EILEEN TABIOS Engages
OPERATIONS by Moez Surani
(Book Thug, Toronto, 2016)
My birthland, the Philippines, was colonized by the United States partly through the latter’s imposition of English across the archipelago as the language of business, politics and education. I was reminded of this particular history of the (ab)use of language as I read through Moez Surani’s OPERATIONS. Its brilliant and moving premise is to list all of the “names of the military operations conducted by member states of the United Nations from its inception in October 1945 to the incorporation of the Responsibility to Protect document in 2006.”
As such, you see the (ab)use of language by utilizing words like “ “Crossroads,” “Gerboise Bleue” and “Tsar Bomba” to articulate, respectively, a 1946 U.S.-American nuclear test detonated near the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, a 1960 French nuclear detonation in Algeria, and a 1961 Russian detonation of a large bomb in one of its northern group of islands.
Page after page of such words—such horror. I open the book at random for a page:
Flipping through the book, one gets disconcerted by how “military operation[s]” have been articulated through the names: “Bumby,” “Kamehameha [The Lonely One],” “Allied Harmony”… one can go on. And that’s part of the strength of this book-length catalog poem: once its premise is explained—and the book begins with such an explanation—the litany of names, as one reads them and no doubt more powerfully read them out loud, almost immediately becomes dark…then surreal…then, actually, like this excerpt from Elie Wiesel’s novel The Fifth Son:
"There is nothing to understand, for noise becomes torture and memory drives one mad and the future pushes us back to the edge of the precipice and death envelops us and rocks us and stifles us and, helpless, we can neither cry nor run."
“Black Magic,” “Labrador” (and what an obscene application of that name for a wonderful dog!), “Jingle Bells”…
The book’s title is actually “Operation” in the six official languages of the United Nations: Arabic, Spanish, French, English, Chinese and Russian:
Synchronistically, I read about Annette Lemieux’s art work “Left Right Left Right” shortly after finishing my first read of OPERATIONS and each made the other resonate more powerfully. “Left Right Left Right” depicts 30 images of raised fists, raised upward. From Carey Dunne’s article in Hyperallergic:
“Left Right Left Right” reflects on the role of protest in democracy. Printed on thick museum board and mounted on poles, the images resemble picket signs at a demonstration — one whose purpose appears ambiguous. Lemieux appropriated the pictures of fists from newspapers and magazines dating from the 1930s to the ’50s. Some fists depicted belong to famous political and cultural figures of diverse ideological persuasions, including Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, and Miss America. Others are anonymous …
The work and its title, “Left Right Left Right,” reflect the zig-zagging nature of politics, particularly in the United States. Turning the work upside down suggests a departure from this usual pattern of power transferred back and forth, from right to left; it evokes a capsized vessel, a collapse of the fulcrum on which opposing parties both pivot.
Using Dunne’s terminology, I thought most of the words in Surani’s poem—most of the words applied to a military operation—was a “capsized vessel.” While there are words that would seem militaristic—e.g. “Scalpel” or “Bold Action”—there were too many words that seemed upended from what they are supposed to signify—e.g. “Rose” or “Happy Valley.” Here, the poet accomplished what’s one of my favorite answers to how a poet creates a poem: no need to fictionalize or imagine; one simply must be observant, because poetry already surrounds us.
What is also useful and important for the project is Surani’s Introduction which is comprised of 12 parts. Yes, it goes into how he developed the project as well as his meditation on the authorship of the poem (an apt subject). But the Introduction also includes moving sections related to his love of names and an homage to Concepcion Picciotto who, when she conducted a 30-year peace vigil across the White House, created the longest political protest in U.S.-American history. Last but not least, the 11th section shares what Surani learned from his project; we can all learn from it:
Enlightenment can be difficult. OPERATIONS provides such an experience. Nevertheless, the reader—this reader—can only be grateful for Moez Surani’s thoughtfulness.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects because she's its editor (the exception would be books that focus on other poets as well). She is pleased, though, to point you elsewhere to recent reviews of her work: THE CONNOISSEUR OF ALLEYS was reviewed by Joey Madia for New Mystics Reviews, Book Masons and Literary Aficionado; and EXCAVATING THE FILIPINO IN ME was reviewed by Aileen Ibardaloza for "Filipina American Literature: Reading Recommendations" (Barbara Jane Reyes Blog). She released three books and two chaps in 2016, and is scheduled to release at least three publications in 2017. More info at http://eileenrtabios.com