WHEN PO­ETS TAKE ON WAR

Two new col­lec­tions delve into the chal­leng­ing sub­ject of mod­ern com­bat and its im­pact

Muscat Daily - - FEATURES -

Reaper

By Jill McDonough 100 pages Price: US$15.95 courage of 50 men pro­tect­ing your vil­lage from Vik­ing in­vaders; quite an­other to be con­fronted with the smoul­der­ing trenches of World War I.

But if war po­etry has largely re­solved into op­po­si­tion, this doesn’t sim­plify it as an un­der­tak­ing.

War po­ems have a re­por­to­rial func­tion: They give us the news about some­thing that has hap­pened. And de­spite re­cent sug­ges­tions to the con­trary, read­ers gen­er­ally don’t like their news to be fake; they want it to be (or at least to seem) au­then­tic. Here is where the trou­ble be­gins.

Be­cause the sense of au­then­tic­ity - a frag­ile, volatile cre­ation in even the sim­plest lyric about birch trees - is pres­sured from mul­ti­ple an­gles in the con­tem­po­rary war poem. Such a poem must feel au­then­tic to an au­di­ence that in gen­eral has no per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence with the di­rect ef­fects of com­bat, and that strug­gles to eval­u­ate the very au­then­tic­ity it de­sires.

Yet the poem must also seem to come from an au­then­tic per­spec­tive - that is, read­ers may be dis­mayed to dis­cover that the poet who wrote so mov­ingly about Qusayr has him­self never left the bat­tle-scarred streets of Iowa City. Amer­i­can po­ets (with rare ex­cep­tions like Brian Turner and Kevin Pow­ers) have lit­tle in­volve­ment with the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary. This is by no means to im­ply that po­ets can write ef­fec­tively about wars only if they’ve worked as sol­diers, medics or war cor­re­spon­dents. But it does mean that when writ­ing a war poem, they have to worry about gen­uine­ness.

A poet who has never been to Syria can in­voke the shelling of a Syr­ian vil­lage at the risk of los­ing, if not an­ger­ing, the reader. As a genré, war po­etry is built in the shadow of that an­cient work­shop bul­wark, “write what you know” and its post-mod­ern addi- tion, “or at least can con­vinc­ingly ap­pear to know”.

So what do con­tem­po­rary po­ets know, or seem to know, about war? One of the best an­swers is: Not much. But know­ing what you don’t know can turn out to be more than enough.

Jill McDonough’s new book, Reaper, broods over the tech­nol­ogy of war - in par­tic­u­lar the de­vel­op­ment of ro­bots, drones and other meth­ods of out­sourc­ing hu­man in­tel­li­gence and moral­ity to code and cir­cuits. (The first line in her first poem is, “I go to the park to see the ro­bots rise,” which is both po­ten­tially true - she’s talk­ing about watch­ing the engi­neers from a nearby ro­bot­ics com­pany test their in­ven­tions - and a clever up­end­ing of the pas­toral tra­di­tion.)

Jill is no ex­pert, and much of the force of her writ­ing comes from its very sec­ond-hand­ed­ness. As her chatty lines (“We go see the Rock­ettes…”) move through the ges­tures of the mod­ern lyric - only one poem goes over a page, and most use a stac­cato, col­lo­quial free verse - we get the sense of a writer try­ing to come to terms with some­thing that is part of her coun­try’s re­al­ity, but not part of her own. She’s open about this: Mul­ti­ple po­ems credit sources like Matt J Martin’s Preda­tor: The Re­mote-Con­trol Air War Over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pi­lot’s Story and John Sifton’s es­say A Brief His­tory of Drones. Some­times this can make po­ems seem like book re­ports:

Surveil­lance bal­loons over Afghanistan, even cheaper than drones. Chubby, white, fishy with fins. In Hel­mand they call them milk fish. In Kan­da­har they’re frogs be­cause big eyes.

You may as well just read the New York Times ar­ti­cle from which this poem was most likely de­rived. But when Jill turns to her own con­scious­ness as it is in­formed by her re­search, the re­sults are much more ar­rest­ing.

She vis­its the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in Dux­ford, Eng­land, and asks to see the old-fash­ioned drones:

The wooden-pro­pellered Fal­coner

is sleek as ca­noe, red as a wagon. The kind

Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe built: it’s in the pic­tures

of her as a child bride, a Rosiethe-Riveter

type. A baby is cry­ing, a boy with Tourette’s

swears. All through the mu­seum you

see names, see what names can do.

Strike­mas­ter, Lib­er­a­tor, Vam­pire.

Hell­cat, Avenger. Vic­tor, Hind. Call­ing

All Every­one! Call­ing All Every­one!

shouts the boy through the play­ground’s mega­phone.

Call­ing All Every­one! he’s shout­ing again,

from the top of the fake con­trol tower.

What does this poem know about Kan­da­har? Not much, per­haps. But it knows more than enough about vi­o­lence, which is the ul­ti­mate duty of the war lyric.

That said, the war lyric is not the only sort of war po­etry, as the Welsh poet Owen Sheers’s verse play Pink Mist. ca­pa­bly demon­strates. It tells the story of three fic­tional men from Bris­tol - Arthur, Hads and Taff - who join the Bri­tish forces in Afghanistan, and it’s based on in­ter­views the au­thor con­ducted with 30 vet­er­ans.

Be­cause this poem is also a play, the ques­tion of au­then­tic­ity is slightly al­tered: We’re con­cerned less with the au­thor’s ex­pe­ri­ence than his char­ac­ters’ be­liev­abil­ity. For­tu­nately those char­ac­ters can with­stand the scru­tiny. They ar­gue, grieve, apol­o­gise and al­ter­nately con­sole and re­proach each other, as the lines flicker from the flat­test ver­nac­u­lar (“Just got to griz it out,” “In the past in­nit?”) to un­ob­tru­sive, some­times el­e­gant rhyme and slant rhyme (“Don’t say it, Arthur. Don’t. / Cos it ain’t right. They made us fit./That’s what they did./Fit in, and fit for fight­ing./Fight­ing fit.”). Po­etic grand­stand­ing is al­most os­ten­ta­tiously avoided. Sheers wants to wound your heart with plain­ness.

This can be a prob­lem. At its worst the poem gives in to a sen­ti­men­tal­ity that is even more an­noy­ingly literary for pre­tend­ing oth­er­wise. Arthur col­lects in­ter­est­ing bird eggs one spring be­fore he de­parts (of course he does), and when he re­turns home, a flash­back to an IED ex­plo­sion causes him to flinch, break­ing one of them (“The pale blue shards of the heron’s egg/ scat­tered in­side the drawer,/ like a bro­ken prom­ise”), and this in turn leads to his girl­friend, Gwen, an­nounc­ing, “That night, when you fi­nally came home /I felt like that egg in your palm,/crushed to the bone.”

How help­fully sym­bolic this hobby has turned out to be.

But in its more fre­quent af­fect­ing mo­ments, the poem gives us a por­trait of men and women in a state of be­wil­dered ruin. Just a few stan­zas af­ter the lines above, Gwen re­flects on the af­ter­math of his re­turn:

“We go­ing out?”

That’s all you said.

Like noth­ing had hap­pened. “Yeah,” I replied.

Try­ing to un­der­stand what it was that had died. Look­ing back though, per­haps you were right.

Cos noth­ing is what it was. Noth­ing - that’s what you filled me with that night.

There is a kind of noth­ing­ness that haunts war po­etry, even the ex­hor­ta­tions of the old An­gloSaxon bards.

Not the quiet noth­ing­ness of death, though this is a part of it, but the burn­ing, con­ta­gious noth­ing­ness that we call de­struc­tion. Which at times has filled, or emp­tied, all of us.

Jill McDonough

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