The Australian poet's blunt language describes the expectation of abuse and offers a metaphor for the suffering of old age
"Rendition" used to be an innocent sort of word, likely to be found in a kindly local-paper report of the end-of-term junior-school concert: "The Year 3 Recorder Band rounded off the evening with a tuneful rendition of 'Kumbaya'." Now the juridical meaning of the word is the one uppermost in people's minds, the qualifier "extraordinary" hovering with added menace. "Rendition" in this sense means the handing over of a person from one jurisdiction to another: "extraordinary rendition" allows the person to be sent to another country, usually one permitting interrogation under torture.
This week's poem, "Rendition", by the Australian poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe, is shaped around a litany of pleas, spoken by someone imagining, and expecting, various forms of physical abuse. It's from the "New Poems" section of a career-spanning New and Selected Poems, recently published by Carcanet. Wallace-Crabbe, born in 1934, is a prolific and versatile writer. His technical accomplishment is immense, and the quick-thinking, good-humoured demotic makes it all look easy and easygoing. But his poetry is also concerned with the "blood and tears" that the painter and war-poet Isaac Rosenberg described, in relation to his paintings, as necessities of art. He was uncertain of his abilities as an artist, but when Rosenberg went into the trenches, he wrote poems that were true to the "blood and tears" of a particularly terrible war. "Rendition" has the universality and particularity of a great war-poem – but the frontline from which Wallace-Crabbe reports is not that of the battlefield.
Much of the poem's power, of course, lies in the graphic, if abbreviated, descriptions of the different methods of abuse. There's nothing elaborate in the language: it's blunt and simple, and that sparseness of poetic figure minimises the safe distance we normally keep between ourselves and full-on horror. The images are always memorable, from "the large plain dull old car" to "the bloody gobbet hacked off your left ear –/ which you are then going to be forced to eat." But the poem operates not only through images. As the relentless litany continues, all our senses are attacked in turn ("the cold, the blaring, the slaps", "pints of liquid trickled down your throat", "a bully's foul breath up against your face"). Nerve-endings are involved. We flinch, as the most vulnerable, pleasure-giving body-parts are insulted in a sadistic inversion of sexuality. The pain is accompanied by shame and literal shrinking: "the prodded humiliation of your nudity", "the naked genitals like frightened mice."
The tortures that the speaker's prayers evoke as he begs to be spared are so clearly described each time that it's as if the prayers were being rebuffed by a real interrogator in a real prison cell. In the fifth stanza, the pleading voice seems to rise to a roar of panic: "Fuck, no, not the electrodes." (If you thought that particular Anglo-Saxon-ism had been stripped of its force by casual overuse these days, think again.) But for all the immediacy of the scenes, the speaker is clearly outside the experience. The torture, so vividly imagined, is speculative. It could be taking place in any "Elsewhere," any "regime of colonels or generals of psychopaths".
This is one of many clues that the poem is asking to be read metaphorically. Another is the word "creeping". Torture involves "elaborate pain", but the initial pain is stunning rather than "creeping", or the "slow parody of how lives end". Right from the start, the poem is sending us in another direction. Even the title, "Rendition," has precise metaphorical resonance. Old age, no less than the past, is "another country." Most of us lucky enough to have been healthy in youth and middle-age, will enter the final failing years like strangers.
This is the poem's frontline: the suffering of old age. The extended metaphor forces us to recognise how brutal the condition can be, and also how brutally institutions may handle it. The sharp understatement of the objection to "the treatment of survival as precisely equal to dying" suggests the sophistication and variety of sanctioned suffering. It's not only the neglect, or even the actual violence some patients experience in the geriatric ward, but the invasive treatments that the poem finds shocking. Doctors can behave like policemen. Diagnosis and therapy may simply prolong the process of dying.
The last stanza takes a breather. The tone is matter-of-fact at first, calmly truthful. Deftly, the casual catchphrase "by and large" is turned back on itself, becoming "by and small" to remind us that bodies are not as important as we owners like to think, and not "designed" to last. If we were in any doubt about the poem's real meaning, it is underlined now as the tentative, tactful "You may die" is corrected to "You will suffer and die."
An ambivalent note of consolation ends the poem: "You will survive, language holding some trace of you for years,/ and the mourners, too." This sort of survival is distinctly what writers wish for, and many poems have invoked it, not least Shakespeare's sonnets. But is Wallace-Crabbe also suggesting that every articulate human makes some small mark on the language? Will the mourners survive in their own right, or merely hold the memory of the "you" for a while longer? It would accord with the poet's generous vision that "the mourners" (ie everyman) could live on, too, in the form of some little differences they made, via language, to the sum-total of human memory.
This is not very much to offset the horrors of the frontline report from the country of final rendition. And that's how it should be. Old age is not for wimps (as someone said). We need poets to tell the truth about it. "Rendition" is not a horror-poem but an intense and courageous account of some undeniable facts of the "civilised" life.
Not, please, this creeping elaborate pain
and not slow parody of how lives end,
nor policemen in mufti playing a dirty god,
not the stinking underside of Elsewhere,
regimes of colonels or generals or psychopaths,
not fascination with seeing just how far a body can be made to go
nor the treatment of survival as precisely equal to dying.
Please, not a battering on the door at three in the morning;
not, I'm afraid, you're going to have to come with me.
Not the large plain dull old car
waiting outside your door with motor grumbling
for the quick take-off,
nor the bareness of a shabby room with overbright lighting.
Not Them, moving in.
Certainly not having to take off your clothes;
water, the truncheon, the cold, the blaring, the slaps
and long standing still in one damned place,
not the prodded humiliation of your nudity,
clothed ones treating you as a slab of meat,
not the drawn-out thickness of questioning
and not the detumescence of hope.
Not the naked genitals like frightened mice,
not something hard inserted in the vagina,
not pints of liquid trickled down your throat,
not a bully's foul breath up against your face
as concentration goes,
not the pummelled phonebook against your guts
leaving no distinct bruises.
Not the electrodes.
Fuck, no, not the electrodes
and not your buttocks beaten, then beaten again,
not something pushed right up under your fingernails
nor a bloody gobbet hacked off your left ear –
which you are then going to be forced to eat.
Not weeks without food.
Bodies have been designed frail, by and large, by and small,
ready to be tormented and taken apart.
The shit may run down your cold legs.
You may die.
You will suffer and die.
You will survive, language holding some trace of you for years,
And the mourners, too.