Book Review: Lies of an Indispensable Nation
Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Empathetic poems layered with meaning about the horrors of war
Lilvia Soto has crafted a thoughtful, mournful collection in Lies of an Indispensable Nation: Poems About the American Invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. As the subtitle tells us, it’s primarily about war in the Middle East, but any thread of history can send us to other times and places, so these poems can be wide-ranging. They connect different parts of our shared human history, stirring a conscience for how we treat each other across borders, languages, and religions.
Soto begins with a series of short political essays on the early-21st-century Bush Doctrine, “according to which the United States reserved the option to wage a preventive war and opened the possibility for American use of nuclear weapons against nonnuclear states.” This political philosophy predated September 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks on that day were, of course, used to justify retaliatory invasions. But the U.S. already desired war in the Middle East.
Poems about war form the heart of the book. They describe the callousness and absurdity of sending soldiers to another country to kill men, women, and children living their daily lives. The imagery is of smoke and wreckage. Explanations and meanings are sought, levels of intensity are explored, but nothing can existentially account for this level of destruction—and yet the violence continues.
Soto, born in Mexico, taught Spanish American literature at Harvard and was the resident director of a multi-university U.S. study abroad program in Seville, Spain. Her perspective, then, is of someone contemplating the violence from afar, abstractly, and relating it to her own life, historical knowledge, and political sensibilities.
A standout is the eight-page poem “into the lizard’s eyes” which takes us on a whole journey. While drinking morning coffee, the speaker reaches out to the window glass, pretending to touch “the lizard’s pulsating belly, / feel its beating heart, / its tiny, powerful, beating heart / that vibrates her elongated body…” The lizard’s “amber gaze stirs old memories.” She remembers life in Seville, recalls the architecture of the Muslims of Spain, and her imagination takes her farther back in time to moments she could not have experienced and artifacts she could not have touched. All of history is tactile — “the gold-rimmed tea glasses, / the ornate, antique pipes / with their amber mouthpieces” — and language and emotion, too, become physical.
Another adventure is the poem “…until it stops fluttering.” It’s about the U.S. government dehumanizing the prisoners in Guantánamo, making them want to die and then force-feeding them to keep them alive, so it’s hard to call this poem beautiful. But in the last stanza, Soto explains how bare life is fetishized until it is seen as worthless and snuffed out. A prison like Guantánamo practices “the art of preserving a butterfly / by trapping the specimen in a net, / immobilizing it / with a gentle pinch on the thorax, / placing it in an extermination bottle / until it stops fluttering…”
As she writes in her closing essay, “Lacrimosa dies illa,” a perennial cause of violence is that “the United States believes that it has the right to bomb any country in the world that stands in the way of natural resources it craves or a geographic position it believes it needs for its full-spectrum dominance.” An “anesthetized conscience,” maybe a “dead conscience,” enables this.
The choice to bookend the poems with political essays may seem a bit of an odd choice because the styles are so different. I think, though, readers benefit by knowing exactly which period in U.S. history Soto wants to focus on and where she stands politically. Were there only poems, someone might wonder if she were exploiting real-life violence for its aesthetic effect or its narrative. The essays re-center the violence back into their historical context, encouraging us to try to understand how we got here and why we collectively wage such wars, and implicitly inviting us to make a different future.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Genre: Poetry / War
Print Length: 214 pages
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