Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ and new poems

I sometimes think poets are of two kinds: those drawn to dramatic subjects which explicitly dramatise the writer’s concerns and those drawn to more everyday topics which come to reflect the writer’s concerns in the course of the poem. I think of Hardy and Edward Thomas in the latter camp, alongside Heaney’s reference to Katherine Mansfield in North (1975): “I will tell / How the laundry basket squeaked”. In the former camp, for sure, stands the American writer, Dan O’Brien, who is everywhere at the moment.

O’Brien sees himself as “a playwright who moonlights as a poet” and he has just won the Troubadour International Poetry prize and been shortlisted for the Evening Standard theatre awards (for his play The Body of an American). He also has poems included in the recent Magma issue discussed in my last blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/12/01/the-launch-of-magma-60-at-lrb-bookshop/). O’Brien’s first book of poems, War Reporter, was published by Charles Boyle’s excellent CB Editions just a year ago and I reviewed it for Poetry London. The book went on to be shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize and to win the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection prize (http://www.thepoetrytrust.org/news/fenton-aldeburgh-first-collection-prize-2013-winner-announced/)

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In discussion at Aldeburgh, O’Brien said War Reporter had been described as “docu-poetry” and that “sounds fair.” The war reporter in the book’s title is Canadian journalist, Paul Watson, and for seven years O’Brien has been in communication with him, “obsessively” recording and working on email conversations, as well as Watson’s recordings from conflict zones around the world. The two poems in Magma are part of new work in progress. ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Has the Time’ is a good example of the complex webs of guilt and complicity that O’Brien poems weave at their best. The narrator has helped an “interpreter” escape from Kandahar and vengeance is taken against the interpreter’s extended family through an IED: “A bump in the road and / the usual denouement”. The poems never flinch from explicitness about physical harm (“his father, leg like broken / bricks in a bag”) or psychological damage (“a pistol for protection, against all / sense and provocation, only to suck it in his mouth and – blackout”). ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows’ returns in part to the moral quandaries surrounding Watson’s 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk and through the streets of Mogadishu. It also alludes to Watson’s more recent eyewitness accounts from the conflict in Syria: “The West engaged / in self-soothing debates while mercenaries / penetrate the borders, tilting the board / in Assad’s favour”.

The Troubadour winning poem likewise derives from the Syrian conflict. Co-judging with Seren’s Amy Wack, Neil Astley said O’Brien submitted three poems, any one of which could have won first prize: “All three were so compelling that I found myself measuring all the other poems I read against them . . . I had no hesitation in putting forward one of them for first prize.” The eventual winner was ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Barrel Bombs’: “basically pieces-of-shit / IEDs of TNT, nitrogen / -rich fertilizer, diesel, anything / likely to kindle after exploding”. This is a more brutal, less multi-dimensional poem than some of O’Brien’s but it possesses an undeniable power to shock: “A foot in a sock / sticks out of the mountain. They tickle her / to see if they should dig”.

O’Brien has just published a second collection of more personal poems with CB Editions: http://www.cbeditions.com/obrien2.html

And here is my review of War Reporter from last year:

Dan O’Brien’s book is big, brave, important and challenging even in its imperfections. It is an act of ventriloquism, hitching a desperate and often horrifying ride on the work and experiences of Canadian war reporter, Paul Watson. Watson took the 1994 Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s body being dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Without doubt, his work tapped something important for America; as well as Watson’s original book, Where War Lives, and these poems, there is also a play and an opera in preparation.

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The poems abound in speaking voices, dominated by Watson himself, but including the “Poet”. Each piece comes at the reader as a slab of blank, largely decasyllabic verse. Voices bleed into one another, partly under the pressure of war zone experiences but also because of an explicit similitude between author and reporter: “You’re like the writer / I’ve always wished I were [. . . ] your constant / returning to an underworld we can’t / look at” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Describes the Ghost’). Both men admit to the allure of war and death. Watson’s voice, telling of his Mogadishu photo, confesses “When / you take a picture the camera covers / your face, you shut the rest of the world out” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice’). The quieter, more reflective stretches of the sequence explore this idea and allude to Camus’ claim to have solved the mystery of where war lives; the answer is in each of us, in our loneliness and humiliation. Watson’s book pursues this and O’Brien does the same here, taking the idea to justify excursions into both men’s personal and family backgrounds. I’m not sure how effective this is (OK, both are drawn to war’s horror, but neither are warriors) and these episodes do sap the quite astonishing power of the more direct reportage.

The book has Watson recalling scenes from Somalia, Rwanda, the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and it is art’s ability to contemplate such horrors that makes the book an important one. Tony Harrison (who always refers to himself as the man who reads the metre) insists that his formal artistry is vital to bring the poet through the fire he is intent on penetrating. O’Brien chooses to speak of man’s brutality by telling it slant, through another’s voice. Watson witnesses the stoning of a married rapist, but the initial possessive modifier ensures we cannot push the scene into the distance: “our audience cheers an elderly man / lifting a perfect cinder block above / his head, then smashing it down where a gash / jack knifes the rapist’s neck” (‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’). War lives in all of us and the collection is a hard read partly because of our reluctance to face this. The rigid consistency of form perhaps also adds some monotony, but I’d agree with Jay Parini, that O’Brien’s success is in finding words “sufficient” for our time, a form of speech adequate to the evil that persists.

The Launch of ‘Magma’ 60 at LRB bookshop

Last Friday night I read briefly (partly from my Worple Press book: https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/a-hatfield-mass/) at the LRB bookshop, 14 Bury Place, London WC1A 2JL (in fact just doors along from Enitharmon Press’ new offices). It was the launch of Magma magazine’s new issue (http://magmapoetry.com/). Magma really has become one of the must-read magazines in UK poetry and the event was one of two national launches (the other is on Thursday 11 December at 7pm at the Lit & Phil, 23 Westgate Rd, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 1SE, with guest reader Sean O’Brien). The LRB is a spectacularly good bookshop but you feel acutely the vanishing of bookshops elsewhere – to be surrounded by shelves of ‘proper’ books is a real pleasure, distressingly beginning to take on the quality of a sepia-tinted memory. Yet, as one of the readers commented, this is a dangerous place to visit if you’re not prepared to part with hard cash: so many temptations. It’s also a good place for a reading: chairs from front to back on the ground floor, seating well over 50, and on Friday it was packed.

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Magma 60 is edited by Rob A. Mackenzie and Tony Williams (one of the good and distinctive things about the magazine is its rolling editorship) and 19 poets were asked to read a couple of poems each, with Kei Miller putting in a longer shift at the end as guest poet. Among others, Peter Daniels’ poems evoked a quiet, desperate sense of things not holding, of wider societal failing (‘you might discover you’re painting the house / while the other side’s on fire’). Jacqueline Saphra remembered being seventeen and then dealing with her own seventeen-year olds, boys and girls, the latter crying from their rooms, ‘Come in, I won’t let you in, Come in’. Michael Henry recalled Finals exams and wanting to write about Brecht, which he does in his poem ‘Agent provocateur’: ‘The Brechtian grape is a dry white grape / and it tastes like the white corpuscles in blood’. Martha Sprackland and Jasmine Simms found common ground and a source of poetry in drifting off in science classes at school (I remember it well).

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John Greening read about visiting the archaeological dig at Sutton Hoo and an intriguing poem about ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which knowingly fails to offer ‘an explanation // of what happens in the end [. . .] about how     whatever it is     was broken’. DA Prince also evoked an earlier age with ‘The bell-makers’ reminding me of sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev (1966): ‘the brilliant blistering light, / that cataract of blazing air, the stream / of liquid pain’. Karen Leeder presented new translations of German poet, Volker Braun. Braun was writing in part through the upheavals of 1989, exploring the triumph of capitalism: ‘EVERYTHING AND NOTHING / Was it ever really yours? Fuck you, fantasist. / The encore: all that you could never need!’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rubble-Flora-Selected-Seagull-German/dp/0857422189/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1417365225&sr=1-1&keywords=volker+braun).

At the end of the first half, Gwen Adshead, a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who works in secure hospitals, talked about her work and love of Philip Larkin’s poetry and read ‘Talking in Bed’ (one of my own Larkin favourites; see below). Kei Miller’s live delivery illuminates and energises his own words on the page. I’ve written more about his prize-winning The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (Carcanet) on this blog (https://martyncrucefix.com/2014/10/22/kei-millers-cartographer-and-friels-translations/). He read several of the Place Name pieces, the poem where the Cartographer asks for directions and gets indirections instead (‘all true’ Kei said), the ‘Hymn to the Birds’ and the 28,000 rubber ducks poem which moves (almost imperceptibly) from children’s bath toys to captives lost overboard on trans-Atlantic passages years ago. Miller finished with his short poem ‘Distance’ which seemed to be something of an answer to Larkin’s poem chosen by Gwen Adshead; here are the two of them. . .

Talking in bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,

Lying together there goes back so far,

An emblem of two people being honest.

Yet more and more time passes silently.

Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest

Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,

And dark towns heap up on the horizon.

None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why

At this unique distance from isolation

It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.

Distance

Distance is always reduced at night

The drive from Kingston to Montego Bay is not so far

Nor the distance between ourselves and the stars

And at night there is almost nothing between

The things we say, and the things we mean.