POETRY December 4, 2020

Timeless Tips for Simple Sabotage

2020 Booth Prize for Unexpected Literature Winner


Sabot (French): shoe.

In wooden clogs, a thin man strides the floor of the paper mill in Finistère.

February 1875, the mill smells of pine and dolomite.

From their lookout behind a vat, two pulpers signal to the thin man, thrill on their faces.

Saboteur (French): . . . as in, one who throws his wooden shoe to halt the chipper’s gears when the boss is out back.


In the room where I write this, a ream of crisp paper sits in the corner.

I have never been inside a paper mill.

An ideal consumer stays distant from the origins of the products they use.


In 1944, feeding blank pages through a typewriter, an unnamed agent at the CIA wrote the Simple Sabotage Field Manual.

Page 5: Use materials which appear to be innocent. A knife or a nail file is a multi-purpose instrument for creating damage.

The manual offers ordinary people strategies to harm enemy states by undermining infrastructure and economic efficiency with objects at their disposal.

Page 6: Do not be afraid to commit acts for which you might be blamed directly, so long as you do so rarely, and as long as you have a plausible excuse: you dropped your wrench across an electric circuit because an air raid had kept you up the night before and you were half-dozing at work.

Always be profuse in your apologies, the manual cautions, manners then a valued currency.


In 2015, Mehdi Mousavi, leader of the post-modern ghazal movement in Iran, was sentenced to nine years in prison and ninety-nine lashes for insulting the holy sanctities in his poetry.

There are still places where a poem, like a wooden shoe, or a wrench dropped across a circuit, is a threat to power.


Last night in Oakland, California, David Breskin reads a poem called “Mountebank”about his president:

escalator descender
who firmly mounts the public
bench as aGerman
shepherd mounts a quivering mutt

Like sabotage, the word mountebank, a synonym for liar, originates from a European expression—monta in banco!—the Italian imperative “climb on the bench!,” with allusion to the raised platform used to attract an audience.

Just four people attend the reading.

There is no need to censor what is not valued.

A corollary: a sixty-hour work week obstructs interest in the intricacies of language.


While the CIA agent did not employ meter or line breaks in the composition of the manual, there is a kind of poetry in this litany:

Water, urine, wine, or any other simple liquid you can get in reasonably large quantities will dilute gasoline fuel to a point where no combustion will occur in the cylinder and the engine will not move.

Reframed, the line becomes iambic:

Of water, urine, wine, or any other simple liquid . . .

Reframed, the act of destruction becomes a defense of aesthetic.


Honzetsu is the Japanese art of making a poem from a passage of prose.

Emperor Go-Toba, who held Japan’s chrysanthemum throne from 1183 to 1198, was renowned for his devotion to poetry.

A tastemaker, his contests brought together poets from rival factions to compete for his approval.

One fabled contest went fifteen hundred rounds before a winner was declared.

Some of Go-Toba’s contests were only for honzetsu.

In those days, a courtier might pay the winner well to work beneath the gingko at his estate

dissecting prose and stitching it, loosely, back together—

“leave” in place of “valley,” “heal” instead of “hazel,”

“zeal” where there was wind whipping through winter branches.


My friend is making a sculpture out of broken car window glass.

The company that chose his concept from the request for proposals pays him almost enough to cover rent while he works on what they call “technology campus art.”

After a car break-in is announced on Citizen, a popular crime reporting app, he arrives at the scene with his red dustpan and his little broom.

The driver settles from the shock, assesses what’s been lost,

finds a blunt object to loosen the shards that remain in the frame.

When the car drives away, a prize bloom of glass adorns the street.

The statue’s proposition:

the broken as splendid.

A corollary:

what are the social conditions that make theft inevitable?


Page 12:






and dozens of other destructive agents

can be carried or kept

in your living quarters

without exciting

any suspicion whatever.

I appraise the objects in my room,

seeing, for the first time, their potential to cause damage—

The clasp on my silver stork broach.

The stiff wick in the beeswax candle.

The empty marinara jar filled with ballpoint pens.


Before they went on strike, workers in Trujillo, Honduras, stopped removing weevils from the leaves of the banana trees they tended.

As the pests bored into the roots, the workers walked out, protesting low wages and poor conditions.

It was easy for the United Fruit Company to find replacement labor.

The parakeets, people named the new hires, when the chemicals they sprayed turned their hands and hair green.

Their eyelashes coated in what could pass for mascara.


International media took some interest in Mehdi Mousavi’s arrest, but it remains difficult to find translations of his poems.

“Don’t wear your red dress
We’re not communist.”
I told her:

It is even more difficult to find commentary looking seriously at his artistry,

“Don’t wear your black dress
We’re not anarchist.”
I told her:

analysis of the recursion in the work,

“Don’t wear your green dress
We are not rebels.”
I told her:

In this country
Only the naked people
Are not in danger of detention
Then, they came
And stoned us

or its variation on old Iranian forms

The first stone was thrown by someone,
Whose attire I can’t remember
The last stone was thrown by someone
Who has no doubt that
The ones who throw stones
Won’t be detained.


Run the string over the match heads, taking care that the string is not pressed or knotted.

I commit my favorite lines of the manual to memory, practice them while walking to the bus stop, as if rehearsing for a minor part in a play.

Run the string over the match heads, taking care the string is not knotted.

Not knotted, I smile to myself as I drop coins in the farebox.

Once I can recall the words on command, do they become mine?

The advantage of this type of wick is that the string burns at a set speed.


The Simple Sabotage Field Manual is not the only manual available on the subject of sabotage.

In 1969, Brazilian revolutionary Carlos Marighella signed his name to The Mini Manual of the Urban Guerrilla, stating that it was important to take ownership and pride in acts of urban sabotage, that anonymity has no place in struggle.

While focused on the practical matters of the lifestyle and tactics of the urban guerrilla, it too offers a poetic sensibility:

The urban guerilla’s best ally is the terrain, and because of this he must know it like the palm of his hand. To have the terrain as an ally means to know how to use with intelligence its unevenness, its high and low points, its turns, its irregularities, its fixed and secret passages, its abandoned areas, its thickets etc. …


The soul is a region without definite boundaries

A. R. Ammons writes in his poem “Terrain,”

it may be spherical, light, and knowledge merely
the iris and opening
to the dark methods of its sight: how it comes and
goes, ruptures and heals
whirls and stands still: the moon comes: terrain.


Honkadori, like honzetsu, is a practice of using old texts to make a new poem.

However, honkadori takes poems, not prose, as the material.

In homage, poets use existing lines of verse

to compose something new,

thereby communing with the dead poets

and showing respect to their forbears.


In Marighella’s Portuguese—

Conohece el terrane como su māo.

Know the terrain like the palm of your hand.

The way the word māo feels on the tongue.

The way the spines of a thicket feel between your fingers

as you slip beneath the bramble.


I tried to contribute through wholesome means before I took an interest in sabotage.

I attuned myself to the stone’s motion,

I sat with my mind’s impurity for a hundred days—

it did not overwhelm me.

I taught in public high schools for fifteen years.

I pushed against the doors of the universities

so that they would let my students in, wondering,

if they, too, would be worked numb should they succeed.


This morning, I watch my friend roll a cigarette and picture the celebration at the French mill after the clog stopped the chipper—

The workers released for the day as the mechanic was summoned.

The cool grass and the good sharpness of stones

as the saboteur walked barefoot to the compound.

I indulge the baroque corners of my imagination—

Hare simmering with morels.

A jug of merlot, calloused hands,

laughter, fife and drum.


Page 7: Frequently you can “get away” with such acts under the cover of pretending stupidity, ignorance, over-caution, weakness or dullness due to undernourishment.

I take inspiration from the manual’s confidence,

its casual tone.

Where once I looked for beauty, I look for maleficence.

I admire the coils in the box spring

someone flung from the freeway.

I direct a beam of July sun through the heel of a bottle

on the stuffing of a busted couch.

No fire comes.


Maybe this could be our revolution, Alice Walker says, to love what is abundant as much as what is scarce.

What is abundant—

Abandoned wells and rusting derricks. The ticks

on the backs of the capybaras in the hills outside Sao Paolo.

The coyote bush in the canyon by my father’s house, its ghostly bloom each November.

The grief of the mothers of the imprisoned artists in Tehran.


The songs of yellow-bellied warblers.

The sigatoka fungus spreading on the leaves of the banana trees in La Ceiba.

The words of the dead poets

about the blossoms.


Is this what a sentence wants?

To stand on its own, disembodied from the words that surround it?

Or does a sentence feel betrayed when it is plucked from its context?

Is its extraction a kind of vandalism?


Before the Simple Sabotage Field Manual was written, the Industrial Workers of the World union taught its members to protest unjust conditions through “a withdrawal of efficiency.”

Some suggestions:

Reverse the order of the zip code on the outgoing package.

Leave the ripe fruit to rot on the vine.

Label the box of zinc as chromium.


Sabotage is to vandalism as__________is to______________.

a. Archery is to the arrow
b. A chemise gown is to a sundress
c. Rhythm is to tempo
d. A secret is to hiding


A withdrawal of efficiency:

A poem.

The deliberation of the line’s length

in a poem,

settling on the meter, something dactylic, or nearly so.


After Carlos Marighella robbed a bank to fund his growing force, killing two innocent people in the heist, the Brazilian military state dispatched police deputy and notorious torturer Sérgio Paranhos Fleury to confront him.

On a muggy day in November 1969, Fleury shot Marighella on a Sao Paolo street at dusk.

A hero is to a villain as__________is to______________.

There are no plausible answers,

only competing propagandas.


I have loved what is abundant.

Lay down in the coyote bush and prayed to the scrub’s swaying.

Let the day spin its gauze of seconds around me

and reveled in my capture.

Sorted cigarette butts and street debris from the bucket of window glass.

Glazed the shards with epoxy, affixed them with a focused mind

in the space my friend instructed.

I have driven California’s central valley in February,

when the almond trees are in bloom, reciting Issa—

Without you,
cherry blossoms are just
cherry blossoms.


Some entities thrive on decreased efficiency.

Certain hedge funds bet on companies failing, and when the workers are laid off, the factory doors shuttered, the fund managers become rich.

My friend regards his sculpture—a life-sized seated figure made of broken glass,

the face featureless, the shoulders broad and hunched, one arm

a buttress, the other extended, the hand oversized, open,

as if offering. As if asking. Or is it taking?

I’m naming it Corporate Personhood, he tells me, 

when he asks me to help him move the effigy.

I pace around the statue. Rods clang in the welder’s studio next door.

It’s a terrible title, I tell him, but yes, I’ll help you.

Exactly, he replies, smiling as he brushes dust from a glistening shoulder,

the proof of the pudding is in the eating.


At the same time Emperor Go-Toba was working to assemble the Shin Kokinshu, the most ambitious compilation of Japanese poetry of its age, he ordered the execution of his subjects who showed loyalty to a rival leader.

A chrysalis, in spite of its delightful name, is just the shell from which the butterfly emerges.


Mehdi Mousavi was not the only one.

The next year, Hila Sedighi, a more traditional poet, was arrested for reciting her poems in Tehran.


Some suggest that the story of the man throwing his wooden shoe into the gears in the French mill is made up, fanciful.

Instead, it is argued, the word saboteur comes from workers (many of whom wore wooden shoes) “walking noisily” off the job in protest.

While less romantic, this alternate etymology is not reliant on a hero but on the actions of many, a framework popular in activist circles today.


Page 30: Spread disturbing rumors that sound like inside dope.

Apply all regulations to the last letter.

Page 29: Be pleasant to inefficient workers; give undeserved promotions. Discriminate against efficient workers; complain unjustly about their work.

Page 32: Cry and sob hysterically at every occasion, especially when confronted by government clerks.

Complain against ersatz materials.


The Fox began plugging sewer outlets that polluted the rivers and streams around Chicago from his canoe in the late 1960s.

Ecotage focuses on the destruction of infrastructure and technology that poses a threat to the natural world.

The term was coined in the 1972 book Ecotage!,which detailed the exploits of James F. Phillips, better known as the Fox.

His best-known stunt: pouring a bucket of toxic sludge dredged from Lake Michigan on the desk of the CEO of the company that released it.


I fix my sight on the Warm Springs Dam, which chokes Dry Creek a few hours north of my home.

I memorize the diagram of its construction, ninety-seven meters high, nine hundred meters long.

I read about its history, the Pomo burial grounds and sacred sites drowned by the lake the dam created.

Every beast in every fable has a weakness, but before the hero can exploit it,

they must overcome their own shortcomings. I’m neither hero

nor villain, I think to myself. I’m just auditioning for a minor part in a minor play.


Fujiwara no Teika, Emperor Go-Toba’s favorite bard, kept a journal called Meigetsuki or The Record of the Clear Moon.

Written with meticulous attention to detail, the journal contains his observations of Japanese court life from age nineteen to his death at nearly eighty in 1241.

Only a small part of The Record of the Clear Moon has been translated into English, but eight hundred years after he wrote the final entry, I find a book containing several entries:

19th. Clear.

Went to Reizei at the hour of the snake. Not long after, Bishu stopped by, and the Dharma Eye (Kakukan) visited again. I invited Lord Nagasaki and my student the Zen Nun also came by. Around 1 p.m. we began renga (poetry writing). The first verse made reference to an activity. Ienaka and Tasushige participated. Such fun. By sunset we had finished a sequence of one hundred links and everyone went home. Rested a while before going home. Is this not an elegant pleasure for my demented old age?


In 1994, imitating Teika, Gary Snyder writes:

Ripples on the surface of the water

were silver salmon passing under—different

from the sorts of ripples caused by breezes.

A good saboteur must similarly absorb themselves in the patterns of their environment,

I write in red pen in the margins of the poem. I draw concentric circles

around each instance of the word ripples. Outside,

it begins to rain.


Under night’s cover, I drive to the dam.

Using the manual’s instructions,

I drape a strip of carpet over the barbwire fence,

and pass safely over.

I walk out along the spillway.

The sun’s heat still radiates from the retaining wall.

At the foot of the concrete wave, I have never felt so impotent.

Still, I hold the chisel where the seam meets trestle.

Page 11: Almost anyone could have done it.

I raise the hammer high.


The Record of the Clear Moon was not discovered until after Teika’s death.

While he lived, in addition to his poems, he was renowned for his shorter texts on poetic composition:

For the idea, one must privilege the new. For the words, one must use the old.

I free these words from their context.

I watch the meaning churn, the concepts rearrange.


The Fox became a cult hero, but he was not looking for celebrity.

In 2001, members of the Earth Liberation Front, the organization the Fox founded, destroyed logging machinery near Vail to protect terrain precious to the lynx.

Shortly after, the FBI declared the Earth Liberation Front to be “the #1 priority in the domestic terrorist program.”

The protagonists of the Vail action were subsequently arrested and served lengthy jail terms.

While the lynx, sharp-eyed keeper of time’s cold secrets, remains critically endangered, the population in the high mountains of Colorado has remained steady.


I managed to inflict only a minor nick in the dam’s façade

before footsteps in the valley spooked me down from the spillway.

But the flood came this year on its own.

The water rose as if to say

we don’t need you

to be ungentle.

I named the debris

that floated past and felt relief—

Sandwich boards, a car door. Stumps,

or were they branches?

The words are old.

In the deluge, I looked for new ideas.


The wildfires in California cost the economy eleven billion dollars in 2019.

A withdrawal of efficiency.

Timber companies lobbied to log huge swaths of California forest to mitigate the risk of future fires.

As the government considered the loggers’ proposals, the stock value of Kimberly-Clark, the country’s largest paper company, rose precipitously.


The axe unaware that it has no other home than the grove

is made out of tree but has no roots,

reads Hila Sedighi, and she repeats it in the ghazal:

The axe unaware that it has no other home than the grove

is made out of tree but has no roots.

She speaks in Persian in the YouTube video, and the English subtitles (anonymously composed), I fear, betray some of her lyricism.

Today by the door they pointed the father’s rifle at the son’s chest

mother’s face turned red from anger.

I am on the outside of these words and their context,

but I watch her tremble as she recites her poem to an audience of thousands,

understanding the consequences of speaking this directly.

Tulips have blossomed from the blood of the youths of this land

hundreds of flowers on the grass awaiting the spring wind.


In Japan, each region had a bureau of poetry,

I tell my friend about Teika’s era,

as we strap Corporate Personhood to the dolly.

We roll the statue down the concrete path

then veer left to the installation site.

Sunlight steals through

the canopy of trees, flares

in the safety glass.

Benjamin Gucciardi’s first book, West Portal, (University of Utah Press, 2021), was selected by Gabrielle Calvocoressi for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry. He is also the author of the chapbook I Ask My Sister’s Ghost (DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press, 2020). His poems have appeared in AGNI, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, Harvard Review, New Ohio Review, Orion Magazine, Southern Indiana Review and other journals.