Mark Falkoff, ed.
University of Iowa Press
Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak is a collection of verse, not testimonials, yet it is immensely difficult to approach the poems as anything but records of current events. Perhaps that’s just what their public release is intended to be — documentation of a situation that is otherwise essentially inaccessible to the general population.
Compiled by volunteer lawyers and human rights advocates, the works in this collection were all, of course, subject to intense scrutiny by the Pentagon before their release. Most writings composed by prisoners at Guantánamo are confiscated or destroyed.
Unlike most readily available poetry, which comes to us by way of people who have chosen to make writing either their living or their pastime, these poems read as works of necessity bound up with very specific experiences. This is not to say that their effects are purely dependent on explicit facts of brutality and captivity; there are complex and wide-ranging bursts of imagery and periods of existential reflection. Images of the sea pervade many of the poems — not surprising, perhaps, given Guantánamo’s island location. In “Ode to the Sea” Ibrahim Al Rubaish writes, “You carry graves. /If the wind enrages you, your injustice is obvious. /If the wind silences you, there is just the ebb and flow… You have colluded with our enemies and you cruelly guard us” (65). The ocean, for the poet, becomes fate and captivity and God and more — it swallows up everything around the poet, as its image swallows up everything around and in the poem.
The poems in this collection share ideas; they tend to pray for understanding and patience, and, more concretely, release from unjust captivity. Regardless of how censored they might be, they still present voices from “inside the wire” and so provide a view of Guantánamo not otherwise available.