'Stress Position' is ostensibly about the use of torture and a violent critique of the US neo-con agenda as deployed in Iraq. It is also a very accomplished attempt to push the boundaries of poetry as far as they will go.There are three verse and three prose sections and each of these combine to produce a mind-twisting experience for the reader as the verbal ingenuity and thematic structure threaten to tip over into chaos.
It is to Sutherland's great credit that 'Stress Position' veers on the edge of psychotic lunacy but never quite gets there. Torture is always an emotive subject and the intensity of the poet's anger shines through but this is tempered by the use of devices that shouldn't really 'work'. This audacity (the use of Black Beauty, having a stanza that is 'the movable end of the poem', having a prose section 'about' a wedding reception, the idea of a gastro-yacht moored up in the middle of downtown Baghdad, etc etc) could so easily fail to be effective - a triumph of form over content - yet Sutherland has the skill to successfully weave these devices into a much larger framework. There are also parts of the poem that are very funny.
The other thing to note is that it takes personal courage to write a poem like this and we should acknowledge Sutherland's readiness to put so much of his own personal anguish into this work without any sense of mawkish exhibitionism.
Difficulty in Stress Position
Acts of torture are thematically difficult but Sutherland adds another layer by his choice of names (Diotima, Lucas Manyane Fritzl, Al-Mansur, Vietstock, Hakagawa etc) and his infrequent use of foreign phrases ("kein Gluck ohne Fetishmus", "L'eveil blanc des phophores chanteurs", "La guerre a donc perdu son charme, comme son utilite." etc) which, for the monoglot reader, sometimes get in the way.
The real difficulty with Stress Position lies in its complexity. The following stanza from the first section is a good example of the conceptual challenge that the poem sets-
"Reconstruct still more of this arcade. Whenever SEX 5
stabbed up on CONE FACE 2 makes sanity cream out the mongol nozzle
of LIPID 3, spattering the faggot alsation on LUNG 5,
grinding the logo for TEETH 9 in oil you must embezzle
more than painlessly the tedious gist of GUTS 4 and Co.,
then just chuck it out. Boot fetishists tangle with Ali all over
the upside down debt ceiling, squawk like pinball.
In earlier stanzas Sutherland equates reconstruction (the neo-con recipe for 'success' in Iraq) with torture and 'arcade' may refer to Iraq itself. The 'faggot alsation' is a reference to the dogs used on prisoners in Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. 'Oil you must embezzle' could refer to the money made from the UN sanctions regime prior to the invasion or could also refer to the profits to be made by multinationals from the liberation of Iraq. The last line and a half is a brilliant exposition of the human and financial costs of the Iraq fiasco.
As can be seen, in seven lines Sutherland takes on a whole range of interrelated issues and expresses his anger that American foreign policy is allowed to destroy another sovereign nation.
The final deliberate difficulty is one of tone. Scenes of gang rape and bestiality shouldn't be presented lyrically and yet Sutherland does this with such skill that the effect is far more disturbing than a more conventional description.
Sutherland has written that he wants poetry to be as 'impossible as reality". Some of us would argue that 'Stress Position' succeeds in that ambition.