Review of Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

by Amanda Huynh

Philip Metres’ poetry book, Sand Opera, is the Winner of the 2013 Beatrice Hawley Award; a bold and unforgettable collection that vividly explores the perils of war and the rippling effects it has on our culture. The collection can be viewed as an extension of his previous 2011 chapbook, Abu Ghraid Arias, as this chapbook is included in Sand Opera as a section. Sand Opera continues to explore the voices of Iraqi prisoners’ testimonies, American guards’ testimonies, the Bible, and the military Standard Operating Procedure manual. Metres writes from the center of being an Arab-American and unearths the raw aftereffects of the War on Terror; the injustice and humanity of war in a raw and emotional medium that historical facts lack. He also weaves his experience becoming a new father as well as coming to terms of what it means to be an Arab-American in a post 9/11 America.

Sand Opera contains a handful of lyrical and traditional pieces, but the collection is mainly a compilation of more experimental poems. Even the title of this collection is, in itself, a redaction of Standard Operating Procedure: Standard Operating Procedure. From the beginning, Metres sets his readers up for a very different poetic experience.

The poems that fall under experimental include elements such as redactions, caesuras, diagrams, strikeouts, overlays, and gray/faded text. In addition to a poetic essence, these craft decisions make his collection stand out as a visual artwork. Metres manipulates a prison room layout as an overlay and embeds text underneath. The result amalgamates a visual and textual reading, a rare sighting in poetry, but effective nonetheless. Metres does this a handful of times while orchestrating other stylistic choices. He presents the same poem, but dissects the piece by subtracting words, inserting caesuras, and redacting. All of these variations allow for a new reading in each interaction while building upon the previous one. Metres gains momentum by building devastating images and it creates a type of haunting that is carried throughout the book. While Sand Opera is very provocative in its presentation the content does not suffer from the risks Metres takes.

At the end, the reader is left with the hard truths that took place during the War on Terror as well as what follows in its wake. There are moments when the reader cannot turn away from the page which echoes the narrators’ situations in each poem. The collection creates a lasting impression of what it means to be a prisoner of war and highlights the tragedies that humans can inflict upon each other. It will leave any reader uncomfortable and vulnerable. Metres does infuse hope in learning from the past, and moving forward. Overall, Sand Opera offers a new approach to crating political poetry. For political poetry, Metres does stunning work that would be difficult to replicate. Any writer striving to write about current events or who want to take a political stance in poetry needs to read this book.

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