The Poetics of Pain

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By Erin Lillo

As France fell to the Nazis in 1940, Simone Weil wrote her essay, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” in which she describes her hope for future poets to “learn there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate.” Weil wishes for a poetic language to counter the language of war.

As writers of conscience, writers who empathize with those who endure their daily portion of suffering, how do we approach the subject of violence in our stories and our poems? How do we imbue language with a sense of outrage and a desire for justice without falling into the dual pitfalls of sentimentality and melodrama? For political writers in particular, how do we document injustice without didacticism? To do justice to our subjects, writers whose work deals with political violence must travel a narrow path, one that leads to the development of a poetics of pain.

One guide to the way forward may be found in Elaine Scarry’s 1985 book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. In Part One of the text, Scarry analyzes how both torture and war conflate pain with language and language with power. Often, Scarry locates this cross-fertilization within a field of opposites. For instance, she describes the structure of torture as follows:

[F]or the prisoner, the body and its pain are overwhelmingly present and voice, world, and self are absent; for the torturer, voice, world, and self are overwhelmingly present and the body and pain are absent . . . [and] these . . . oppositions at every moment announce and magnify the distance between torturer and prisoner and thereby dramatize the former’s power, for power is in its fraudulent as in its legitimate forms always based on distance from the body.

While later in her analysis Scarry differentiates between war and torture, the similarity she describes appears revelatory. Pain is a silencing force—when we hurt, we lose the precision of language. Instead, we cry out, we whimper, we moan, but we cannot transform our noise into meaning for somebody else. However, through the institutions of torture and warfare, humans inflict pain on other humans in order to transform the silencing force of pain into the political force of power.

Within the political realm, then, pain and the power to inflict pain become the amplified voice of reality-building: My power is real because I can hurt you; my belief is real because I can hurt you; my cause is just because I can hurt you.

As writers, we too want to extend the field of our voices, but nothing seems more antithetical to what we do than the political voice, powered by pain. However, as Scarry observes, “in both war and torture, the normal relation between body and voice is deconstructed and replaced by one in which the extremes of the hurt body and unanchored verbal assertions . . . are laid edge to edge . . . [and] a fiction is produced” (143), and for writers whose subjects often encompass political pain, this placing edge-to-edge of pain and voice seems pivotal to how these stories and poems make meaning.

One such writer is the poet Tom Sleigh, whose recent collection Station Zed: Poems often portrays images of violence and voice laid edge-to-edge. As these images unfold, Sleigh’s poems connect the injuring of bodies to the seizing of power and the reality of pain to the fiction of culture.

For instance, pain and power, reality and fiction collide in the ten-part poem “KM4,” which opens with “The Mouth.” The first stanza declares, “Not English Somali Italian French the mouth / blown open in the Toyota battle wagon at KM4 / speaks in a language never heard before.” The newness of this pain-language reverberates through the rest of this poem. “The mouth blown open at KM4 / speak[ing] in a language never heard before” stands in opposition to the voice of a journalist, who becomes “the Absolute Speaker of the News. Because this news uses non-pain language, it carries none of the veracity of the mouth blown open, the mouth that “speaks back to the dead at KM4” in words that will lead to “nothing solved or resolved” because “the mouth of smoke at KM4 / mouths syllables of smoke never heard before.”

The embodied mouth of the beginning of this poem becomes a disembodied mouth by the end. However, this process refuses to accomplish the cultural project of war-driven violence as identified in Scarry’s analysis: this injuring does not embody a reality. Rather, in Sleigh’s treatment of the suicide bombing at this Somali intersection, the violence leads to an unknown language that devolves into unknowable sounds and carries no power to solve or resolve the disputed ideology. The murdered body’s mouth does not substantiate the suicide bomber’s beliefs; instead, the mouth sounds syllables that drift away like smoke as the poem becomes the disembodiment of violence.

The repeated rhyme between “KM4” and “before” links separate sensations of reality: the reality of the bomb, the suicide, murders, injuring, and pain collides with the reality of time, language, words, sound, and belief. The violence becomes a transition point between these realities, as Scarry argues injuring will do within war’s inherent structure, yet Sleigh’s poem denies the transition, choosing instead to hold the two realities next to each other, rendering each reality as futile as the other. This mutual futility becomes the poem’s ultimate comment on the suicide bombing at the intersection known as KM4.

Sleigh’s “KM4” continues this subversion of body and voice with the third poem, “Oracle.” The central figure of this poem is a “little man carved out of bone” who “shouts something to the world the world can’t hear.” With this figure, the mouth speaking its new language in the first poem becomes a relic shouting into silence. However, this bone man carries on his important cultural belief—he “makes an invocation at an altar: / an AK-47 stood up on its butt end in a pile of rock.” As the bone man prays to this alter, he exchanges voices with the gun, who “wants to tell a different truth— / a truth ungarbled that is so obvious / no one could possibly mistake its meaning.”

Here, the gun’s clarity of speech confirms Scarry’s analysis of war’s use of violence as the means to settle cultural disputes—the derealized beliefs of the young Somali suicide bomber become embodied in the gun’s voice and the promise of injury contained within that voice. Sleigh’s figures of the speaking gun and the speaking bone man merge into the figure of the suicide bomber when the poem locates “a boy with trousers / rolled above his ankles” “down the cyclops-eye of the barrel” of the gun. The housing of the boy inside the AK-47, which is also the altar of the bone man, solidifies the mouth’s smoke-language from the first poem.

In “Oracle,” “a mouth of bone moving in syllables / [has] the rapid-fire clarity / of a weapon that can fire 600 rounds a minute.” In the end, the destabilizing impossibility of resolution through violence that Sleigh introduces in “The Mouth” has transformed into the suicide bomber’s certain belief that violence—the opening of his body along with hundreds of others—will grant his prayer, will create a new world out of his blood and his imaginings.

However, by the end of the “KM4,” as the poet travels through varying layers of uncertainty, veracity, self-doubt and loathing, the final poem “Too Late” reveals the speaker’s problematic relationship with all of it, any of it, it being both the violent realizing of an indeterminate future and the inevitable deconstruction of a known past. In “Too Late,” the speaker disconnects the body from the here and now in the first stanza only to unify them in the second: “Here, you can let yourself go in so many ways— / the bomb pack strapped to your waist and detonated / by pushing Send on your cell phone.” With this gesture, the speaker brings the body into a wrenching immediacy; “you” are the suicide bomber, and “you” can send yourself into death by pressing a touch screen.

Now the speaker joins the reader and the bomber’s body within this all-encompassing second person pronoun by describing himself as an “eternal aesthete in his eternal pursuit / of just the right moment . . ..” The conflation of speaking voice, violent actor, reader and corpse propels the poem into its final observation, the observation that challenges every act of violence in each new war: “And the body barters for the ghosts pinned down by the shadows / to come rising at this moment from the grave / telling the body it’s too late, it’s always been too late / passing over the ocean’s dry whispering wave.” This final sequence of images asserts the only reality of the body that survives its death—no matter what future you kill for, what future you die for, no future ever lasts, no voice ever survives, and what remains eternal is the noise of waves gnawing at the shore. Whatever cultural identity the suicide bomber hopes to substantiate with the wounding of himself and all the others at KM4, this cultural identity will also sink into an ocean of time, as will Sleigh’s poems.

At the structural level, torture and war transform pain into political power by using the dreadful silence of the injured to substantiate the victor’s narrative. However, as Weil wishes and Sleigh accomplishes, we writers can perform our own counterattack. By placing edge-to-edge the wounded and the silenced, the wounders and the wars, a poetics of pain denies such political transformations of the voice. Instead, writers assert a different reality, one that acknowledges our universal complicity in war’s unspoken truth–the battlefield’s horrors are the birthing pains of our cultural imaginings, which are, in the end, as ephemeral and haunting as any poem.

Erin Lillo is a regular contributor to Craft Talk. In addition to writing, teaching, studying, and parenting, Erin reads too much and listens to music too loud. She also has an ongoing competition with her husband to see who can work the most lines from The Big Lebowski into everyday conversation. Currently, she’s losing. Her short fiction has appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review.


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