Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Nick Flynn. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. Graywolf Press.

Reviewed by Eric Weinstein

If any thing is sacred, the human body is sacred.
—Walt Whitman

Configurations and reconfigurations of the body permeate Nick Flynn’s newest collection: from the minute components of the individual to the physical circumstances of bodies in conflict, these lyric poems exalt the physicality of our existence in the tradition of Whitman while blurring it through the ambiguous lens of war, particularly those wars currently being waged in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are unmistakably American poems asking unsettling questions about what it means to be American—what we mean when we talk about freedom, democracy, spiritual belief—and work to chart the relationship between those fundamental natures, beliefs, and actions and the human machinery over which they supervene.

Whitman’s presence overarches the three preoccupations of the text: the body in all its guises, the politics of war, and the influence of religion on both. Although the three sections of the book don’t precisely align with these three subjects, there is a sort of progression evident from the poetics of the body to political poetry, from the individual to the masses—in a sense, the body proper to the body politic, the religious body, the corpus Christi: “inside each / corpuscle, the day, that day, everyday is / inside, my body, your body” gives way to “Listen / to yourself sing, We are all god’s children / we are all gods” (from “haiku (failed)”). Flynn opens the body for the reader, exposing it as composition, composite, collage, among like constructs; we don’t merely contain multitudes, we comprise them.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is, at its heart, a kind of echo of American culture, a machine churning out mondegreens, a deadly serious funhouse mirror. Transfigured instances of popular culture appear throughout the text—appropriations from and references to Britney Spears, Bruce Springsteen, and Arcade Fire collide with and complicate those from and to Paul Celan, Robert Frost, and Hart Crane, among others—and these echoes and distortions simultaneously remind the reader of the cultural forces that have shaped and continue to shape politics and literature in this century, as well as comment on the marks they have left behind. When, in the poem “fire,” he writes: “capt’n, we can do as we wish, we can do / as we wish with the body // but we cannot leave marks,” he not only directly references the torture practices exercised in prisons like Abu Ghraib but remarks on the paradox of the mark transmitted by history—that is, learning to leave no such mark, no “stain / [that] proves he was here” (“oh here”).

Flynn repeatedly addresses Whitman’s “captain” throughout the collection, although Flynn’s captain is a malevolent specter, a Bizarro version of the original, an imperfect clone, a capt’n, metonymizing not Abraham Lincoln or the America of the Civil War but rather George W. Bush and the America of the wars in the Middle East. Where Whitman writes, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, / If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles” (“Song of Myself”), Flynn echoes: “I saw my own body, covering itself / with earth, my body becoming // earth” (“earth”). Where Whitman laments, “O Captain! my Captain!” Flynn’s anaphora becomes, “capt’n oh my captain” (“fire”). Flynn calls these lines “pulled or twisted,” and these bastardizations of the original themselves point not only to the historical game of Telephone to which we are heir (“the thin thread that hold[s] us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together, what / do you call it—telephone? horizon? song?’” from (“haiku (failed)”) but highlight the inauthenticity, the illegitimacy of the wars America is currently waging as well as the political and ethical maneuverings upon which they are predicated.

One of those ethical/political questions—that of torture—runs prominently through the political commentary of the book. The poems “water” and “earth” take up the question of waterboarding—”if he dies, you’re doing it wrong”—with the latter exploring this option, as well as death by drowning, as alternatives to being buried, perhaps even alive. This investigation comes to a head in Flynn’s “seven testimonies (redacted),” a poem comprising erasures of testimony by Abu Ghraib detainees. (The endpapers show the redacted documents with black bars across the words Flynn omits; the full texts of the depositions are reproduced in Flynn’s notes at the back of the book). The poem’s text is a haunting testament to the violence and physicality of war, of blotting out, and it serves as a living elegy for those who have witnessed such violence.

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands also concerns itself with the broader questions of metaphorical and literal imprisonment, from Plato’s cave to the spider holes of Iraq. Flynn’s poems meditate on “a cage in the sun” and “the boy [who] stood in the burning cage” (“fire”), the fact that “we put them in cages [and] they don’t like cages” (“air”), the body itself as a cage in “self-exam (my body is a cage),” and the image of “paint[ing] a hungry bird / paint its cage black,” (“hello, birdy”). This fascination with constraint is not limited to the content of the poems: “hello, birdy” is also formally constrained by a modified dactylic meter, a waltz time also evident in “air” (“they scream my lieutenant he calls it a song / I want them to sing he says louder”) and “kedge” (following a tongue-in-cheek “can we start again”). This simultaneous attention to lyricism and restraint, the musical phrase and a highly regimented repetition, makes Flynn’s poems shine. When he swings from “I swim underwater I empty my lungs / if you think about breathing you can’t” (“air”) to “stammering I did stammering I did stammering I / did stammering I did stammering everything you say I did / I did” (“fire”), the reader feels compelled to follow.

The elemental poems in the collection—”fire,” “air,” “earth,” and “water”—serve to structure the collection and call out Whitman most obviously, chiefly through their lyric quality, their repeated address to Flynn’s “capt’n,” and their reference to the natural world via the four classical elements. These poems power much of the progression from Flynn’s early poetics of the body to his later poems concerning politics and religion: “fire” takes us from “the body” with which “we can do as we wish” to “the boy . . . in the burning cage”; “air” progresses from “maybe our bodies are no more than jars” to “something is wrong with the air in the cells,” linking the cell of the body to the cell of the prison complex; “earth” encompasses the Whitmanian return of the body to the ground—for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return—and “water” envisions floods, natural disasters, “night & prison & desert & darkness.” America’s current wars are linked with America’s past wars are linked with destruction of Biblical proportions, the flood myth, the twin infernos of Sodom and Gomorrah. “Come with me, water says, the city / burning outside your walls,” and again we follow.

The invocation of religion and spirituality in these poems—among them “false prophet,” “jesus knew,” “the baffled king composing hallelujah,” and “dear lady of perpetual something”—reminds the reader that despite the ubiquitous violence against body and bodies, there is a spiritual component of human existence that encourages us toward our better, saner behaviors, regardless of whether the subject of those beliefs is Jesus, Krishna, or Allah. For Whitman, this higher power was nature; for Flynn, I suspect it’s the same. The final poem of the collection, “saudade,” finishes with a quote from Carl Jung’s Red Book: “We have come back // from Jerusalem where we found / not what we sought.” This deflation of expectation—this declaration that none of the three great monotheistic religions can “win” the war—underscores the pointlessness of violence Flynn describes more acutely than any concrete example he provides. As in “seven testimonies (redacted),” the lacuna are as damning as the surviving text.

“Just now I thought something about / the body // about your body, how it goes on // & on, unspooling,” Flynn writes in “dear lady of perpetual something.” The endless unspooling of physical bodies, political bodies, and bodies of belief is the heart of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, and these poems detail that unspooling, illuminate the hard questions and harder answers it entails—that we must someday die, the circumstances under which we might, and whether we go anywhere after. The text mirrors this unraveling, this descent into the labyrinth, the lines leading us deeper into ourselves and our country’s history, the breaks and redactions standing in for what can’t be expressed in words. Whitman reminds us: “The real war will never get in the books.” It can’t, of course. But perhaps this book is as close as we can get.