Flynn’s refusal to luxuriate in self-importance. Instead, he displays a consistent awareness that the poetry of war is not war itself, but dwells in the incorporeal rather than the actual. In this way, the opening section of “fire” serves as a sort of ars poetica for the book as he asserts:

more the idea of the flame than the flame
as in: the flame

of the rose petal, the flame of the thorn
the sun is a flame, the dog’s teeth

flames

What makes this section particularly effective is how this series of linked images all share both the ur-image of “flame” but also the acknowledgement of being “more the idea”–the actual flame, of course, we cannot burn ourselves in.

Unlike what we are used to expecting from Flynn’s earlier work, the speaker in these poems can very rarely be identified as the poet. Instead of the “I” of poetic biography, the first-person voices here range from solider to civilian, and include redacted testimonies of Abu Ghraib detainees (the full version of which Flynn includes in his notes). This shifting ground where the narrative and observational “I” moves between jailers and jailed enables a conflation between the two where, as one soldier asks, “muhammed, ahmed, achmed, whatever / ….my one simple question–look at me, / do you think I want to be here any more than you?” (“earth”) and this fluidity of identity extends to the reader who also, in the course of reading these poems, becomes all of the “I”s.

There are a few weak moments in this book, including Flynn’s occasional reliance on tired figures of speech such as “let’s all sell our souls a few more / times” (“jesus knew”) and “I write about painting myself / into a corner” (“dear lady of perpetual something”), but these moments are thankfully rare. More frequent is his collaging of familiar text–fragments of other poems or songs–a technique that generally augments the sense of moral confusion and chaos he’s creating but, occasionally, backfires by allowing too sharp a contrast between the work of another master’s hand and his own. The opening section of “air,” for instance, with its headlong catalogue of action and lack of punctuation has a breathless intensity, but that forward momentum is diminished by the section’s end where it dovetails into a famous line culled directly from Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue.” Flynn writes,

we put them in cages they don’t like the cages
we put them in cells they pray

I swim in the palace it rains from the sky
the pool between palm tree & wall

the air in the cells is poison they claim
the air in the cages is dust

I sink to the bottom to see what it’s like
a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

Though Flynn’s surrounding lines are powerful, the great shadow of “Death Fugue” once conjured up and left to finish the section without further commentary, diminishes the landscape it stands in, particularly as one realizes how closely Flynn’s lines echo the Celan poem’s cadence. Later on in “air,” however, Flynn weaves Celan more closely into the warp of his own words, reusing the line and enclosing it within

I swim underwater I empty my lungs
if you think about breathing you can’t

the palace still burning a cloud in the air
their mats in a row the mark on their heads

a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped
they don’t have wings so we lift them

Here Celan’s famous line enhances rather than undermines the poem, serving both as a refrain and an associate trigger for the devastating image that follows it. This collection is strongest when the sampled outside text becomes a seamless part of Flynn’s own words, rather than standing on its own and drawing us outside of the poems these samples inhabit.

But all of these are fairly minor quibbles for what is an important book–important not only for the subject matter, but for the poetic intensity and moral clarity Flynn brings to it.


Kate Angus is an editor at Augury Books and the Creative Writing Advisory Board Member for The Mayapple Center for Arts and Humanities. Her work has appeared in Indiana Review, Subtropics, Best New Poets 2010, The Awl, and Verse Daily. She is the recipient of A Room of Her Own Foundation’s “Orlando” Prize for Creative Nonfiction, The Southeast Review’s creative nonfiction prize, and an artists residency on the Wildfjords trail in Iceland. More from this author →