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

By | 1 February 2016

There are various narratives that intersect ‘Peter Henry Lepus in ‘Iraq, 2003.’ Peter’s friend Cifta’s quest to find her ancestor, the Huntsman of the Rubáiyat, is a particularly cogent one. To help Clifta, Peter’s troupe of friends must get her from near Baghdad, where they are, to Persia, an impossible mission because Persia no longer exists. It seems she wants to go backwards in time, Peter muses. ‘You could go down the Shatt Al-Arab, ’ he suggests. Clifta is skeptical; she can’t identify with Peter. She then, in self-comfort, recites a snippet of a poem she knows:

They say the Lion and the Lizard keep
The courts where Jamshyd gloried and drank deep:
And Bahram, that great Huntsman – the Wild Ass
Stamps o’er his Head, and he lies fast asleep

These lines are straight from Edward Fitzgerald’s 1859 translation of the ‘Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam,’ a poem written by the 11th-12th century Persian scientist and poet.1 Bahram, whose name can translate as ‘smiting of resistance,’ is the Persian divine figure of victory, similar to the Roman gods Mars or Victoria. In this stanza then, the god of victory, the great Huntsman who Clifta is desperate to find, falls asleep, drunk, while a donkey – symbol of the carnivalesque, in which hegemonic order is symbolically inverted or overthrown – dances over his body. The imagery here links strikingly with images we might recall of US combatants figuratively dancing over, and playing torture games with, the bodies of Iraqis placed in a state of exception. The images from Abu Ghraib depict the horrifying combination of Bahram and the Wild Ass in the one American militant body.

Going on, Clifta is desperate to find her ancestor. She carries a picture of the Huntsman of the Rubáiyat with her, and a big gold map of Persia. But, as Peter hesitantly observes, it seems she’s barking up the wrong tree: she ‘seems to be directed backwards in time / towards locating a starting point / of Huntsman Spiders …’

Clifta, Peter thinks, wants to find 
something in ‘the world
that is bracketed out’.

That is, in the Husserlian sense, something beyond her consciousness: real, objective, true. He thinks about why this might be:

If she 
finds ‘Persia’,
she can, perhaps, 
gain sense-data 
about her ancestor,
the Huntsman of the Rubáiyat,
& she won’t need to prove,
Peter thinks, with effort,
that her ‘facts’
outside her consciousness …

But Clifta cannot identify with the objects around her. She cannot see herself in the picture she carries, and her map does not correspond to the landmarks around her. She grows increasingly ‘cross,’ a word that indicates anger, but also, with its repetition in different contexts, suggests that Clifta is running cross-purposes. She wants to go to the place called Persia, but does not know where in the world it is, or that it is not in the world in the way she wants it to be. She wants to leave Iraq but, as Peter observes, she is unable to pick her ‘crossover point’ between Iraq and Iran. She is suspended in the space between strands of a web of cross-meanings.

Her situation changes in the poem, ‘Return to Baghdad / 1 Regressive – Near the Euphrates – / Finding the Dead Iraqi.’ Here, Peter’s group finds a dead Iraqi. Because of digressions in the poem, it is not clear if this dead Iraqi is a person, or, perhaps, Clifta’s vision of her ancestor:

Clifta’s photo of her ‘ancestor’, 
the great 
‘Huntsman of the Rubaiyat,’
had been left behind.

There was sand in his eyes
when Hamid turned him.
Black Blood had gone into the ground.
He’d a bullet hole in his back.
He’s been tortured, Hamid said. 

There were flies, Peter saw,
but he did not know then
that the flies were coming to death.

Before this event, Clifta had been suspended in time and space, not knowing to where or when she was heading. After, her cross becomes a spin, as in spinning a web, but also, seemingly, a centripetal spiral. She remembers how her mother protected her and taught her that Huntsman Spiders aren’t like Bahram. They “stalk & ambush, / hide,     spring out      &pin (their) prey. (They) run. / (They) hunt the ground. Clifta realises that she can relinquish her quest to find her identity in the world of objects outside herself.

Drawing a conclusion regarding Abu Ghraib from this story is both difficult and easy. We do not find the same violence done to words here as we do in Prynne’s poem, and we are not drawn to consider, as outsiders, the impossibility of understanding the experience of those subjected to State violence. However, Harry does aim to draw a similar awareness to minor bodies and the possibility of their independence from violent States. By diffusing Clifta’s coveting of Bahram, and making the path to his location impassable, Harry guides her towards understanding that her identity is within her own body and on her home soil. When Clifta learns she is designed for constant movement – that she is constantly ‘becoming’ – she ceases to be ‘cross.’ In response to extreme penetrative violence, Harry responds with space, digression, and self care.

Prynne and Harry enact a minoritisation of culture in their poetic responses to Abu Ghraib. They do this through resistance to majoritarian narrative and the creation of lines of flight. We might call what they are doing, somewhat awkwardly, a ‘making-always-minor,’ a process that relates to Deleuze’s notion of deterritorialisation and involves the exposure of the fantasy of Homo Sacer.2, trans. Brian Massumi, London: Continuum, 2008: 25.] It is a process that resists, deactivates, and articulates. Agamben says, prompted by Foucault’s notion of biopolitics and the dual poles of sovereign power and executive power, that ‘we must deactivate the machine rather than play one pole off against another.’3 He calls for a third entity; the effect of a kind of poetic play. J.S. Harry’s and J.H. Prynne’s making-always-minor constitutes such play and creates space for such a possibility.

  1. Edward Fitzgerald, Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1859.
  2. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia [1980
  3. Giorgio Agamben interview with Akis Gavriilidis. Channel ET3 (Greece), 2011.
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