Phantom Language

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely

“I don’t remember anything that happened to me.” Michael lifts his hands to chest level as if he is about to catch something. He has beautiful hands that make neat stitches on a hem or trace in the air music’s rise and fall.

Now they feel the emptiness in front of him, searching its parameters, the borders of this forgetting.

“I don’t remember anything, really.” He looks up and to the left as if the memory hangs somewhere in his periphery.

“My time in jail is a blank time.”

His memory, attuned to the finest details, was one of the first things I noticed about him. We both volunteer in the food bank’s garden and, as we eased lettuce seedlings into the ground, he told me a story saturated with particulars: what everyone wore, how they sat, the type of wood the table was made from, how its grain aligned.

I had noticed a tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve as we weeded. It is a cross, lightly colored, mostly scar, the size of a silver dollar. When I asked about it, he continued to dig for a few moments. Then straightened up and faced me.

“I don’t usually tell people this, but I don’t want to lie to you. I got it in jail.”

I wait for the story, but the prison—its walls, its people, its colors—is blank.

What he remembers is this: Moby-Dick, An American Tragedy, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Look Homeward, Angel­—paperbacks he read in the prison library. He can recite the first chapter of Moby-Dick from “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely” to “one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air,” shaping the sentences with his hands, marking commas with his index finger.

Shortly after leaving prison, he let two friends trying to break into the business tattoo the left side of his back with a saucer-sized black circle caught in a net of angular tendrils that reach over his left shoulder and down to his lower back, scooping around his waist. Nearly a decade and a half later, he chose a tattoo for his right side and hired an established professional to render the spectral cherry blossoms of Ando Hiroshige, with subtle browns and pinks, little blue sepals cup each blossom. The delicate branches mirror the crude tendrils, reaching toward the blank space over his spine.


Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off, the ones which remind us of our precariousness, remind us our intellects won’t save us, remind us we are animal—the sudden crack of the ice, the rearward tilt of the ladder, the lunge of the dog’s teeth. Those times when our bodies, gripped by pain, become foreign to us, even antagonistic. When relating these stories language retreats and the body takes over narration. One rises from the chair, lifts the arms, or drags the collar down to show—there, there is where it broke.

I rise almost without realizing in the thin hospital gown and say, “I was like this.”

Say, “He had me like this.”

Then even those fragments break apart, separating from one another like petals as a blossom scatters in a strong wind, and the nurse takes me to the table so my body can continue telling. Telling with blood, with swab, telling with flinch, telling the needle, telling the stitch. The single stitch. The nurse’s hand on my shoulder telling me we can stop at any time.


Take almost any path you please

Browsing in a used bookstore, I found an ancient botany book, pages stiff with age, crenulated from water damage. The author, whose name was obliterated when someone tried to pull the title page from the cover, writes, “Poppies deflorate with such rapidity that their loss of identity is nearly instantaneous.”


Nothing will content them but the extremist

The injury resulting from violence is a particular species of injury, distinct from the broken ice, fallen ladder, startled dog. It is the result of force as defined by Simone Weil, “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing” (3).

In hundreds of minute gestures, our bodies speak memories, wordless ones where language shears off…

When violence is inflicted on the body, the body is evacuated of self; it becomes a vacant site upon which another acts, a blank where the aggressor inscribes their own narrative. Once I saw a photograph of a man who had been lynched and set on fire. His body slumps against the tree, a shell of ash, the ribs and sternum whittled down by heat, legs sprawl in front. He still wears black dress shoes and patterned socks. His head is gone; his name not recorded.

The photograph was in Without Sanctuary, an exhibit I saw at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. As I stood in front of the photo of the decapitated body, I saw that we, the mostly white viewers, were reflected in the glass, our apparitions interspersed with those of the mob.

The photographs were presented with little historical context, as objects meant for our gaze, matted on dark gray paper, framed in silver.  This crowd of well-educated museum-goers was probably already aware that lynching occurred with astonishing frequency up through the 1960s, and continues, though sporadically, into the present. What new knowledge did these photographs bring us? Why had I come to the exhibit?

We learned nothing of the man in the photo. He remains evacuated, a space upon which our gaze rests. Like the mob, we look at this man as wholly body, a mute thing. Like the mob, we stand in the serenity of our belief that we were not the ones who did it; we are not the violent ones.


Sleeps his meadow

Though the act of representing violence arises from the laudable intention to expose abuses, it carries the risk of replicating Weil’s formula: to make our looking “[T]hat x which turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” This particular critique of the image was raised after the release of the Abu Ghraib photos by a variety of critics and writers. In Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry,” the poet Philip Metres argues that the “mass media’s recirculation of visual images of naked and dominated Iraqi men completed the acts that Charles Graner and other United States military police had begun” (1596). Metres implies that torture requires spectatorship. The humiliation of the prisoners involved the threat the photographs would be seen. By looking at them, we help Graner make good on his threat.

Metres asserts that looking at such photographs amounts to participating in maintaining the structure that allows for, even encourages, these brutalities. He writes that the photos inspire “a psychic defense against identifying with the victims that imperial ideology requires to maintain hegemony of its beneficiaries-subjects” (1597).In other words, we guard discomfort by imagining what it is like to be the torturer instead of the tortured. In identifying with the perpetrator, our impulse is to seek justifications for their actions rather than retribution for the victim.

The Abu Ghraib photos lend themselves readily to this reading; victims’ faces are always obscured and the bodies arranged in abstract planes and shadows, while the aggressors look directly at the camera, engaging with the viewer. As Arthur C. Danto writes in The Nation, “When the photographs were released, the moral indignation of the West was focused on the grinning soldiers, for whom this appalling spectacle was a form of entertainment. But the photographs did not bring us closer to the agonies of the victims.”

However, the danger of a photo objectifying its subject must surely be outweighed by the need to expose wrongdoing. Amnesty International reported incidences of torture at Abu Ghraib as early as July 2003. Only after the photos were shown during an April 28, 2004 episode of 60 Minutes II did the Army begin a serious investigation of prisoner abuse. How do we balance the need for information with the inherent danger contained in the images of tortured bodies? More importantly, why do we need these photos? Why does empathy require the image?


Should you ever be athirst

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I loved to go to Buhl’s Planetarium to watch the Foucault’s pendulum in the vaulted entryway. I would peer over the brass railing into the marble well and follow the path of the copper bob as it swung back and forth above a disk of green stone set in the floor. As my sisters scattered into the museum I would wait for the bob to tip over one of the silver pegs. If I went late in the day, I could watch the final peg fall.

After the assault, it took me a month to realize what had happened. I had a hundred ways to explain it away: a mishap, mistake, or miscommunication. In a strange echo of Metres’ theory, I sympathized with my attacker. I thought he didn’t understand what he was doing. Maybe I gave him mixed signals. It was no big deal, he apologized. I bet he feels terrible. I arranged all my explanations like little silver pegs in a circle around me.

However, I experienced continuing health issues and needed to return to the doctor. Unable to face the examining room alone, I reached out to a friend. As I told her the version of events I had concocted to protect myself from feeling like a victim, I watched her face reveal horror. She put her hand on my arm and said quietly, “But you said no.” The final peg fell and rolled into some dark recess. I could barely catch my breath as the realization opened up a well of grief inside me.

Then I wanted to talk about it all the time, to whoever would listen. I was shocked by the insistence, my need to speak into the blank left by the attack, to assert myself against that X reducing me to a thing. To say, “I was raped” is to use “I” as a subject. To say, “I survived sexual assault” is to use “I” as a subject in an active sentence construction. To say, “Though I survived sexual assault, I am starting to feel less afraid” situates the subject in a grammatical construction that suggests time, suggests the subject exists prior to as well as after the verb in the dependent clause.


Will not suffice

In the months following the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs, fourteen detainees testified before a military tribunal. More than a hundred pages of this testimony were leaked to the New York Times. Without the photographs, would the voices of these men ever have been heard?

These photographs are valuable because they created a space for the subjects to tell their own stories. In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry argues that because torture produces little useful military intelligence, it is not a military tactic, but instead a tactic to destroy the personhood of the victim. It reduces the person to a “state anterior to language, to the sounds and cries a human being makes before language is learned” (4). To relate a story is an attempt to undo that process, to return to a state of language, to begin to reconstitute subjectivity through the act of speaking. To tell a story is to organize an event and our reactions to it into a meaningful, legible narrative. It is to interpret, an act that asserts our human-ness, and declares we are not a thing, we are a subject who speaks.

When I saw Metres present his own poetry based on the testimony of the ex-detainees at Indiana University, he said, “Their ability to tell their stories is a testament to survival.” Ability is the subject of the sentence, not story, suggesting it is simply the act of telling that testifies to survival, that survival is embedded in narrative, regardless of content. If a detainee chose to tell a different story—the birth of his daughter, graduating from university, learning how to bake bread—he would still be testifying to survival.


But here is an artist

Michael loves to tell stories. His photographic memory and affection for detail can make listening to his stories trying.

“The wood is oak,” he’ll begin. “It’s not overly finished, so you can see the grain and the spalting, which makes a black honeycomb pattern.”

At first, I would get distracted during his stories.

“No tablecloths, just these long wooden tables, you know maybe from here to about there. And the walls are made of a similar wood. Maybe a bit lighter. So you sit at this long table. One side is a continuous bench built into the wall and on the other side—well, they aren’t stools exactly because they have a little back, maybe three inches or so.”

Over time, I have learned to be patient and enjoy the way his stories invite me to settle in, allay the endless spinning in my mind through the lists of things I have to do. Then I can see how the level of detail is not self-indulgent; rather it is his attempt to allow me to participate in the experience, as if I was really there with him.

When we tell each other stories, we arrest time, we open a pocket of stillness for the listener; we invite them into another space with us, like welcoming them into our home or leading them to our favorite painting in a museum.

When we share stories, we stand in relation to one another as listener and teller, a relationship that creates continuity between each other.  The source of this continuity is, to borrow a phrase from Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, “the way each affirms the aliveness of the other” (89). In this relationship, “each ‘welcomes’ the other: each—to return to the word’s original meaning—‘comes into accordance with [the] other’s will’” (90). The root of accordance is Latin: cord, or heart. Literally, accord means to bring heart to heart. This does not suggest passive submission to another’s will, but an active agreement to come into harmony with the other.

In other words “to come into accordance with the other’s will” is to create a relationship of mutual consent.

Scarry argues that justice rests on the “symmetry of everyone’s relations to each other,” borrowing a definition from John Rawls (93). In other words, the practice of justice begins with a decision to bring ourselves into accordance and acknowledge our mutual aliveness. This is analogous to the relationship between teller and listener of a story, which also requires a recognition of each other’s mutual aliveness. Moreover, storytelling requires a recognition of one’s ability to speak and the other’s ability to comprehend—both human activities. Therefore it is not merely a recognition of mutual aliveness but of mutual personhood. Because it creates this relationship of symmetry and mutual consent, storytelling can be an act of restoration after violence.

With violence there is no symmetry. One is forced to submit to another’s will. How is the balance of right relations restored? In cases in which the violence is intimate, the perpetrator known, the place your own house or even your own bed, legal action becomes treacherous. For many women the choice is between the silence left by brutality or speaking into another brutality, the brutality of questions that imply our complicity or guilt. But didn’t you invite him in? Were you not his lover? Hadn’t you said yes before?

And I am left with fantasies of crowbars, broken bottles, and most of all my fist so that I could actually feel the bone’s snap, so that he would know what it is like to be this close to someone, to be held in their arms as they break into your body, reduce it to a thing. And it occurs to me this is how it happens, this is how we have run amok in the thousands of gestures—large and small—where we fail to recognize the other’s aliveness.


It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life

I couldn’t watch the 60 Minutes II on Abu Ghraib. Instead I read a transcript of the show without the photos. Eventually they were unavoidable, the naked and hooded men, the pyramid of curled bodies, the soldier flashing thumbs-up over a corpse.

What was avoided, however, was the fact that there were forty-two female prisoners in Abu Ghraib. In a quick news search, I learned the brutality visited upon them was indeed photographed, and that Congress has seen these photos, but they have not been released to the public.

This is as far as I can go, because I can barely bring myself to think about those women. Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.  Though I intellectually recognize my experience is in no way equivalent to these women, the sentence there were women there aches in my body, in my joints that I wrenched against his weight. I flee into books and articles, philosophy and science, even the dictionary—for any word to say aloud to remind me I am human.


old hunks in that particular instance

Just to hear the sentence there were women there crushes me with a fear I can neither name nor speak my way around, nor away from.

Because rape is considered to be a great shame on a family, the lack of a full account of what happened to the women in that prison allows for continued terrorism against former detainees and their families. Accusations that women were raped in Abu Ghraib have become another weapon in Iraq’s ethnic conflict. Doctored photos of rivals’ wives and daughters in the center of a circle of American soldiers are dropped off on doorsteps, circulated on grainy flyers. My government’s refusal to conduct a full investigation of prisoner abuse leaves these women in limbo, makes them a blank upon which contradictory narratives about the American invasion are inscribed. One story claims the invasion led to their liberation, and the other claims it led to their subjugation.  And I stand, helpless, on the other side of the world.

Instead, I search the blurred faces of the mob in the lynching photo, looking for particulars, something to make one of those people recognizable. I want to ask them: How could you visit such violence on your neighbors? How can you reduce those who share your quality of aliveness or personhood to objects? But I also want to ask, how can we do this? How can we visit violence—if just by looking or even by looking away—on others? More importantly, what can we do now, with our voices and our bodies, to begin restoration, even if we know it will never be complete?


There is now your insular city

At first it seems the two male dancers are mirrors of the women, who stand slightly in front of them. They arabesque when the women arabesque, they jetté when the women jetté. Their movements so exacting they are mesmeric. Then the women draw their bodies upward on pointe, arms lifted—high and slender—to the ceiling as the men plié deeply, legs wide. The men shift their weight to the left leg, extending the right outward. The women grasp the outstretched leg for support as they lean, lifting their own leg skyward. Just at the moment when they can’t go any farther, where any more forward tilt would cause them to fall, they release their partner’s leg and cantilever forward into his arms.

We move in relation to one another’s bodies, stepping aside slightly so the other can pass, squaring ourselves on either side of a heavy object before lifting together, leaning our weight back into the belayer’s harness as the climber ascends. In dance bodies move in relation to one another in a way that is completely non-teleological; they are not trying to get anywhere, lift an object, or climb something. The goal is the relation between bodies; the relation between bodies is not a means to an end but the end itself.

What if in the negotiations of our private relationships, in the planning of our cities, and in our political lives we thought of our relations to one another not as teleology, but as choreography?


Wade knee deep in tigerlilies

We tell each other stories.

We tell each other stories in this relationship of welcome, of mutual consent.

My grandmother had a great glass jar of smooth grey pebbles she collected on the various beaches she visited during her life, and she would take them out and let me hold them. That is how I think of these stories we tell each other, lifting each pebble out and passing it across the table. We take the same pebbles out each time, lining them up in a row.

This is the thing my mother said that hurt me.

This is the time I felt alone.

This is how my father left.

My need to announce my assault to the world vanished as quickly as it came and just as inexplicably, so I’ve told Michael very little about the actual assault. Instead, I tried out different pebbles.


The house I grew up in had decorative windows in the entryway that acted like prisms, scattering rainbows all over the dark carpet where I would lie on my back reading.


My father loved to make fresh pasta. He would crank yards and yards of spaghetti out of a pasta maker and drape them over two brooms balanced between the chairs. When I was small I loved to crawl under the chairs and imagine I lived in a pasta house.


When my mother and I were in Portugal we ate fresh figs every morning. We would wake up, go to the market and sit on the stone stairs of the cathedrals and alternate a bite of fig with a bite of cheese, watching the city wake up.


And, still unable to conjure that blank time, he hands me what pebbles he can.


I remember my father had all these fruit trees. When I would visit him in Florida, I could eat peaches directly off the trees and I would have to bend over so the juice wouldn’t spill all over me.


When my family lived in Tennessee, my brother and I found this enormous stone in the woods behind our house and that’s where we would play. We were out there for hours, days even. Whenever I think about Tennessee all I see is that stone.


The first night I bought my house, my friend came here—there was no electricity or anything—and we sat on this porch and split a bottle of champagne and planted that poplar tree.


two and two there floated into my inmost soul

The fall crops were done. Michael and I dug up a dozen turnips and the greens were too spare to make harvest worth it. Packing up the shed at the food bank’s garden for the last time, Michael said to me, “If you ever want to tell me what happened, you can.”

But I didn’t want to tell that story—a story of pain and devastation. Instead, I talked about writing and literature and photography, speech that held the grief at bay. I never told him the full story of what happened; the traumas that originally brought us together ultimately made being together impossible. However, over those months from sweet peas to collards, Michael and I told each other hundreds of stories, reminding me that what defines us is not a series of events, or an accumulation of traumas. In fact trying to pin down “what defines us” is an impossibility. We are—if we are lucky—like dancers, always in motion and in relation to one another.



Works Cited

“Accordance.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 2nd ed. 1989. Wells Library, Indiana University, Bloomington IN. <>

Danton, Arthur C. “The Body in Pain.” The Nation. 26 November 2006. <>

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. New York: Norton, 2002.

Metres, Philip. “Remaking/Unmaking: Abu Ghraib and Poetry.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2008, pp. 1596-1610.

————-. “The Writer in the World.” Artsweek Presentation. Neal Marshall Center, Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana. 26 February, 2009

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP, 1985

————-. On Beauty and Being Just. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1999.

Weil, Simone. The Iliad or a Poem of Force. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill, 1956.

Elizabeth HooverElizabeth Hoover is a feminist poet who enjoys working on projects with conceptual or research elements. Her poetry has recently appeared or is forthcoming in PANK and The Los Angeles Review. Her essay “Phantom Language” was a finalist for the VanderMey Nonfiction Prize.  She is the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University.