Short-shot Review

Nick Flynn: The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands (Graywolf, 2011)

Nick Flynn’s new collection of poems, “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands,” is a series of related lyrics revolving around Abu Ghraib, the body, and torture (“Are we allowed to force him to swallow?” ). The poems are voiced, in part, by a soldier (“Sir, am I making sense?” ) and, in a harrowing section, the prisoners.  These poems are exploded, fragments. Reading this collection is akin to piecing together a spray of shattered glass. There is a window here, and on the other side is a nightmare (“Where is my monkey mask now?” ). The lyrics, which jump, repeat (“Are we forgetting something?” ), omit, and move with a building intensity (“Does it say we can pretend to bury his son?” ), are a collage. Extensive notes follow the poems with attributions to sources as disparate as detainees’ testimonies, Elizabeth Bishop, and Leonard Cohen. What Flynn has accomplished here is multi-layered; the references range from pop culture―Brittany Spears― to testimonials from Hurricane Katrina victims. Why are all these voices closed into the one room of a book (“Do you think I want to be here any more than you?” )?  The force of all this feels inevitable. This is the place we have been coming to.  The question now, and this collection is filled with questions (“Did we really just make it all up?” ) for which the answers lie, often, in the omissions, is where do we go and what do we do now.  In the end, Flynn is asking a question as well involving culpability: “The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands,” and Flynn, fearless, raises his.

Poems cited from the book include:

1 “water”

2 “fire”

3 “greetings, friend (minotaur)”

4 “forgetting something”

5 “earth”

6 “earth”

7 “imagination”