In the latter half of 2016 and the first half of 2017, I spent a lot of time in airports, flying back to the Bay Area from metro Detroit, where my family had recently moved, to finish up a series of medical treatments for two of my children. Pinging back and forth between Eastern and Pacific time, and being more familiar with the place I was visiting than the place I was living, made of those months a strange reality. In California, I knew back streets and shortcuts, but I needed a GPS when I was back “home.” We’d get on a plane in the morning at SFO and it would be dark by the time we arrived in Detroit. It’s strange, I’d say when people asked how all the back-and-forth travel was going. It’s a little unreal.
During this time, the third debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was held; the election took place, as did the inauguration; and Sean Spicer was Press Secretary. It quickly became clear to many of us that the Trump administration’s version of reality was an unreality, as Spicer advanced (often angrily) outright lies, such as that Trump’s inauguration had the largest audience in history. It was (and still is) bewildering for the President and his staff to present their alternate reality day after day. But the unreality marched (and marches) on. One day at DTW, walking from the tram to our gate, I caught sight of Spicer’s talking head on a cable news show. The image was pixelated so that you couldn’t make out his face. It struck me that the garbled image of Spicer seemed more real than anything else coming out of the White House.
What is real and what is not? What happens when we play along with something not real—does it become real? And even if it doesn’t really become real, does playing along as if it’s real change us? These are important questions in Nomi Stone’s most recent poetry collection, Kill Class. They are also crucial questions in a country that has been at war in the Middle East for eighteen years, and where the President, attempting once more to distort reality, has just revoked an order that required US military officials to report the number of civilian deaths caused by airstrikes against terrorist targets.
The poems in Kill Class emerged from Stone’s fieldwork—she is an anthropologist—in the fictitious country of Pineland, a real place in North Carolina where US military personnel and hired civilians simulate war. Using carefully chosen language and formal gestures that mimic the blurring of reality, Stone leads us in and out of scenarios that make us believe that war is always a game, is never real—otherwise we couldn’t bear to conduct it; and that make us believe that war, even pretend war, is never a game, is always real, because of what it takes from us.
“I am tired. I did not mean for it to go on / this long,” writes Stone in the frontispiece of the collection, “Human Technology.” This poem feels like a statement on our current war and every war, and asks us to begin in tenderness and a moment of shared humanity, with a mother protesting,
Sir, my child was not with the enemy.
He was with me in this kitchen, making lebna at home.
The yogurt is still fresh on his wrist.
One turn of the page, and we’re in a vastly different world, in “Quadrant,” where,
___________At a military technology fair in Orlando
you can purchase a village in a box.
Just add people: live inside it for a time.
Throughout Kill Class, our reality dips in and out of simulations, where Stone’s speaker introduces us to the Iraqi-Americans who role-play civilians in this war game, and to actual soldiers who do the same. We “[w]ait. Begin again. / Reverse loop. Enter the stage.” Like the soldiers, like Stone’s speaker, we are forced to consider the fact that, in war,
of the people over there are good /
others evil / others circumstantially
bad / some only want
cash / some just want
their family to not die.
The game says figure
That “which / are which” tells us how carefully Stone chooses her language in these poems. We are talking about people here—the grammatically correct pronoun is who, not which. But, Stone tells us through her word choice that war—even war that’s not real—dehumanizes. We become which-es. We become “circumstantially / bad.” We just want to keep our families alive. To do this, we have to make impossible judgments and choices, do terrible things.
These tensions come at us relentlessly in Kill Class, as does the jarring juxtaposition of Pineland and the “real” world. In a series of poems “Driving Out of the Woods to the Motel,” Stone places the two worlds side by side. It’s a Motel Six, where, after hours, Stone’s speaker “fold[s] / into the smoky flowered coverlet / of the motel.” How can this reality exist alongside a reality where we can purchase wound kits, with which “[t]hey’ll paint on the guts” to practice mass casualty events?
The poems in Kill Class don’t give us an answer. Instead, they enact the mind’s attempts to comprehend the incomprehensible. In many poems, Stone scrambles the syntax and uses typographical elements, such as virgules and sets of colons, to mimic the mind’s motions. In “Police Station / Jail Room” it becomes difficult to tell what is and is not the game. Early in the poem, it seems clear: “Cue the soldiers. One approaches Omar: Sir, / we want to set up a tip-line.” Later, however, as Stone masks dialogue, enjambs lines, and inserts white space and virgules in the middle of lines, it’s increasingly hard to track what’s going on. “Ahmed, thin as a wasp, role-playing O’s guard, has the gun raised, barrel- / to-eye. Please // lay it away, says the solider.” Is the gun part of the game, or not?
Later, as the tension and the potential for violence (“It is normal. / It is natural, / You / can beat her with me”) in the scene increases: “A solider shocks out / of his chair: Please can you not / engage in physical activity.” Is this part of the script, or a departure from it?
the wasp clicks _____the room clicks _____send them through
_____the door / send them back /
in the door re-
load. ___They smile at O with bright
cautious eyes. ___It sure is hot
today they say. ___Sure, it is hot says O.
Is the wasp Ahmed or is there an actual wasp in the room? Are the clicks from the gun? Are their eyes bright and cautious because they’re good actors or are they actually nervous? Is the slip into small talk—”It sure is hot / today”—a moment of someone stepping out of their role to break the tension, or is it part of the game?
Here and elsewhere in the book, reality and our ability to distinguish it from that which is not real, breaks down. Stone writes it more succinctly in “Mass Casualty Event”:
I am in a war. No,
I am in a game
of war. No, I am in a painting.
The near-absurdity of the last sentence, “No, I am in a painting,” reminds us of the near-absurdity our leaders ask us to accept: endless wars and outright lies in the face of verifiable facts.
In its most powerful moments, Kill Class reminds us, and allows us, to hang on to our humanity despite the unreality/reality and horror of war. In the collection’s title poem, the soldiers and the speaker are out in the woods on an extended scenario in which they are guerillas joining American soldiers to overthrow a fictional country’s government. The anthropologist-speaker, who plays a character called “Gypsy” in the war game, narrates:
The story says I join the guerillas.
The story says I carry this tent in.
And, because in her role as Gypsy her husband died in the fighting and her child is also dead (“they made me eat his ashes”),
I am supposed to arrive at the guerilla camp full
of fury, and if possible, to cry.
In this simulation, the soldiers have set aside a (real) rabbit for Gypsy; as the only woman in the scenario, she will be responsible for making food for everyone. But outside of the script, they have become suspicious of her, questioning her backstory. At one point the commander, breaking role, tells her, “Give me your notebook. / I am not asking.”
Soon they bring Gypsy the rabbit. It’s time for her to kill it and cook it. Really. “You have to, Gypsy, they say. / You can do it.” Now it’s Gypsy’s turn to break role:
I have a choice. _____Let me be perfectly clear,
I say. It is not happening.
But what does happen is another moment when the line between reality and unreality blurs, where the role and the person can’t tell themselves apart:
The men make a circle
The pines make a circle
You need to hold
the legs. __They are tying together
the legs _____the animal
screaming ______They raise
the stick __The legs are in
my arms ____The legs are in my arms
In the end, this poem is a statement on complicity: What is the difference, we’re forced to ask ourselves, between killing the rabbit and holding the rabbit so others can kill it? What is the difference between allowing our government to conduct endless wars and being the ones to carry out orders?
Stone is at her best in poems of human connection and tenderness, as in one of two poems titled “Love Poem,” which takes place after hours when the speaker is spending time with other role players who have become her friends. “They straighten my hair,” and comfort her when she receives bad news. In a moment nearly as poignant and visceral as that drop of yogurt on a young boy’s wrist, “Nafeesa, who is beautiful, tells me the word for goosebumps in Arabic.” In moments like this, when we are face to face with the skin of another person, the answer to Kill Class’s questions emerges: When the world (or our elected officials) wants to put us in a role, when it wants us to play along—tells us something’s real when it’s not; asks us to decide who’s good and who’s bad; and for some, actually requires us to go to war—our only hope is to cling to whatever is human in us, to hold some province of ourselves back. Stone puts it this way in “Plug in the Role and Play”:
You asked the part
of me I kept hidden. It was every
softness I didn’t give them,
the life awake,
In times like these, and in all times really, any poetry that can remind us of this is poetry we badly need.
Photograph of Nomi Stone © James Campbell Taylor.