Review of The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn

Nick Flynn. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. 94 pp. $15.95, hardcover.

Like much of Nick Flynn’s work, his newest poetry collection serves as a book of witness. The title is quite telling. With it, we have the idea of a volunteer: those who offer to fight, and the captured who are asked to divulge information. Here, Flynn deals with subject matter similar to his most recent memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb (W.W. Norton, 2010), which chronicles the crimes committed at Abu Ghraib prison, the approaching birth of his daughter, and the struggle to understand his role as a father. As in the memoir, the speaker in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands feels an obligation to protest the atrocities of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. The book is a compilation of voices, sometimes taking the form of dense prose poems, sometimes decidedly lyric and ethereal. Flynn’s characters are the tortured, the torturers, those in power, and those who observe from a seemingly safe distance. It is interesting to see how such similar subjects are treated in two different mediums by the same author.  As both a poet and a memoirist, Flynn’s main goal is to speak for those who cannot.

Much of the book is concerned with the idea of failure, which is particularly present in the first few poems. In “haiku (failed),” Flynn writes, “We are all god’s children / we are all gods, we walk the earth.” Yes, we may be gods who have the power to wage war, to commit great harm, but we are failed gods if we must walk. Earlier in the poem, Flynn establishes there is a “thin thread that holds us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together.” This “thin thread” ties us to the world and to each other. In the poem, Flynn muses on what the thin thread could be called, “telephone? horizon? song?” What else ties us to each other— our humanity? A soul? Later, the poem discusses the idea that humanity is connected, and that inside each of us is a ship with two sails, ready to move off “out of sight.” If humanity is connected, then the torturer and the tortured are two similar beings. If the ship within us can set sail at any moment, our existence on earth is tenuous and given to failure. The poem, too, is a failure. It’s called a haiku though it looks like a prose poem. It looks like a prose poem but there are line breaks indicated by slashes. This form is repeated often, and honors the dichotomy between power and powerlessness Flynn successfully creates.

The second poem is a longer, sectioned piece titled “fire.” It’s a persona poem written in the voice of a soldier addressing his captain. In it, he tells a story through a series of flashbacks “as if it were a confession.” He is haunted by the molestation and burning of children, by the fires he intentionally set which he calls “little flare-/ ups, flash fires.” This phrase also serves as a metaphor for the poems in this collection. Searing in their intensity, they are often tightly-wound and economical. If the poems were a meal they’d be rations. The reader must consume only a little at a time, lest one fill too quickly. The concerns of this book are so raw, so demonic, Flynn’s characters must do their telling in small doses. For example, in the poem “air,” we are given just a series of words:

maybe our bodies are no more than jars
meant to hold what we name everything

airplane photograph leash glove & song
it all pours in with each breath.

Obviously, Flynn is referring to 9/11 and the offenses committed at Abu Ghraib prison. Because they are events steeped in the minds of conscious readers, he need only mention a few key words to put us in the right frame of mind. The words are rather ordinary, but together they echo contemporary events.

Flynn’s concern with war and religion is overtly evident, but in this collection he’s also fascinated with pop culture, the body as a vessel, and with the elements: fire, air, earth, and water. To burn, to strangle, to bury, to drown, all are methods of torture used. No dirty deed escapes Flynn’s eagle eye.

Often, Flynn uses the vernacular of nursery rhymes to discuss the subjects of war and 9/11, such as in “e. corpse”:

look: this little piggy ate

roast beef, this little piggy ate
none (this can’t be
right). Thursday’s child is
bound to crash, Friday’s child is ashes


He employs this medium not for the usual purpose of making the subject’s bitter medicine easier to swallow, but rather to point out that these wars have forever marred any subsequent generation. Yes, there is milk to drink, the poems seem to say, but the milk is pink. There’s blood in the milk.

By using pop culture references, Flynn tries to lighten the mood. Into the tapestry of war, Flynn weaves phrases from songs by the Kinks, Modest Mouse, and Arcade Fire. He juxtaposes ideas from Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon, the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, poetry from Bishop, Crane, Kinnell, and Whitman with the testimonies of Abu Ghraib detainees. In the same way opposites are mirrored throughout the book, these references serve to marry the contemporary with history. In the prose poem, “the baffled king composing hallelujah,” he writes:

…Krishna, trying / to convince Arjuna of the righteousness of / battle, boiled it down to eleven words / —We’ll never untangle the circumstances that brought us / to this moment… / We created a wasteland (bye-bye) / & called it peace.

The reader is left to wonder what lessons can be learned, what is doomed to repeat itself.

While the book’s concerns are decidedly public, they are also made deeply personal. The idea of the body as vessel is begun in the first poem and followed throughout the book. In “pulse (hidden bird),” the speaker states, “lurking inside us is / a child, a real child, running with both / hands in the air, as if escaping a prison, laughing.” The body is a receptacle for the soul’s light, for all that is good in us, but it also serves as a bottle for a ship, a jar, jailor and cage. A vessel can create a sense of safety, but here that is often a false notion.

The prose poem “forgetting something,” which appears in the second section, has garnered much attention since it was published first by The Boston Review, then chosen as’s poem-of-the-day. It, too, is a persona poem in the voice of a soldier. In it, the soldier dreams of going home to his beloved:

…when—if—we see each other / again, the first thing we should do is… / …tie our hands to something… / …otherwise they (wild birds) / might startle us / awake…./ …First thing we should do / if we see each other again is to make / a cage of our bodies—inside we can place / whatever still shines.

From the detailed confessions of torture given in this poem, one can glean that after war, not much if anything, is left of value to place in the body’s cage.

Nick Flynn’s poetic touch is light as a feather on the wrist. But if his poems were kisses, they’d bruise. The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands spotlights the horrors of war, but also the fact that no one escapes. This book is filled with songs of the broken and of those who do the breaking. It is not for the weak-stomached, the prudish, or those whose wish to remain ignorant.

Danielle Sellers is the author of Bone Key Elegies (Main Street Rag, 2009). Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Cimarron Review, Poet Lore, Subtropics, Poetry Southeast, Hopkins Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MA from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University as well as an MFA from the University of Mississippi. Originally from Key West, Florida, Danielle now lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with her daughter, where she teaches writing at the University of Mississippi and edits The Country Dog Review.