Monday, August 15, 2011

Monday Muse on the 'One Hundred' Poems

Two weeks ago, I posted a review of John Siddique's new collection Full Blood (Salt Publishing, 2011). Siddique warmly acknowledged my review on Twitter and noted how pleased he was that I had singled out in my review two poems in particular. Here's some what I wrote about those two pieces:

There are many stand-outs in this collection. . . Two I especially want to mention. Both are titled "One Hundred". The first comprises a list of 100 names, grouped in no order discernible to the reader in a number of stanzas, at the end of which Siddique adds one or two lines of poetry. They are the first and last names of soldiers from the United Kingdom killed in our current wars. The second is like the first, except that the 100 names do not come from the Ministry of Defence, as did the first set; they are the names of those we have never recognized, names like "Abdul" or "Mohammada", names that in too many of the stanzas are fragmented — a first name with no surname or only a family name — all that remains of a person who once existed in full blood and is now reduced to a line in a list on a piece of paper. . . .

In exchanging with me several tweets about those poems, Siddique pointed out that in the UK "it is an act of treason to read aloud the names of enemy combatants killed in current war." 

I could not get Siddique's comment out of my head.

When I first read the poems, I was struck by their seeming simplicity, which was contradicted simultaneously by the enormous feeling I experienced in seeing all the names together on their page. Because none is just a name, and because a name is never just what we call someone.

[. . .] Reading either of these poems is deeply affecting, marking, for some of us, our first time being in relationship with a name associated with a war-torn place where "[s]ky catches its breath / on the mountaintops", where "[w]edding voices / ring the mountain walls", where we leave behind "[t]he blue eye of the desert" . . . When we read those names . . . [w]e face directly the mortality the names represent.

* * *

"It is an act of treason to read aloud the names of enemy combatants killed in current war."

What happens when we look at those two poems in the context of Siddique's comment? By the very act of creating two lists, two different poems with the same title, concerned with the same subject, Siddique creates a deliberate separation: one group of human beings represented by one list of names, any of which might look like our own, set apart from another group of human beings represented by names that few, perhaps even none, of us shares. By setting each name in each group on its own line, Siddique deepens the division, among the names themselves and in our relationship to the names. By adding an end-stop, a period, at the end of each name, Siddique further elaborates the separation, forcing the reader to pause before going on to the next name. The device offers a way for the poet to say, This name belongs to an individual. See him for who he is, and then see yourself in his name. In dividing every name on both lists from the name that precedes and the name that follows it, Siddique plays up the fact that all these names, but for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, would likely never have been encountered together — and we would be forever unaware. War produces the unchosen relationship. It does not excuse how we differentiate it.

As the poems illustrate, war requires us to regard the bearers of the second list of names, the names not English, not like ours, as different, and so necessarily distinct from whomever we do choose to recognize. It forces us to discriminate, and not in a good way. As I note in my review, the names in the second list are not whole. Siddique could not give us whole names; the UK's Ministry of Defence does not make it a duty to know who on the other side gets killed. The government's approach, in denying wholeness, in denying individuality, in refusing to accord relationship by treating all on the other side as "enemy combatants" or "collateral" (that last term one I've especially come to despise), provides us the out to view other human beings as something less than. How much easier it is to erase the meaning of being human than to acknowledge accountability for loss and thus responsibility for others' suffering. What you do not name, what you cannot or refuse to see, does not exist.

Any one who has ever heard the reading aloud of the full names of those who died on 9/11 or who has visited the memorial at the Pentagon — where the names of those on the plane point in toward the building and the names of those in the building point out toward the plane; in other words, each in relationship to the other — knows the power of names to move us. Anyone who has ever seen a newspaper page of names of U.S. soldiers killed in our current wars, names that are whole, always include rank, almost always include age and place from, include place and date of death and details, knows how names set in unchosen relationship can make us turn away or force us to look at our own humanity and our own inevitable mortality.

That we could hold it an act of treason to recite the name of another human being we have deemed our enemy and killed seems to me immoral. 

And so I ask: Who and what do you see and imagine when you first see or hear a list of names like "Amin", "Gul Bibi", "Khan Mohammad", "Farida", "Aziza", "Shekh Anwar", "Abdul", "Sayeda"?

Put your hands on me to remind me who
I am, put your hands on my face and heart
and say my name to stop me still, make me
human, teach me to wait until I can open
with self-blessing, as a rose buds to the sun,
as a seal on a rock sings the sea.

All it would take is a word [. . .]
[and] he would stand in the newly made
and know his own name again.
~ from "Name" in Full Blood


Glynn said...

Excellent essay, Maureen. You add depth and texture to both Siddique's poems and the point he was making. Outstanding.

Louise Gallagher said...

Yes. Outstanding.

In Canada, veterans of WW2 who had German last names were often not given their medals in public ceremonies. First Nations who fought for Canada were sent their medals in the mail.

I pray that poems like Siddique's will teach us the lessons we have such difficulty learning.

S. Etole said...

This adds such depth to what he has written.

It also makes me realize why it can be so offensive when people refuse to remember or say our names right and instead assign us a name of their choosing.

Julie Ali said...

Your essay was a very sensitive and gutsy response to a poet who also sounds quite brave.

I especially like your extension of the seeing of each person as a human being to a recognition of what war requires –for combatants---some sort of forging of a relationship they did not want, and had to develop. I’d never thought of war this way.

"War produces the unchosen relationship. It does not excuse how we differentiate it."

An “unchosen relationship.” This is interesting. It is rather like relationships in places where we are forced to interact with each other –such as the workplace and in society in general.

You are right to say we cannot differentiate enemy from us—at least in the way that we are asked to do so by government. We cannot be excused from seeing the humanity of each combatant—no matter which side he is on.

The idea of naming which you also bring up –as being important in recognizing the humanity of people—is also an interesting idea. I mean I knew names were important—but now I see that by not naming—you also erase an existence, a reality, a person.

"What you do not name, what you cannot or refuse to see, does not exist."

I think it is an act of treason –not to think— and not to feel---and part of thinking and feeling –is deciding how you will say. I’m glad you have had the courage to say what so few people talk about in war times—the idea that both the soldiers –on “our side” and the soldiers on “their side” –well, they are all the sons of all of us.

Maureen said...

One hope I had in writing this post was that readers would respond as they have here. I thank each of you for adding to the discussion.

John Siddique has shared with me two links that underscore the difference in accounting for "our" dead vs "their dead". It takes but a second to ascertain that difference. The titles themselves are one clue.

The Afghan Victim Memorial Project:

Defence factsheet:

Breakdown of Fatalities and Casualties:

Jenne' R. Andrews said...

It is so painful to read and feel how deep our denial runs. Perhaps denial is a crucial survival mechanism-- some things are too painful to face or recall. When it comes to war and what we have done and continue to do, we can't heal our collective shame without naming and taking ownership. I think often of that things my parents would not discuss in my presence but that I heard them speaking of-- the work at Los Alamos, that we dropped those bombs. Shame I believe is generational-- it is the plate of offal passed to us. For the poets, I think bearing witness is one way to heal personally and one way to shine the light of truth. Fabulous piece-- I hope it is shared far and wide. xxxj

Joyce Wycoff said...

Very powerful ... before the Iraq war began, some expert predicted that a half million Iraqis could die if we went to war. Unfortunately he was right. What a long poem that would make. Thank you for this post.

Hannah Stephenson said...

WOW! This is like a review in real amazing that you have considered and inserted the poet's comments here, and so thoughtfully used those to frame your own responses.