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The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

  • Image: Image
  • Book Type: Poetry
  • by: Nick Flynn
  • Date Published: February 2011
  • ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-574-6
  • Format: Hardcover
  • Pages: 104pp
  • Price: $22.00
  • Review by: Caleb Tankersley

Well worth the wait his many fans have endured, Nick Flynn’s first collection since 2002—The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands—reasserts his reputation as a champion of contemporary American poetry. As the book tackles leading-edge themes such as torture, bodily release, and moral ambiguity by drawing from expansive media and world culture, you begin to realize that these are not your grandpa’s self-referential, literary canon poems. Flynn is influenced by poetry of the past (most notably with the repetition of Whitman’s “oh captain, my captain”), but he also draws from movies, music (I caught Arcade Fire and Britney Spears; I’m sure there’s more), and world events. The strong and subtle messages concerning the Iraq War and the torturing of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other instances lend an uncomfortably gritty realism to the collection; I doubt any reader will be able to finish “seven testimonies (redacted)” and the accompanying notes without shuddering; I couldn’t. I also couldn’t remember the last time a collection of poetry made me shudder.

But topical subjects and clever lines are easy enough. What sets Nick Flynn and The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands apart are the shear number of clever lines—in true Flynn style—and the structural cohesion that brings the emotion of these tortured bodies and souls to the threshold of the reader, appealing to the universal human experience. I’ve never read a book of poetry that functions so well as a collection. I’d feel a twinge of pain to see any one of these poems anthologized; the collection itself is such a complete work, such a press of thematic follow-through, to read one line out of the context of the whole would be reading a shadow of the true work, a fraction of Flynn’s fulfilled ambition. Regrettably, this is how I must sample the works here.

Four companion poems—“fire,” “air,” “earth,” and “water”—appear throughout the book and focus on the torturing of prisoners. Each poem features its title element in the torture and metaphors to varying degrees, as in these lines from “fire”:

capt’n oh my captain this burning has become a body
capt’n oh my captain this child is ash
capt’n oh my captain my hands pass right through her
capt’n oh my captain I don’t know what it is I’m looking at

These sort of anchor poems follow soldiers who seem unsure of what they’re doing, appealing to the ambiguous captain for affirmation. There’s an underlying regret on the part of the soldiers, which these lines from “earth” exemplify:

that dream again, capt’n, as soon as my eyes
shut—the one where the car goes into a skid
& I can’t pull out, the one where I wipe my ass
but the paper never comes clean

The elemental musings of the torturers is interwoven with poems that play between confinement and release, the imagery relying heavily on birds and cages. The poem “hello birdy” opens with:

paint a hungry bird
paint its cage black
paint a tunnel scraped out with a spoon

The resulting collection is a tragic portrait of the United States, of the physical, emotional, and spiritual casualties this last decade of war has wreaked on Iraq and ourselves. I wouldn’t characterize it as hopeful, but I will say The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is the most skilled and poignant collection of war poetry I have ever read. Finishing the collection, one can see the full breadth of Flynn’s vision, the layers touched by injustice, from a nation down to a single broken spirit. The ending lines of “self-exam (my body is a cage)” best capture this haunting impression:

we think hungry
children live in our bellies, clutching their empty
bowls as the food rains
down, we sometimes think we are those
hungry children, we think
we can think anything & it won’t
matter, we think we can think cut out her tongue,
then ask her to sing
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Review Posted on February 01, 2011

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