The Poetics of Botero’s Abu Ghraib Paintings

E. Ethelbert Miller: What were your first impressions when you viewed the paintings of Fernando Botero?

Joseph Ross: They were awful and frightening. I found myself drawn back and forth from the place of the wounds—the chains, the bleeding—to the face and back again. I was angry that this was “done in my name,” to protect me.

I found myself amazed at the different response I had to the paintings with the bars in the foreground, versus the paintings without bars, where I was “in” the cell. These drew different feelings from me, all powerful.

Rose Marie Berger: I first saw the paintings online and they stuck in my mind, like a splinter. So, I sat down and wrote a poem, in response to first seeing them online. I used the online images for meditations during Lent—as a reflection on the passion of Christ. When I saw the actual paintings in the gallery, I was blown away. They were so big, the colors were so intense. The color I remember the most was the complexity of colors in the bruises.

When I viewed all 79 of the paintings and drawings, there are two pencil sketches of women in positions of agony. The shock I experienced was that I did not find women in agony to be unusual.

E. Ethelbert Miller: In your introduction to Cut Loose the Body you make the following statement: “We thought the word was gone. We thought we healed it out of our national vocabulary. We thought “torture” belonged to a foreign language, spoken only by dictators, who rule Anywhere but here. We were wrong.” Might this comment overlook the many cases of police brutality that never seem to go away within the African American community? Just a few years ago we had a police officer “torturing” a man in Brooklyn…

Rose Marie Berger: That is just the kind of critical question that this exhibit and poetry project raises. Do we only view torture as an extreme act in a military context? In the same way that most Americans don’t want to believe that the events at Abu Ghraib were more than a few bad apples, most Americans don’t want to believe that our unrepented racism results in horrible brutality.

Joseph Ross: In some ways, the words of the Introduction do overlook the torture of police brutality. Perhaps a difference is that at Abu Ghraib, the soldiers may have felt vindicated by the “war on terror,” that their actions were necessary in order to combat terrorism.

E. Ethelbert Miller: In many of Botero’s paintings the torturer is never seen. What might a poet leave out of a poem. Why?

Joseph Ross: A poet might leave out something obvious, that he wants the reader to wonder about. Perhaps Botero wanted us to focus on the victims’ suffering and nobility, rather than distract us by giving us a torturer in uniform to look at, wonder about. The poet uses whatever he can to evoke a response — even an absence.

Fernando BOTERO Abu Ghraib 43 (2005); Oil on canvas; Triptych: Each Panel 51 ¼ x 37 ¾ inches / 130 x 96 cm. © Fernando Botero, courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York, NY.

Rose Marie Berger: The tools of the painter and the tools of the poet are different. But they make similar choices, based on how they want the viewer or reader to interact with the art. Philip Larkin’s “The Whitsun Weddings” is a great example of a poet using absence to generate a certain energy within the reader. The last line is: “We slowed again, and as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled a sense of falling, like an arrow-shower sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.” This “arrow-shower” is war imagery of archers. However, Larkin reveals neither the archer nor the victim. When Botero focuses his paintings on the tortured and leaves out the torturer, he puts the viewer in the ambiguous position of being observer or, possibly, the torturer.

E. Ethelbert Miller: What type of criteria did you use to select poems for the anthology? Were there poems you already knew you wanted to include in the book? How did you determine the order of the poems?

Rose Marie Berger: We invited poets we knew were already engaged around the issue of Iraq or the issue of torture, whom we thought might already be familiar with Botero’s paintings or who might already have poems addressing torture. Nearly everyone we invited responded immediately and generously.

Part way through the submission process, we began hearing about Marc Falkoff’s collection of poems from prisoners at Guantanamo. After contacting Falkoff, he agreed to let us include some of those poems in our collection. This was an important contribution to have the voice of the poet-victim, as well as the poet-observer.

Joseph Ross: I knew I hoped we would include Rose’s poem “For Botero, Who Looked At What I Could Not.” Her poem, the only one in the collection that explicitly references the paintings, offers a beautiful and human response.

Rose Marie Berger: Some poets may have a rational or scientific approach to ordering a collection. In this case, I chose an intuitive approach that matched symbols and images, carried from poem to poem. I looked for ways one poem would raise a question which another might answer.

E. Ethelbert Miller: How do you wish people to respond to Cut Loose the Body.

Rose Marie Berger: Umberto Eco wrote: “Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.” We are hoping that the poems in this collection establish a different kind of bond between the reader and those who are held without trial and subjected to inhuman interrogation techniques.

Joseph Ross: I hope people are moved to feel compassion for the victim and anger at the torturer. And that both that compassion and anger can move us to live differently in the world.

E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies. John Feffer is co-director of the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies.