The Huntsman of the Rubáiyat: J H Prynne and Peter Henry Lepus Go to Abu Ghraib

By | 1 February 2016

J.H. Prynne’s poem, ‘Refuse Collection,’ was published in 2006, in a special edition of Quid poetry journal. It is 117 lines long and difficult to read, not necessarily because of its distressing subject matter, but because, formally, it is a collection of broken pieces, each piece with its own dense history. It begins:

To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted. (…)

The only through-line for us, reading, is the very violent action that broke these pieces apart. Matthew Hall calls the poem ‘a refusal to believe the media-led depiction of war, a refusal to forget the atrocities committed and a refusal to frame the lives of others as less deserving of human rights…(It) is an elegiac poem steadfastly set on the materialization of ‘truth as power.”1 Prynne unevenly piles the pieces of media, not of bodies, into the form of a poem. His refusal consists of the resulting incoherence. Consider the following section:

Die in battle, die in bed or maybe
on a trolley, be sick and feel better, desire even
a just peace. Kick them around shall we do that be
sickened stamp on non-white body parts benchmark
yields huddled up naked,

                                                  land of the free
control respite deliverance. Cut-off spoken abuse
postural forensic gag reflex fabric whitener, you
do know this.

Here we see represented the oscillations of the imperative mood, or, unreliable command. The passage is made up of commands – ‘die in battle,’ ‘Kick them around,’ and the last, possibly most resounding commands possible, ‘you do know this’ – and its mixture of moralities obscures any consistency in the poetic voice. For example, the command, ‘Desire even a just peace,’ is directly followed up by ‘kick them around.’ This ironic line about ‘just peace’ plays on the idea that the poem’s rhetorical listener might just be crazy enough to expend as much energy on justifying peace as the coalition is on justifying war.2 But also, that supposedly ‘just’ ends are achieved by unjust means (‘kick them around’) is the great hypocrisy of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq. Prynne calls out this hypocrisy, and does so by expressing the indicative mood – a truth statement – poetically. Such an expression registers its effect in its contrast to the way he only represents, and does not express, the imperative mood. Prynne draws his ‘truth as power’ not from command, as Bush or the coalition might, but from the undeniable weight of his collection of disparate and minor pieces. He detaches truth from the too violent imperative and expresses it through juxtaposition, allusion, awareness, and implication. That is, through the poetic experience.

The poem’s title vibrates with a similar ambiguity. We can ‘r’fuZe’ collection, and there can be a ‘re-fuSe’ collection. As Colin Winborn notes, the word, ‘refuse,’ occurs regularly, and with significance, in Prynne’s work.3 It can take another meaning: ‘ree-fuZe’, as in re-fusing an electrical connection, or re-fusing a cup of tea with the tea in the teapot. The very semantic indeterminacy of this title both constitutes a refusal of meaning and contributes to the value of meaning as re-fuSe. The word, like the commands furthering a US master narrative, is junk. Moreover, in opening up such a discourse on the many meanings held in the one body (the word) we get a feeling for the violence of settling on one meaning, and the violence done to words when their semantic ambivalence is exposed without that ambivalence being incorporated into the text’s meaning. Prynne non-violently collects words that represent strewn Iraqi bodies and pieces of minoritised Iraqi culture. In doing so, he refuses to let the insensible and incoherent elements of the event go unmediatised. While the key elements of its mediatisation were the too coherent photographs and explicatory news bulletins, Prynne’s poem carries its abjectivity, which is essential to any refusal of its neat erasure. Translating this abjectivity from the event’s outside is especially important considering the smooth, majoritising texture of the Western media landscape.

Refusing to let coalition military argot gain traction, Prynne subjects the words of the coalition master narrative to the same treatment as the bodies of human Iraqis are subjected when tortured. Giorgio Agamben’s figure of Homo Sacer lets us frame our understanding of the space in which they then both exist. Borrowed from classical Roman law, Homo Sacer, the sacred man, is ‘one whom the people have judged on account of a crime.’ The law says that a citizen is ‘not permitted to sacrifice this man, yet he who kills him will not be condemned for homicide.’4, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, California: Stanford UP, 1998: 47] For Agamben, this figure is held in a kind of purgatory, neither divine, nor human. Thinking about Homo Sacer prompts a range of implications for Agamben’s notions of sovereignty and ‘bare life,’ and results in his argument for the pervasiveness of modern biopower, but at a preliminary level, the ‘state of exception’ in which Homo becomes Sacer ‘marks a threshold at which logic and praxis blur with each other and a pure violence without logos claims to realize an enunciation without any real reference.’5 Prynne not only exposes the coalition’s imposed state of exception as a majoritarian, military fantasy, but gives its language a taste of its own medicine.

Another example, of a completely different kind, is J.S. Harry’s series of poems, ‘Peter Henry Lepus in ‘Iraq, 2003’,’ which takes up 131 pages of her collection, Not Finding Wittgenstein (Giramondo, 2007). Peter Henry Lepus is Harry’s Beatrix Potter-esque observer-character, a rabbit of ‘creole origins’ who jumps through time and space conversing with notable philosophers, political leaders, and his animal friends. His perspective could generally be described as, paradoxically, detached and intimate. The series’ narrative takes place before, during, and after the coalition invasion of Iraq, and, like in ‘Refuse Collection,’ if Abu Ghraib is referred to in ‘Peter Henry Lepus in ‘Iraq, 2003’,’ it is allusively. That we must ‘read for’ Abu Ghraib is part of the affect of both poems. Although ‘Refuse Collection’ was published in a collection of work written specifically in response to Abu Ghraib, and therefore is undoubtedly about Abu Ghraib, I would argue that the poem’s explosive stylistic fragmentation, asking its reader to piece the coordinated torture back into coherence, is affective. In contrast, the distance Harry provides from specific instances of violence, at Abu Ghraib or otherwise, leaves room for reparation.

  1. Matthew Hall, On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
  2. For example, President Bush’s Cross Hall speech of 18 March 2003, in which he explains the reasons behind the United States’ intent to ‘enforce the just demands of the world’ by invading Iraq.
  3. Colin Winborn, ‘“Derangement from deep inside”: J.H. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’, PN Review 175, Volume 33, Number 5, May-June 2007.
  4. Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life [1995
  5. Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell, Chicago: Chicago UP, 2005. 40.
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