The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

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by Nick Flynn

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New poetry by the acclaimed writer Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking Is the Bomb

electrocution, no—the boy stood in the hot-hot room
stammering I did stammering I did stammering I
did stammering I did stammering everything you say I did
I did.


New poetry by the acclaimed writer Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking Is the Bomb

electrocution, no—the boy stood in the hot-hot room
stammering I did stammering I did stammering I
did stammering I did stammering everything you say I did
I did.
—from "Fire"

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is Nick Flynn's first new poetry collection in nearly a decade. What begins as a meditation on love and the body soon breaks down into a collage of voices culled from media reports, childhood memories, testimonies from Abu Ghraib detainees, passages from documentary films, overheard conversations, and scraps of poems and song, only to reassemble with a gathering sonic force. It's as if all the noise that fills our days were a storm, yet at the center is a quiet place, but to get there you must first pass through the storm, with eyes wide open, singing. Each poem becomes a hallucinatory, shifting experience, through jump cut, lyric persuasion, and deadpan utterance. This is an emotional, resilient response to some of the essential issues of our day by one of America's riskiest and most innovative writers.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Terse, at times horrifying, and hard to forget, Flynn's third collection of poems—the first since his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (2004) made him something of a celebrity—tackles topics familiar from the last decade's news: the captain of the title, who appears in the longest poems, is at once an absent, wicked, or unanswering God, a vague father, a political authority, and a military leader in a place much like Abu Ghraib. "Capt'n, we can do as we wish, we can do/ as we wish with the body// but we cannot leave marks"; "one drop hangs on the prisoner's tongue—capt'n// are we allowed to force him to swallow?" Torture, imprisonment, and arduous military service are leitmotifs, or metaphors, in most of the volume's poems, and a wartime, warlike, post-9/11 America forms their backdrop: "the tower towers above us/ now, we can see it/ from wherever." Flynn's political anger does nothing to diminish his raggedly individual voice, and his shorter efforts include what sound like dissonant wartime love poems: "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."" (Feb.)
From the Publisher

“With The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Nick Flynn has written a rare lyrical interrogation of brutality in the light of conscience, an unsparing témoignage that sings back to redacted documents, to memoranda governing torture protocols, to night & prison & desert & darkness. This is a poetry that should be read out before the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague. Read and be filled with awe, sorrow and gratitude for this poet's gifts and spiritual courage.” —Carolyn Forché

“Once again, the unstoppable Nick Flynn has flung open a door we didn't know existed. Threaded with dark humor and kickass tweaks to the predictable, The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands is a biting and sparse revelation, a lyrical narrative that unfurls to reveal truths that are insistent and vaguely unsettling. '...isn't it time to admit,' Flynn asks, 'we are more machinery than gods / that our house is more maze than temple?' Yes, it's time-and Flynn's deft, blade-edged poetics shove us toward many such insights, with a signature he has defined as solely his own.” —Patricia Smith

“Nick Flynn has written-in the tradition of poets such as Yeats, Whitman, Neruda, Bly, and Ginsberg-a book of political lyric poetry. The book contains, as well, fragile self-transcendence, unself-conscious witness, and the unnoticed heroism of having done or said something against a world as welcoming and congenial to evil as ours appears to be right now.” —Franz Wright

“I've been waiting for this book for several years now. In fact, I've often argued the need for writers to pick up the pen with this subject in mind. Still-how much easier it is to look away. To not face our own complicity. Our own culpable part within the larger historical whole. Thankfully, in The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands, Nick Flynn chooses not to turn away. Instead, he brings us a poetry which serves as a witness to torture. It is a necessary investigation into our shared humanity and into the depravations which undermine it. And while it's true that to enter this book is to enter into an intimate world of institutionalized pain, the Reader will also discover in these pages that the "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.” —Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet

“This book is a serious one. It's asking difficult questions instead of dancing a post-postmodern dance. It dialogues with suffering and with Paul Celan's 'Deathfugue.' It's an important book.” —Adam Zagajewski

Library Journal
In his third collection (after Some Ether), poet and memoirist Flynn succeeds at the nearly impossible task of writing political poetry about current events. In homage to Walt Whitman, another wartime poet, many poems address an unseen captain, "capt'n this morning six were found hanging/ in a room made completely of air." The poems are many-layered: themes of air, water, earth, and fire appear throughout the collection, as do specific lines. Flynn offers intriguing narratives, too: one tells of a latchkey boy who either sets his house or a young girl on fire after school one day. Or perhaps both: "the boy stood in the hot-hot room/ stammering I did stammering, I did stammering… /everything you say I did/ I did." In the series about Abu Ghraib, the writing becomes disconnected and occasionally difficult to follow: "My eyesight is years/ See up yes did this." But voice remains paramount and compelling as in this love poem: "let's hold each other/ ceaselessly/ your bed a box cut out of the sky." VERDICT A finely crafted collection that gives testimony to moral outrage and celebrates being human; not to be missed. [See Prepub Alert, 11/1/10.]—Doris Lynch, Monroe Cty. P.L., Bloomington, IN

Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands

By Nick Flynn

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2011 Nick Flynn
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-574-6


haiku (failed)

The thin thread that holds us here, tethered / or maybe tied, together, what / do you call it — telephone? horizon? song? Listen / to yourself sing, We are all god's children / we are all gods, we walk the earth / sometimes, two sails inside us sometimes / beating, our bodies the bottle, a ship inside each / until one day, for no reason, it sails — hello? / damn phone — until one day it sails / out of sight, until one day it cuts out of / earshot, bye-bye muttered into your cupped palm, bye-bye / boat, bye-bye rain — Look / maybe this is the place we've been / waiting for, maybe this place / is the day, inside us, inside each / corpuscle, the day, that day, everyday is / inside, my body, your body, everyday is / this thread, everyday you said, come / get me, everyday you said, it's been way too long / you said, bye-bye, bye-bye, not a day / went by, the thin, the thread, so thin, this thread, are you still / here, is it still, your heart, is it well, well, welling?


    more the idea of the flame than the flame
    as in: the flame

    of the rose petal, the flame of the thorn
    the sun is a flame, the dog's teeth


    to be clear: with the body,

    capt'n, we can do as we wish, we can do
    as we wish with the body

    but we cannot leave marks — capt'n I'm
    trying to get this right

    the world's so small, the sky so high
    we pray for rain it rains, we pray for sun it suns

    we pray on our knees, we move our lips
    we pray in our minds, we clasp our hands

    our hands look tied before us

    I remember, capt'n, something, it
    didn't happen, not

    to me — this guy, I knew him by
    face, I don't remember his

    name, one night
    walking home from a party, a car it

    clipped him, for hours he
    wandered, dazed, his family, his

    neighbors, with flashlights they
    searched, all night, the woods

    calling out

    here's the part, capt'n, where I tell a story
    as if it were a confession: I was hiding out on

    damon rock, lighting
    matches & letting them drop to the leaves

    below — little flare-

    ups, flash fires — a girl wandered
    down the path, she just

    stood there, watching the matches
    fall from my hand —

    capt'n, I'm trying to be precise: hot

    day, a cage in the sun, a room without
    air, the mind-bending heat, the music

    a flame — hey
    metallica hey britney hey airless hey fuse,

    don't know how it happened, perched far
    above, I offered her a match

    to pull down her pants, one
    match, her hairless

    body, hey

    little girl, I dropped it unlit —
    I didn't know what it was I was looking at

    hey capt'n I don't know if I'm allowed
    hey capt'n years ago I'm walking

    one drunk night, even now I
    wonder — sometimes still I

    imagine — was I hit am I
    dazed, this

    dream this confession, hey
    little girl is your daddy home, hey capt'n hey

    sir am I making any sense?

    the boy stood on the burning deck, stammering
    elocution, wait —
    the boy stood in the burning cage, stammering
    electrocution, no — the boy stood in the hot-hot room
    stammering I did stammering I did stammering I
    did stammering I did stammering everything you say I did
    I did

    hey metallica hey britney hey airless hey fuse
    hey phonograph hey hades hey thoughtless hey

    capt'n this room is on fire
    capt'n this body will not stop burning
    capt'n oh my captain this burning has become a body
    capt'n oh my captain this child is ash
    capt'n oh my captain my hands pass right through her
    capt'n oh my captain I don't know what it is I'm looking at

    it's important to be precise, to say what
    I know —

    the sun is fire, the center of the earth
    is fire, yr mother's cunt is

    fire, an airless flame, still, still, I don't know why
    she pushed me out, this cold cold furnace, we all

    were pushed, a rim of light around our heads, she
    gave a kick, sent us crawling

    out, toward the flame, toward the pit, the flaming
    pit, yr lover's tongue, the flame

    a thorn

    everyday, capt'n, sir, captain, I was
    left, a child, after school, alone, I found

    a match, under the sink I found a can, a spray
    can, ly-sol dis-infectant, it made a

    torch, I was careful the flame didn't
    enter the can, I knew it

    would explode, somehow I knew, I'm
    trying to be clear, sir — the flame

    shot across the room, then it was gone

false prophet

The book tells us to cling (cling?) / to the thought that, in god's / hands, our dark past is our greatest / possession (You've ruined it, the woman with / the riding crop says to the man on all / fours, naked but for his mask — pigs don't talk). Cling — / maybe inside this word are more words, maybe / inside darkness is simply more darkness. God's / hands? Here's a riddle — a cosmonaut / holds hands with an astronaut, both un- / tethered. Which one is confusing a pinpoint of light / with an unreachable planet?

jesus knew

    unlike you & I jesus knew he'd die
    some days a headache woke him it
    lingered nothing terrible but the word
    hung around his temples like this
    soul everyone wants but can't find jesus
    knew he'd die he just didn't know how
    & that bothered him sometimes & then
    he'd do one of his little tricks
    what the hell didn't hurt anyone
    didn't make anyone disappear for-
    ever but the tricks stopped working he forgot
    why he did them & what for he confused
    a story about a guy named jesus
    with a story about a father he never knew
    & it all began to hang like a moth-eaten coat
    pulled out of a trunk on a shaky day hey let's
    return to the scene of the fucken tragedy at least
    we all know how it turns out instead of this endless
    uncertainty hey
    let's sell our souls a few more
    times no one's really counting (those
    little papers you trade for your sins what
    do you call them? anyone?
) — anyway — jesus
    this jesus that god of nickel
    god of dime right
    the real jesus he was lost he walked in-
    to the desert not far really his friends his
    disciples he told them he'd come back
    like us he said this every time he left but jesus
    never said wait never pointed to the sky
    never claimed he'd rise again never asked us to eat
    his flesh jesus never asked for anything as far
    as I can tell he got tired everyday & then slept
    sometimes okay sometimes un-
    bearable the dreams the father
    pointing a finger at everyone a finger we can't
    even look at


    we put them in cages they don't like the cages
    we put them in cells they pray

    I swim in the palace it rains from the sky
    the pool between palm tree & wall

    the air in the cells is poison they claim
    the air in the cages is dust

    I sink to the bottom to see what it's like
    a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped

    space monkey, suffocation
    roulette — super-


— squat
    down breathe in breathe out thirty

    times fast like this (breathe) your
    buddy behind you stand his arms

    lift your feet from the floor his arms
    squeeze all the air out — black-

    out fallout all out over &
    out — then nirvana then nothing then

    capt'n I'd lay at his feet I'd have myself
    finally I'd have myself my little

    dream my little shine on you crazy
    diamond dog day afternoon delight

    the palace on fire it clouds up the sky
    I hate the sound of their prayers

    I swim underwater I empty my lungs
    if you think about breathing you can't

    the palace still burning a cloud in the air
    their mats in a row the mark on their heads

    a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped
    they don't have wings so we lift them

    before modest mouse capt'n what
    was the world, what was the world

    before pavement?

    before I was nothing I was silence before
    before I was here I was no one

    the radio one day it made me of air
    a soundtrack to walk down these halls

    we'll all float on okay okay
    we'll all float on okay

    they scream my lieutenant he calls it a song
    I want them to sing he says louder

    I wish you could hear the soundtrack we play
    for hours & naked they dance

    I take out my camera I capture the sound
    at first it was weird then it wasn't

    before there's a song there's a day it just isn't
    before there's a photo it's dark

    & we'll all float on okay okay
    & we'll all float on okay

    something is wrong with the air in the cells
    capt'n something is wrong with the air

    the prisoner capt'n his lips gone all blue
    capt'n something is wrong with the air

    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

    often I am permitted to return to a desert
    often I am permitted to bleed

    then someone hands me their darkness in rags
    then someone sits on my chest

    oblivion nothing emptiness night
    it helps to think it's a game

    play let-your-mind-wander, play stoned-porno-drift

    play pop-pop-pop-popping, play oh-what-is-this
    play look-down-touch-your-chest, play hole-in-your-vest

    play air-puffing-out, play fall-to-your-knees
    pretend to fall to your knees

    capt'n this morning six were found hanging
    in a room made completely of air

    they knotted their blankets their blankets dissolved
    & their necks stretched to the floor

    & yesterday capt'n thirty stopped eating
    I forget the words to this song

    we feed them with tubes their vitals are good
    it helps to think it's a game

    & we'll all float on okay okay
    & we'll all float on okay

    here is your bowl of steam capt'n
    here's your syringe of sky

    here is the why & the pop pop pop pop
    of the gun you will never see

    if you focus on breathing the world will spin right
    the mouthful you lose trying to save

    & here is the doer & here's the done-to
    & the jar that will send us all home


    The ground's not a bad place
    to live for a while, a few

    years, not face-
    down, exactly, not

    faceup either — hovering, say,
    over the dirt, the earth

    is dirt, our bodies dirt & you
    floating there, a hand's-

    width above me, just until
    things blow over, that

    war, say, jesus,
    did we really just make it all up?


greetings, friend (minotaur)

O heart weighed down by so many wings / isn't it time to admit / we are more machinery than gods / that our house is more maze than temple, that contrary / to popular mechanics we cannot, anytime / simply change the channel. Basho / year after year, saw on the monkey's face / a monkey face. Here we are, friend, year out / year in, in our bodies, inside them, seemingly, everything / as promised, ten percent off. You say / the family car was always warming up. You say / wasn't there a tv show about a minotaur? You say / O heart weighed down by so many wings, where / is my monkey mask now?


    ceaselessly, I said, let's hold each other / ceaselessly
    your bed a box cut out of the sky

    what I meant was inescapably / the sky about to collapse
    upon us. I can't feel my body, I said

    I meant, with you I can't feel my body ending
    your bed's not empty / will never be, not ever

    this wall's not a floor / the tub's not a bomb
    the window's not a river of light to wade / please

    can we start again — say

    sorry dear ocean dear desperate dear boat
    sorry dear shoulder dear caveman

    please hand me a match / please speak of the flame
    please speak as it moves down its body

    please name where to touch / please say the word ear
    say stone say under my tongue

    the sun it feels good as it shadows your face
    my neck still cold where you kiss it

    the bowl never empties / never darkens or fills / your body
    fits into each breath

    the ocean inside you / our palms never touch
    the boat of a name we call lost

    say not become holy / say won't then keep turning
    say empty your pockets upon me

    unable inside you / your lips seal the hull
    unable inside before sleep

    past mudflats paced-out / past islands unmapped
    past mirrors that go on without us

    each shorelight a window / each window a mouth
    the harbor a throat without reason

    make up a reason as yet understood
    all night to kedge my ass homeward

the baffled king composing hallelujah

Jubilee, our war's almost over (again), we ship out / tomorrow (again) / back to wherever it was / we began (again) — photographs stuck to the fridge, a red plastic / donut underfoot, a bathtub filling (amen). Close your eyes — where are you / right now, what city — no? / Nothing? 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. Still nowhere? Here's another hint — my hands are not / inside you, your hands are not / inside me, & one of us has forgotten / how to breathe. We created a wasteland (bye-bye) / & called it peace.


    last night I wandered, capt'n, the earth
    bright & poison, I

    staggered, a forced march, yes, then
    digging, a grave, made to dig my own

    grave, someone muttered kiss
    my ass,
a body walked into the

    earth, I saw my own body, covering itself
    with earth, my body becoming


    if I understand the memo right, capt'n, we can use
    water, but we cannot use earth — that is,
    we can simulate drowning, but not
    burial — is that right, sir,
    capt'n? I've read
    the memos & I want to do
    what's right

    muhammed, ahmed, achmed, whatever
    here we are — me & you & these

    walls again, fifteen feet thick — packed earth

    baked earth scorched earth & out-
    side these walls the sand, on

    fire, yes, still, & oh
    yes, my question, my one simple

    question — look at me,
    do you think I want to be here any more than you?

    capt'n: the memo says we cannot bury
    the prisoner, but does that mean we can bury his
    son? I mean, does it say we can pretend to bury his son?
    capt'n, does the memo say we cannot pretend to bury
    the prisoner's son, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
    dig his son's grave, does it say we cannot make the prisoner
    place his son in the hole? I'm trying, capt'n,
    & he has still not answered my question

    a spigot, a hose, a floor-drain
    dead center — it drains into

    the earth, the sand, somewhere out there, out-
    side these walls — you can smell it, your

    face pressed to the tile, it tastes like
    tile you think it tastes like your village you

    think all tile you think all tile you

    think all tile you think baked
    earth scorched earth hospital

    yellow yolk yellow dead yellow
    sulphur yellow

    that dream again, capt'n, as soon as my eyes
    shut — the one where the car goes into a skid

    & I can't pull out, the one where I wipe my ass
    but the paper never comes clean

hello, birdy

    paint a hungry bird / paint its cage black
    paint a tunnel scraped out with a spoon

    paint a sign in a window / free bird with each cage
    black letters burnt through a white board

    paint the bird as she sings / paint each bar in her cage
    worthless the song that she sings

    her feathers are black / her blood it is black
    black beak black cage black song

    hello birdy / hello black wings
    black eye pressed to the bars

    well well welling / peckity peckity peck
    the dirt carried out in your beak

forgetting something

Try this — close / your eyes. No, wait, when — if — we see each other / again, the first thing we should do is close our eyes — no, / first we should tie our hands to something / solid — bedpost, doorknob — otherwise they (wild birds) / might startle us / awake. Are we forgetting something? What about that / warehouse, the one beside the airport, that room / of black boxes, a man in each box? If you / bring this one into the light he will not stop / crying, if you show this one a photo of his son / his eyes go dead. Turn up / the heat, turn up the song. 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.

    almost song

    Still the voice starts when I open

    my mouth, first it's breath
    then air then sky

    If the wind shakes the tree then cut the tree down
    If the cow moves then shoot her

    I open to speak, the sky

    tumbles out, this thirty-year
    song, this cloud for a head, assume it

    comes out of my mouth. One mucky

    boot, what to make of a mouth
    when each day rebuilds

    the shape of a ditch, the body
    gone missing below

    A body no more, a dog on the block
    maybe eaten or not, with only one sun

    with each morning worse (your
    giddy-up hearse)

    the road blown to shit, not quicklime

    not thatch
    worse to open to say, to lower the sky

    a dog on the block, eaten or not
    its paws for sale knotted with twine.

    Bleeding out into sleep, this song
    that prays night, I pretend I've been

    hit, it comes from my mouth

    the sky or the air, not blue anymore
    & riverstones rising like helmets

    self-exam (my body is a cage)

    Do this: take two fingers, push them into
    the spot behind your ear, the spot

    your skull drops off

    into that valley of muscle
    & nerve — this is the muscle that holds up

    the skull, that nods the dumb bone
    this way & that

    when you think you under-
    stand, when you think you get it — press deeper

    into the gristle, find that little bundle of
    nerves — the nerves

    that make you blink at day-

    light, that make your tongue slide in &
    out when you think you're in

    love, when you think you need a drink, touch
    that spot as if you had an itch

    as if it were a button, as if you were

    an elevator, close your eyes &
    listen, please, close
    your eyes — can you hear it? We think our souls live

    in boxes, we think someone sits behind our eyes,
    lording from his little throne, steering the fork to

    the mouth, the mouth to the tit, we think hungry
    children live in our bellies, clutching their empty

    bowls as the food rains
    down, we sometimes think we are those

    hungry children, we think
    we can think anything & it won't

    matter, we think we can think cut out her tongue,
    then ask her to sing


Excerpted from The Captain Asks for a Show of Hands by Nick Flynn. Copyright © 2011 Nick Flynn. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

NICK FLYNN is the author of two memoirs, The Ticking Is the Bomb and Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He is also the author of two previous poetry collections, Blind Huber and Some Ether. He teaches at the University of Houston and lives in New York.

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Captain Asks for a Show of Hands 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Moonspeak More than 1 year ago
The poem Jesus Knew is my favorite. It breaks my heart (open) every time I read it. The thing is, the breaking is over something different with each reading. How does that happen? How does he manage that? The words on the page remain the same, obediently anchored to their assigned seats. And yet, not. Because every time I visit this poem the words somehow morph and shift, lift off the stage of ivory paper, quick-change their costumes and voices, dance and contort like some kind of Cirque du Soleil magic and athleticism is at work. Perhaps, in this particular poem, anyway, it might have something to do with the dynamic element brought by those jump-cut spacings. But, in truth, much of Nick Flynn's writing - poetry and prose - is gifted with similar alchemy. Jesus Knew is just, for me, the brightest, most stunning example of Flynn's sleight-of-hand skill with words, the images his words create, and the multitude of meanings they come together to form, layering, rearranging, reframing. When I was a kid I was lucky enough to have summer passes to Astroworld, Houston's local version of Disney Land or Six Flags. Nick Flynn's writing reminds me of that favorite childhood amusement park in many ways. Imagine that each time you show up and get your ticket punched, have the back of your hand anointed with that black-light-reflective stamp, you discover a new ride has been added. What's more, you return to the roller coaster you love best - but instead of always finding the same exact ride, you're treated to an experience that varies, markedly, each time. A new, hair-raising dive or a curve careening in a new direction from previous journeys, so that when you lean right in ritual anticipation it suddenly Alice in Wonderland-twists you up and left, instead. The hands ask for a captain show, and Nick Flynn delivers performance after performance. Each one authentic; each one a jack in the box; every one worth the price of admission a thousand times over; every one deserving of a standing ovation.