Monday, November 12, 2007

Cut Loose the Body: Poetry as “Anti-Code”




Organizers of Saturday’s reading from Cut Loose the Body, an anthology of poems about torture and artist Fernando Botero’s works on Abu Ghraib, had set up a few dozen chairs at the American University Museum – an understandable expectation for an evening devoted to careful scrutiny of something we generally don’t want to think about – torture being committed by our government in our name. But the seats were all claimed well before the reading started, and rows were added until the supply of chairs was exhausted. And still people came, sitting on the floor and leaning against the walls, intent on bearing witness.

The chatter of old friends greeting one another in English and Spanish contrasted with the silence in the surrounding galleries as people took in the disturbing and startlingly extensive exhibit – scores of works in oil, pencil, and watercolor featuring Botero’s trademark “inflated” figures brutalized and bloody, tied to cell bars, menaced by fierce dogs, tortured alone and in groups. Something about the hefty Botero figures brought to mind even more vividly the gaunt prisoners in the actual photographs from Abu Ghraib, and the surreal reality that the orders for the degrading and inhumane treatment that was now depicted before our eyes were given just a few miles away in the White House.

The podium stood before a larger-than-life triptych of three prisoners, hooded and held in gloomy cells. Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of the American University museum, announced that, astonishingly, this was the only showing of the entire exhibit in any museum anywhere. How can that be? Shouldn’t every major museum in this country be bringing light to these dark truths?

The readers were introduced by Rose Marie Berger and Joseph Ross, who edited Cut Loose the Body, a collaboration by the AU Museum and DC Poets Against the War. Ross said the goal of the project was, in the end, to say something simple: “We object to torture.” Berger spoke of the “Republic of Poetry” described by Martín Espada, a contributor to the anthology, and urged people to move beyond seeing the art and hearing the words into taking action by supporting Amnesty International and the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition.

The first reader was Kyle Dargan, managing editor of Callaloo, whose poem “Habeas Corpus” includes the line that gave the anthology its title. Iraqi poet Sinan Antoon, who teaches at NYU, was the final reader. E. Ethelbert Miller, a dean of the DC poetry scene, cited a line from Carolyn Forché, “There is nothing one man will not do to another.”

The evening featured several readers affiliated with American University, including associate professor Consuelo Hernandez, who also hails from Botero’s Colombia; MFA student Tala Rahmeh; and Myra Sklarew, professor emerita of literature and author of the forthcoming Holocaust and the Construction of Memory.

Dennis Nurkse, who teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and serves on the board of Amnesty International USA, recited lines from an anonymous prisoner in 14th Century Spain and from 20th Century poet Federico Garcia Lorca, assassinated for his anti-fascist politics and for being gay. The order for Lorca’s painful death, Nurkse said, was given in code: “Give him strong coffee.” Said Nurkse, in what could be a concise summation of the purpose of the evening, the work of DC Poets Against the War, and the goal of Split This Rock poetry festival, “Poetry is the anti-code.”

- Pete Montgomery

2 comments:

Heather Davis said...

Pete:

Thanks for this detailed account of the event. I'm sorry I could not attend, but I was there in spirit! I think my husband and i will go see the exhibit soon. It really should travel to other cities!
--Heather Davis

Joseph Ross said...

Heather --

Thank you for your comments. The exhibit will be at the AU Museum until 30 December. Do make a point to see it. Feel free to contact either Rose or me for a copy of the book. J. Ross, Co-Editor