The city dims. God / of infinite sets
Aesthetics and Politics: A Reaction to “War Poem” As Film
Essay by Nomi Stone
“When I’ll pray the sun won’t devour/ your northbound steps” –Javier Zamora
Last week, in over 700 cities and towns across America, protesters marched against the Trump administration’s brutal immigration and refugee policies, calling for the reunification of the over 3,000 children separated from their parents and an end to indefinite detentions. Amidst the photographs of children in concrete-floored cages with foil blankets, there were decades of suns devouring steps. It is in this same searing month that Motionpoems releases the film Tyler Richardson made of my poem, “War Poem,” a poem also about refugees.
Tyler Richardson turned my poem “War Poem” (The New Republic, 2017) into a film in Season 8 of Motionpoems. To start: let me trace where the poem came from. I am an anthropologist and research war and American Empire; my poems are often inspired by what I’ve seen and stories I’ve heard. My second collection of poems (Tupelo 2019) is about the two years of fieldwork I spent in mock Middle Eastern villages erected by the US military across America for trainings. I’ve also done fieldwork about the refugee crisis in the Middle East. “War Poem” is inspired from several stories told to me by a migration aid worker—about moments that occurred in the Middle East and Africa. I wrote the poem while I was an MFA student at Warren Wilson, and my brilliant mentor Monica Youn read many drafts, as I worked to get it right: how much urban and how much pastoral; how to justly locate the voice of the poem and the witness within it?
When Tyler and I first spoke about translating the poem into a film, he told me he was thinking of shooting on the country roads of Upstate New York—and transposing the poem into a Westernized version of the refugee crisis. When he sent me the final cut some months later, he explained: “We decided to lean into the idea that this film is subtly referring to an Americanized version of the images that so often come from overseas––unrest, separation, refugees.” As Tyler wrote on “Director’s Notes,” he wanted to offer “a slice of just one journey shared between siblings and rooted in what is personal and relatable [to him].” He explained that he wanted to make a distant crisis more imaginable to a Western audience. I was immediately both anxious (at the thought of an “Americanized” version of the poem) and intrigued: what would a Western or American translation of my poem look like? I hoped for a portrayal of Empire at home.
The film is a dark pastoral: a country road, a thick fog, fenced meadows with spumes of flowers (I think it is goldenrod), a brother carrying his sister, a wound in her torso. Pan in over her form: her lips, her eyes; lashes flicker. Then the scene darts. (Red, bombs, a ruined city, her body doubled over in pain). Now we walk through cornfields. (Red red). Then, the light prisms over them. The film is powerful and intimate. It does feel like America—or like a myth of America. It also might be anywhere with cities and meadows and also wars. It is also aesthetically stunning. There were moments when I thought: too stunning?
Is there a risk here of aesthetics uncoupling from politics? Of rendering a refugee story within a dystopia of American cornfields (the very middle America that was captured by an election narrative of white suffering) rather than showing the contours of America’s actual refugee stories—at this country’s own border-zones? The film assimilates the poem into the imagery of a mythical America, omitting those who have historically suffered and continue to suffer most in the United States. I’m not a filmmaker, but I immediately began to imagine how I might transpose my own poem into a film set in America—that is, a true depiction of the Empire at home: on the US-Mexico border where asylum seekers sought entry and were turned away in masses. I thought of infrared lights and border patrol agents and American vigilante groups, of the terrible thirst of migrants trekking through the desert. After 9-11, and particularly after Trump’s election, we’ve seen such closure, such fear and loathing of the outside. The Empire shuts its doors. And: it’s ugly. None of it is beautiful. We must keep the teeth in politics and remember the very ugly particulars of this country’s history, of exactly who is suffering and how. I think often of these perils as I think about violence and representation: of how to bring aesthetics into ongoing triangulation with politics and ethics. Once, when I was observing a military pre-deployment simulation in a war camp in the United States, I found I had lost my bearings: the beautiful skyline and trees amidst swelling balloons of colored gas: green, yellow, purple, that were used as camouflage in the trainings. I thought of Marinetti’s futurist paintings of war, the glinting lines and shafts of light, and I wrote this poem (appearing in Kill Class, and originally at cellpoems).
Mass Casualty Event
Watching from inside
the game, billowing gasses
for camouflage, clouds
of green, luminous clouds
of yellow, the flushed face
of the Major’s child, our faces,
white-gold torches in the meadow.
I am in war. No,
I am in a game
of war. No, I am in a painting.
But I had forgotten where I was. Which war was this? Who was dying for what, and who did not have to die but could watch from their television? “The city dims. God/ of infinite sets, god of craters not visible to the naked/ eye: nothing prepared me for this.”
Nomi Stone’s second collection of poems, Kill Class is forthcoming from Tupelo Press in 2019. Winner of a 2018 Pushcart Prize, Stone’s poems appear recently or will soon in POETRY, American Poetry Review, The New Republic, The Academy of American Poets’ “Poem-a-Day” series, Bettering American Poetry 2017, The Best American Poetry 2016, Tin House, New England Review, and elsewhere. Stone teaches at Princeton University and has an MFA in Poetry from Warren Wilson College.