Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Issue 28, April 2013—Erasure Issue)

Solmaz Sharif
The Near Transitive Properties of the Political and Poetical: Erasure

Every poem is an action.

Every action is political.

Every poem is political.


A lover, once: You can’t say every action is political. Then the word political loses all meaning.

He added: What is political about this moment?

I was washing his dishes. I had left the water running.


The first time I confronted erasure as an aesthetic tactic I was horrified. I don’t remember exactly when or what it was. I know I was in the United States. I know it was an erasure undertaken by a poet of the United States. I know it was after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, after “extraordinary rendition” and disappeared men flown to secret sites in Somalia, certainly after attempted annihilation indigenous languages and peoples, after the enforced illiteracy of black slaves, certainly after Deir Yassin and the establishment, too, of this settler colonial nation. I know I thought of erasure as what a state does.

Let’s stick with this initial horror for now. After all, the proliferation of erasure as a poetic tactic in the United States is happening alongside a proliferation of our awareness of it as a state tactic. And, it seems, many erasure projects today hold these things as unrelated.

Still, when it comes to erasure, this very form of palimpsest, the ghost is not only death or the degradations of time—the ghost is the state itself.


Erasure means obliteration.

The Latin root of obliteration (ob- against and lit(t)era letter) means the striking out of text.

Poetic erasure means the striking out of text.

Poetic erasure has yet to advance historically.

Historically, the striking out of text is the root of obliterating peoples.

e.g. Hilary Clinton said in her 2008 Presidential campaign: we would be able to totally obliterate them.

The Iranians, she said.

She said, That’s a terrible thing to say but


Moazzam Begg is a British citizen who was arrested in Pakistan and detained for three years in Guantánamo. While there, Begg received a heavily-censored letter from his seven-year-old daughter; the only legible line was, “I love you, Dad.” Upon his release, his daughter told him the censored lines were a poem she had copied for him: “One, two, three, four, five, / Once I caught a fish alive. / Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, / Then I let it go again.”

from Poems from Guantánamo: The Detainees Speak (University of Iowa Press, 2007)


In 2008, I read a New York Times article about Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo prisoner that was subject of a Supreme Court decision overruling the legitimacy of the military commissions set up there. This article dealt with his mental health. It had deteriorated.

They say Mr. Hamdan has essentially been driven crazy by solitary confinement in an 8-foot-by-12-foot cell where he spends at least 22 hours a day, goes to the bathroom and eats all his meals. His defense team says he is suicidal, hears voices, has flashbacks, talks to himself and says the restrictions of Guantánamo “boil his mind.”

In response:

Guantánamo, a military spokeswoman said, does not have solitary confinement, only “single-occupancy cells.”


The prosecutors argued that the way that Mr. Hamdan was being held did not constitute solitary confinement in part because “detainees can communicate through the walls.”

They meant:

In the cells where Mr. Hamdan and more than 200 of Guantánamo’s 280 detainees are held, communication with other detainees is generally by shouting through the slit in the door used for the delivery of meals.

At the time of the article’s publication, he had been imprisoned for 6 years and had only been allowed only two phone calls home to Yemen. After his imprisonment, a daughter, whom he had yet to see, had been born. Then, one line:

Mail is late and often censored, lawyers say.


Erasures I have written: 1) a series of imagined letters to Salim Hamdan from his wife, redacted by the Joint Task Force; 2) a mimicked attempt to translate, with my own broken Farsi, letters an uncle wrote from the frontlines of the Iran Iraq War shortly before he was killed in said war (one of a million).

With my uncle’s letters, sounding the words out Arabic letter by Arabic letter was, well, humbling. There was so much I could not access. I could have had a family member translate it word by word, but that felt inauthentic. My inability to translate was like my inability to speak to him physically and that inability, I thought, should remain. At one point, however, I recruited an Iranian friend and asked “What is m-y-n [I can never recall the proper names of the letters, just their English near equivalents]?” “Meen,” she said, worried. “Meen” means “landmine”. So that in the middle what I could not access—his fear, his longing for home, his food cravings and jokes—a mine appeared, right in fraught space between us.

Both of these utilizations of erasure are letters written by myself and then obliterated. Neither manipulate actual source materials as erasure often does. Both are about communication interrupted by state and political forces. Both attempt to parrot the loss and attempt really only that.


In “A Note on Process,” Srikanth Reddy on assembling Voyager based on Kurt Waldheim’s memoir:

I then deleted language from the book, like a government censor blacking out words in a letter from an internal dissident.


We can look to any number of state redacted documents to make these next points. Let’s just start here:

short while ago she was given the American Academy Arts and Letters award, which was a thousand dollar fund to be used as the applicant desired. …was not contacted as he is now a member of the Armed Forces in the 2nd Signal Radio Corps, CAMP RICHIE, Maryland. …that she had not known the applicant prior to her employment and that she was employed through a local employment office. … She considers that the applicant has excellent morals, is honest, is a loyal American and that her writings do not reflect any political philosophy. She believes that the applicant is violently anti-Nazi and as far as she could remember, other than displaying her contempt for the Nazis, had not discussed political view points with her. … He did not use any of her work as he considered that the work she had furnished was too poetic and did not fit in with their picture. However, he stated that this did not in any way detract upon applicant’s ability; that he considered her a brilliant writer, conscientious, and would be willing to re-hire her under other circumstances. … but knows her associates; people of her own type, writers and painters and other people in the arts, and states that the applicant is dependable and can be trusted. REFERENCES … He considers her a brilliant young poet; has received prizes from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and a prize from a poetry magazine for being an outstanding poet; and does not consider, in any way, her articles to be of a political nature. He states that he knows of articles that the …


It is from the American poet Muriel Rukeyser’s FBI file.

Muriel Rukeyser, taken about 1942, SF File 100-24064

She was surveilled in these states for decades. Most of the documents are dull and recount what so and so neighbor said about her American-ness, her uprightness, her Marxism. I try not to think of what my neighbors would say. They have yet to learn to pronounce my name.


Objectives of state redaction as set forth by Muriel Rukeyser’s redacted file:

  1. Render information illegible to make the reader aware of her/his position as one who will never access a truth that does, by state accounts, exist
  2. Isolate text in time and instance
  3. Maintain a myth of transparency-in-the-citizen’s-best-interest
  4. Care not for what is left behind, but for what is crossed out
  5. Invoke fear and paranoia via inaccessibility
  6. Fashion text into a dead end


Possible political and aesthetic objectives of poetic erasure as set forth by a multiplicity of sources:

  1. Highlight via illegibility and silence an original erasure (e.g. Jen Bervin’s Dickinson Fasciles or Phil Metres’ Abu Ghraib Arias)
  2. Collapse time and instance between dead and living (e.g. “The dead do not cease in the grave.” Srikanth Reddy, Voyager, p 3)
  3. Expose author’s authority and, therefore, role as culpable participant (e.g. “…the very fact of mutilating the text broke the spell the complete text has on us. I use the word ‘mutilate’ with great deliberation here since I was dlieply aware at the time I worked on Zong! that the intent of the transatlantic slave trade was to mutilate—languages, cultures, people, communities and histories—in the effort of a great capitalist eliterprise. And I would argue that erasure is intrinsic to colonial and imperial forces. It’s an erasure that continues up to the present.” M. NourbeSe Philip)
  4. Care for what is left behind so that erasure has an additive or highlighting effect (e.g. “my first encounter with the text as a potential palimpsest for erasure was reading the words “If it had no pencil, / Would it try mine – li—the first words attributed to Dickinson in 1861. I took a pencil and circled those words. In the next three poems I circled phrases: “a Flag”— “Victory”—”Martyrs”—”Streaks of Meteor – / Upon a Planet’s Blind” and realized that I could work with these beginning poems as erasures.” Janet Holmes)
  5. Render incomplete a text to invite collaboration between reader and text (e.g. while not an intended erasure, If Not Winter, Sappho’s fragments, Anne Carson trans.)
  6. Point to the nearly infinite possibilities and infinite centers of a single text (e.g. any appropriation)


The political is not topical or thematic, it is tactical and formal. It is not, as its strictest definition supposes, something relegated to legislative halls, but something enacted wherever power is at hand, power being at hand wherever there is a relation, including the relation between text and reader.

I’m interested in the partial lists above for two reasons: 1) I do not wish to replicate state control or participate in obliteration’s etymology; 2) I am interested in what activism can learn from poetry.

What I mean by this second point is that I believe failure in activism is often a deficiency of lyricism—an inability to collapse time and distance, a refusal to surprise or “make it new,” a willingness to calcify into rigid and limiting expectations, a closure to self-transformation, an unconsidered we or you, to name just a few. I believe social quests for freedom have much to learn from freedom enacted on the page. And that this conversation should happen on the level of reading and not, as it often is, solely on the level of intention. Meaning a political reading should happen with as much with Matthea Harvey’s Of Lamb as it should with M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong!

It’s a conversation that should happen especially with erasure, the most blatantly political forms of late. Erasure may well be the closest poetry in English has gotten to role of the state.

To not attempt this conversation wastes the opportunity to create a cultural acumen that can inform political change. It wastes the danger—because poetry is, if we will it, a dangerous business in this republic.


One, two, three, four, five,

Once I caught a fish alive.

Six, seven, eight, nine, ten,

Then I let it go again.