by Abby E. Murray (poet, professor, Army wife)
Draw Your Weapons, the recent essay collection by critical theorist and scholar of religion Sarah Sentilles (Random House, July 2017), was in some ways an effortless read—I gulped it down in three sittings—and in others, a staggeringly difficult one.
Down to its very structure, the book is set up to interact with the reader and simulate the overwhelming, constant intensity of violence. Draw Your Weapons consists of seventeen essays, but each is a carefully braided composition of vignettes, some as short as a single line while most are a third or half page. They read like poetry—the mark of an author who knows a reader’s ear. They are also devastating.
I can’t decide if the structure of Sentilles’ essay collection is a technique to appropriately overwhelm the reader’s experience of war, or if it’s intended to sustain it, carry it as a tragedy we can manage, barely, on our shoulders. Even as I devoured the book, I hobbled the entire time.
I had nightmares, sleeping next to my husband who has killed and watched his friends die, watched strangers die, who has seen the body come apart in such a variety of detail that, since he’s been home, I feel I’ve begun seeing what I’ve never seen if only so he can rest. The images of weaponry, drones, light and shadow, suitcases, sonatas—they steer my poems. Draw Your Weapons compelled me to write as I read, to sense the violence unfolding beyond combat zones.
Though Sentilles mentions pacifism as part of her own history, she creates the images of war with a skillful, critical distance reminiscent of poet Günter Eich, the German soldier captured by Americans in WWII. After the war, Eich wrote that things become reality only through writing, though he openly confessed he did not know reality. Sentilles has this poetic sensibility; to witness what readers may not sense firsthand from where we are, then draw us into her thoughts and experiences only after we’ve been made witnesses too. Our senses are dancing on pins when she shows us Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp in California, and the individuals filing through its doors:
The guards handed out rectangular tags, the kind you might tie to a gift or a suitcase, and ordered people to tag themselves. Everyone followed the instructions, wrote names, looped white strings though button holes, tied knots, and in the photographs the day seems so quiet I imagine the only noise you could hear was the rustling of those tags in the wind.
There was a spirit of shikata ga nai, the exhibit explains: It cannot be helped.
The government called them dislocated people, called them the unwounded casualties of war.
Sentilles creates main characters without conforming to any storyline, which effectively knocks us off our habit of resolution-seeking and refocuses us on human subjects. There’s Miles, the artist and student veteran Sentilles meets as an art theory instructor and eventually befriends, following his war experience from memory to expression and back again over several years; Howard Scott, the conscientious objector who began building a violin with the smuggled, handwritten help of his wife, Ruane, during his imprisonments on McNeil Island from 1942-1945. And, perhaps most intimately, we—citizens of countries at war, descendants of killers and the killed—are part of this narrative. Our complicity in centuries of war is dragged from the locked cupboard just outside our subconscious—as close as we can come to willfully burying it—for a thorough examination.
I’ve questioned the extent of my protesting war and violence for years, and that uncertainty is shaken loose again by Sentilles’ narrative. My philosophical flaw is—or, one of them is—when confronted with the trauma of violence and its permanent impact, I habitually fumble for a singular way to ‘best’ protect what remains vulnerable. Draw Your Weapons is a reminder that there is no best answer to violence. When it comes to destruction and survival, there are countless possibilities for human connection, a truth that’s only as comforting as the distance between you and war. How can I say I am a pacifist when I buy groceries on post for a discount? When I pay for gas? When I read the writing of the dead?
Though artists of performance, thought and literature are highlighted throughout the book (which opens with Brecht’s singing of the dark times and is generously peppered with references to Fanny Howe, Virginia Woolf and Susan Sontag), it is the work of photographers and painters that makes the most profound impression here. I didn’t find this necessarily problematic since, as someone who studies mostly war literature, I needed another angle of perception to bring me—us—closer to the living subjects of conflict.
The book is highly visual by nature, just as most contemporary poetry is, including my own. Intentionally isolating the senses to stimulate one or the other is difficult, but culturally, we’ve long since conditioned our heavy reliance on the sense of sight.
If I were to interpret Draw Your Weapons as the consideration of art and all its origins as it is witness to war, I might feel more troubled by the book’s visual current. I’ve just finished working the past year with a blind creative writing student where I teach at the University of Washington Tacoma. This student asked questions that consistently and necessarily halted classroom discussions in ways that forced us to decompose visual perceptions: What’s unique about an opal? What does saturated mean in terms of color? How does a face look pleading? I do wonder how I might assign Sentilles’ collection to the blind, how I might explain the phantom-ish weight of a laser that rests on a target about to be destroyed. Sentilles quotes Judith Butler, who writes that the critique of violence must begin with a critique of seeing, and though I’m using it in a different context here, I’ve recently become more familiar with critiquing the way I see and respond to seeing.
That said, I’d still assign this book (and am considering it in my Writing & War course). These essays may comprise the most poetic narrative I’ve read this year, which is to say it scorches and sings; it permeates the sleeping mind.
Sentilles, Sarah. Draw Your Weapons. Random House, July 2017.
buy Draw Your Weapons here.
About the reviewer:
Abby E. Murray teaches creative writing at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she also offers free poetry workshops to soldiers and their loved ones in Pierce County. She serves as editor in chief for Collateral, a journal that publishes work focused on the impact of military service, and her poems can be found in recent or upcoming issues of Rattle, Prairie Schooner, Stone Canoe, and the Rise Up Review.