Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Nomi Stone, author of Stranger’s Notebook (TriQuarterly, 2008) and a PhD Candidate in Cultural Anthropology at Columbia University. Nomi earned a Masters in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from Oxford and was a Creative Writing Fulbright scholar in Tunisia. She is currently researching and writing a book of poetry as well as a book of non-fiction about combat simulations in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America.
For two years, I drove through the forests and deserts of America and into mock Middle Eastern villages constructed by the US military for their pre-deployment trainings. My anthropological fieldwork — something like a long roadtrip, in which I constantly ask everyone en route questions — has always been an engine for my poems. The last time I drove through those haunted green roads towards the war simulations, I brought Deepstep, Come Shining, my new Big Love. I parked my car by a meadow at the lip of the woods, and there, CD Wright recomposed my sensorium. Out of the sonorous dark, “great goblets of magnolialight,” “cornlight” and “alligatorlight.” The poems were shocks of vision out of the darkness, like Wittgenstein’s “aspect-dawning,” that cry of almost-pain as world-aspects become apparent: “a saucer of light,” a “white piano shiver[ing] in the corner like a boy with an orchid” and the “smell of a rooster cooking, Mmmhmm.” Deepstep called me to shimmy out of my carapace, to “see feelingly,” through a remaking of my senses and through ethnographic strangeness and wonder.
Conjuring the dreams of the blind, Wright led me through a blazing accrual of forms: “Peaches and fireworks and red ants. Now do you know where you are?” In this “iridescent dreaming,” voices emanate from “memory jars” within an antique store; a cane “slash[es] through the grass”; and out of the haze, the contours of a person become singular: “Looking at a face. She will know it belongs to Pattycake if Pattycake laughs.” Images yawn open alongside rising and dissolving voices, road signs, and local lore. Towards the end of the book, our seeing sharpens: Wright describes the moment after an iridectomy operation, as the bandages are removed: “the slow recognition of forms// a shirt on the floor looked like/ a mouth of a well// Spots on a horse/ horrible holes in its side// The sun in the tree/ green hill of crystals”. This radiance contorts us awake: that little cry of body in world: “Loveitleaveitloveitleaveit,” she insists, as the earthly phenomena make their impress.
So, too, in my new manuscript, Kill Class, I try to summon a tiny cosmos into our seeing—in this case, a space of war, and how it unmakes bodies and lives. Follow me into the woods, as each form emerges: the tiny lit mosque with the candied blue dome; the knife prepared with fake blood; the bodiless cemetery; the chickens and goats; the braiding of voices, scripted and not. (“Now, do you know where you are?”). Here are the soldiers preparing to go to war, habituating their bodies and senses to the sounds of gunfire and explosions. Here are the military architects, dreaming up the wartime scenarios the soldiers might face. Here are the Iraqi role-players, enacting war: mourning and bargaining and protesting and dying, on repeat, in tiny theaters. Many of these Iraqi role-players have come directly from the (actual) 2003 Iraq War, where they worked as interpreters and contractors for the US military. After their countrymen accused them of collaboration, they were rendered strangers in Iraq and targeted by militias. Now in the America to which they at such great cost aligned, they enact the Iraq from which they are estranged.
Gathered within an uneasy “undifferentiated dark,” the possibility of affective sight—of contact—awakens: “See this hand. See this. Come shining.”
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