Poet's Choice: "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?" by Nick Lantz

Lantz, Nick (Vicky Lantz).jpgThe title of "Will There Be More Than One 'Questioner'?" comes from an interrogator's preparatory checklist in a declassified CIA document from 1983, the "Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual." I came across it while doing research for my book "We Don't Know We Don't Know," which focuses partly on salvaging poetry out of politically degraded language.

In clumsily seeking to conceal the manual's actual subject, the euphemism "human resource exploitation" comes off more sinister than "interrogation" (or even "torture") ever could. The manual disavows violence as an interrogation technique, but these disavowals appear in what are clearly later additions, and they are so frequent, and vigorous, that they too become unintentionally self-incriminating. The ironic quotes that appear around "questioner," "questioning" and so forth in the poem follow an identical convention used in the original document, and again, this evasion is full of menace. ("There is nothing mysterious about 'questioning,'" the manual's authors unconvincingly assure the reader.) Another convention carried over from the source document is the redaction and elision of text.

Through its preemptive denials, secrecy and doublespeak, the manual seeks in many ways to diminish the negative reactions it may illicit, but in so doing, it manages to sound more disturbing and more mysterious than it ever could have otherwise. This was both comical and sad, and I knew I wanted to use that language somehow in a poem. Very early in the writing process, I realized that the poem would itself be an interrogation, an almost abusive litany of questions. Though the poem of course reads against the backdrop our recent torture scandals and debates, its surreal turns free it of any particular time and place. The interrogator-protagonist who took shape ultimately interested me not for reasons of political ideology but for the way in which he exemplifies how even when we are privy to the most clandestine recesses of human behavior, we are still fundamentally shut out of true knowledge. No matter how many "questions" we ask, we cannot know everything.

Will There Be More Than One "Questioner"?
-- CIA Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual (1983)

Will the cell window look out onto a hem of mountains? An alley of hard-packed dirt? A seam of razor wire?
Will the "questioning" take place in the cell or at another location?
In the location where the "questioning" will take place, have provisions been made for restraints?
Will you know the crime of which he is accused before you begin the "questioning"?
Have provisions been made for surveillance?
Have provisions been made for refreshments?
Will there be light?
Will there be music?
During the day will all light be shut out?
Will you read the name on his dossier before entering the cell?
Before the "questioning" begins, will you offer tea scented with rose water?
Will you take his hand in yours?
Will you send for [ ]?
After the first day of "questioning," will you sit on the breezy veranda and read the confiscated letters from his wife?
Will it concern you that the detention center has a veranda in the first place, that from the nearest road, it looks like a rich man's estate, sprawl of tan buildings collared by a tender lawn?
For this reason, will you give him your real name even though to do so is forbidden?
Will you have an unconscious man dragged past the open door at a predetermined time?
Will you say, Excuse me, and then rise to shut the door?
Will you remember that the anticipation of pain is more acute than pain itself?
Will his wife send the same letter to every embassy, every week, for months?
What kind of music will be playing at night?
Will the unconscious man be missing his nose?
Will you ask questions you know are beyond his knowledge?
Will you ask questions that have no answers?
Will he say, No more for today, please?
Will you listen?
In the letters his wife sends, will she have left a blank space exactly the length of the words Where are you?
Will there be a window at all?
Will you show him your pistol just once?

Will you ask him what he did before the war?
Will a bucket in the corner continue to catch the drip of water?
Will he say, I was a farmer?
Will he say, I salvaged scrap metal?
Will he say, I was a faith healer who traveled in a covered wagon?
Will he say, I was a thief?
Will he say, I was an interrogator?
Will he say, I was a weaver?
Will you admit you've never understood the mechanics of the loom, how the shuttle racks back and forth and a pattern emerges?
Will he say, The loom has been more essential to the development of civilization than has the printing press or the cotton gin?
Will he say, I was a scribe when the centurions crucified your god?
Will you ask, How could you sit by and do nothing?
Will he say, It was my job to record such things, not to intercede?
Will you ask the stenographer to strike his last statement from the record?
Will there be a stenographer?
Will there be any record of what you've done, what you plan to do?
After many weeks, during a lull in the "questioning," will you speak of the first time your fingers grazed the inside of your wife's thigh?
Will he nod and say, Yes, I remember too, the smell of my own wife's hair on my face in the morning?
Will you ask him how he can remember anything?
Will he admit that more than once he has tried drowning himself in that bucket of dripped-down water?
Will you say, I know, we watch you day and night?
Will he ask, How could you sit by and do nothing?
Will you say, We thought you were praying?
Will you say, Even to witness an atrocity is a kind of courage?
Will you say, The remedy is worse than the disease?
Will you say, I misspoke, we see nothing?
Will you say, Such things are not up to me?
Will he say, After I failed, I had to wait ten years for the bucket to fill so I could try again?
Will you say, It was a hundred years?
Will he say, [ ]?
Will you ask, How are such wonders possible?
Will he say, The shuttle of the loom whispers as it makes its pass over the threads?
Will there be a translator?
At night will you rub the bumpy skin of his passport between your fingers?
Will you think of him while you eat dark honey smeared on dark bread in a cafe?
Will you sign the order?
Will you say, If it were up to me...?
The night before, will you keep him awake with unscripted questions?
Will you ask, When you were a healer, would you heal anyone? When you were a scribe, what did you omit? When you were a thief, did you steal from yourself?
Will he say, Questions in sufficient quantity are a kind of answer?
Will you ask, Like the drops falling into the bucket?
And will he say, No, not like that at all?

Many months later, will you recognize his wife buying loose tea and oranges from the market?
Will you take her picture from his dossier and carry it in your inside breast pocket?
Will you have her followed?
Will you sit in your car outside her house, which was once their house?
Will the house be made of marble? Sheets of corrugated tin? Bones and hide?
Will you approach her at the gate one morning and touch her arm, though to do so is forbidden, even for you?
Will you risk everything to say, He is alive, he is alive?
Will it be true?
Will she call out for help?
Will the bucket in the corner overflow?
Will you say, The anticipation of death is worse than death itself?
Will you say this to no one in particular?
Will you go to his cell, sit in the chair he sat in, and imagine your own face staring at you across the pocked table, your open mouth a hole that water drips through day and night?
Will there be light?
Will there be [ ]?
Will there be more than one "questioner"?
Will there be more than one "question"?
Will the loom hold taut the warp as the weft passes through?
Will a pattern emerge?
Will there be a witness to all we have said and done?

Nick Lantz is the author of "We Don't Know We Don't Know" (Graywolf Press) and "The Lightning That Strikes the Neighbors' House" (University of Wisconsin Press). He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

By Ron Charles |  March 2, 2010; 10:46 PM ET Poet's Choice
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amazing, as are other entries in this young poet's politically savy new book"We Don't Know We Don't Know" (thank you D. Rumsfeld)

Posted by: jwp4of5 | March 3, 2010 12:30 PM

I so vividly remember a young boy/man standing on the beach reading his very own poetry aloud. Little did he, his mother or myself, dream that poetry would be his name, poetry would be his passion, poetry would weave him through the world. Congradulations, Nick. It is so wonderful to read you, to read this explosive work/poetry. ruthie wantling

Posted by: rwbelt | March 4, 2010 11:20 AM

Since the books blog is now a political creature, does that mean all of the poems published in the Post's books section will be political in nature? I hope not.

Posted by: Heron | March 5, 2010 10:09 AM

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