Here are his hands, moving precisely over the silent bed of static, trembling like two birds in formation over the city. In “Drones: an Exercise in Awe-Terror,” the Hellfire Missile hatches in the pilot’s mind as his hands render the fate of a faraway landscape. He produces the spectacle he watches at a distance, while it ripples into his interior space. I wrote this poem while doing my PhD coursework in anthropology at Columbia University. I was taking a class with the astonishing Marilyn Ivy, on theories of the “Sublime.” No class in my life has ever moved or unsettled me more. We read Longinus, Sir Edmund Burke, Kant, Adorno, and others about the relationship between the body and the senses to awe and terror, to safety and harm. We interrogated Enlightenment texts that contained or domesticated that awe-terror through “Reason.” Together in that room, we considered the vibration of the soul when confronted by an object in the world that creates vertigo, that makes the ego cave in. We spoke about the sublime of mountains and oceans. We spoke about death and god.
This poem is my attempt to enact and grapple with these theories of awe-terror in wartime. When I wrote the poem, I drew in particular on a 2010 Frontline documentary, “Digital Nation” and a series of interviews Caitlin McNally did with drones pilots to try to access their sensory and interior experiences. In the ensuing years, I conducted two years of my own ethnographic fieldwork with military personnel, within pre-deployment trainings and interviewed many soldiers about their experiences of the perceived adversary. In this poem, I am trying to represent the American military attempt to contain what is imagined as an ever-permutating adversary as well as the erasure of those individuals’ humanness when they are turned into coordinates. But most especially, I am interested in the potential of the moment’s gravity yawning open: the pilot’s recognition that: “They// told me there is a place like/ that, and I am actually in/ it (changing/ it) (right now).” The first two sections of the poem (“The Imagination Cannot” and “When Reason Came”) are based on the theories of Kant, and the third section (“Black”) is based on the theories of Adorno. I seek here, through every tool of form and language, to generate an impossible embodied experience. Read this poem for the flailing of the metaphor towards the object; for attempts at domestication in language that which is undomesticatable; for the breakdown of language and an ensuing blackout which claims us all.