Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: The Crimes of Abu Ghraib; Pin the Tail on the Donkey; John Updike Goes Down

You know exactly what you’re going to get when you open the latest New Yorker (March 24, $4.50) and see an excerpt from Philip Gourevitch and Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure, which is due out in mid-May, a few weeks after the release of Mr. Morris’ documentary of the same name. It’s a recurring nightmare, starring Specialist Sabrina Harman—the MP with the camera—and the things she did and saw done to prisoners on Tier 1A of the military intelligence block at Abu Ghraib. The account is direct, detailed and unambiguous in its implications. Is there any part of the passage below that’s in any way unclear?

“[T]he abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was de facto United States policy. The authorization of torture and the decriminalization of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment of captives in wartime have been among the defining legacies of the current Administration; and the rules of interrogation that produced the abuses documented on the M.I. block in the fall of 2003 were the direct expression of the hostility toward international law and military doctrine that was found in the White House, the Vice-President’s office, and at the highest levels of the Justice and Defense Departments.”

And the kicker: “The only person ranked above staff sergeant to face a court-martial was cleared of criminal wrongdoing.”

We knew it all already, and the shame burns all over again.


AT THE MOMENT, every book looks political, so you’d be forgiven for assuming that Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys (Walker, $19.95) is a primer on the habits of superdelegates. Wrong. Mr. Merrifield wants to share with us what he learned on a long walk in southern France with a friend’s donkey, Gribouille. Crammed with donkey lore and literary musings, his book is pleasantly eccentric and elegantly written, suffused with the patient calm of the admired beast. Though he reminds us in passing of how the donkey came to be associated with the Democratic Party (Andrew Jackson’s opponents called him a “jackass,” but the candidate turned the insult into a badge of honor), Mr. Merrifield betrays no partisan bias when he insists that a donkey’s tail is “tremendously democratic.”

“A donkey’s tail is different from a horse’s,” he writes, “less proud, less flamboyant, more disheveled like a cow’s, more Zen-like in its rumpled simplicity, with its short body hair and tuft at the end. It’s somehow just there: a frayed, everyday rudder, without pretense.”

It will always, he assures us, “somehow swish above and beyond politics.”


IN A BRUTALLY dismissive New York Times review of The Best American Erotic Poems (Scribner Poetry, $30), poet Dan Chiasson takes several swipes at a John Updike poem, “Fellatio,” which Mr. Chiasson calls “perhaps the worst poem ever written on any subject”—but he cites as evidence only the first four lines. Here, out of fairness to Mr. Updike, is the poem in its entirety. The reader can now make an informed decision about its, um, merits.

It is beautiful to think
that each of these clean secretaries
at night, to please her lover, takes
a fountain into her mouth
and lets her insides, drenched with seed,
flower into landscapes:
meadows sprinkled with baby’s breath,
hoarse twiggy woods, birds dipping, a multitude
of skies containing clouds, plowed earth stinking
of its upturned humus, and small farms each
with a silver silo.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet On Current Reading: The Crimes of Abu Ghraib; Pin the Tail on the Donkey; John Updike Goes Down