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Poetry Sunday: Guest Editor Susan Cohen on ‘Dark Prison Ledger,’ by Lynne Knight

The final stanza continues this strategy of surprises, taking a sharp turn. Suddenly, the “we” readers might assume has referred to army interrogators huddling over the prisoner appears to morph into a reference to people standing far away at an open window, perhaps in a study, placidly listening to the wind turn pages. It’s a scene that incongruously conjures up the Romantic poets until the final line, “in the book of our shame.” At that point, the speaker seems to include poet and reader, an unarguably collective “we.” Did the identity of the “we” subtly switch, or remain the same? The poem asks us to consider our complicity as citizens who didn’t know or didn’t want to know what was done in our names, a continent away from our bucolic neighborhoods. And, it demands to be reread with this complicity in mind.

Returning to the beginning, even the title, now can be interpreted in multiple ways: dark as a literal physical description, as evil and shameful, or—using the bureaucratic-speak of rendition—as secret and off-the-books. If the “we” was collective all along, then all of us stood among torturers, the ones who “wanted to hear it,” who used “our instruments,” and believed the lies. We, too, were kept in the dark. Perhaps, though, we preferred it that way. Perhaps the lies we chose to believe included the lies of our government. Because this is a poem rather than an op-ed piece, Knight can keep all these possibilities open. Clarity means something different in prose than in poetry, which works with ambiguities. Knight doesn’t need to provide evidence or argument or spell out her conclusions further. She only has to use those ambiguities in ways that resonate, and I’d argue she succeeds.

Poets recognize political poems remain difficult to pull off, and also worry ephemeral references doom such work to immediate obsolescence. Art, after all, aims to stand the test of time, not fade like yesterday’s headlines. “Dark Prison Ledger” responds to the release of a Congressional report, a one-day or one-week news story. Will the poem speak to us longer than the particulars of that government document? In any case, the debate over torture continues. In any case, these times are compelling more poets, compulsive observers of their interior lives, to open the window as well.



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Guest Editor Susan Cohen’s most recent book of poems, A Different Wakeful Animal, won the 2015 David Martinson—Meadowhawk Prize from Red Dragonfly Press and can be ordered here. Cohen was a newspaper reporter, contributing writer to the Washington Post Magazine, and professor at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism before earning an MFA from Pacific University. Her poems appear widely in journals and anthologies, including the Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry and have received numerous honors, including the Rita Dove Poetry Award and the Milton Kessler Poetry Prize.




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