Christopher Kempf demands more from poetic engagement with human suffering
In June of 1982, taking advantage of the decades-long civil war between Lebanon’s majority Muslim population and its Christian minority, Israeli forces crossed the border under cover of darkness and entrenched themselves in a siege outside the capital city of Beirut. The offensive provides the occasion for Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s sequence of prose poems, Memory for Forgetfulness, an extended reflection on the invasion and on the role and responsibilities of writers in a time of war. Decrying the demand from politicians and publishers alike for poetry produced amid the violence of that moment — for poems, as he writes, “to match air raids” — Darwish argues that it’s “galling that we should be ready during these air raids to steal time for all this chatter […] that we should be doing this at a moment in which everything has stopped talking.”
His comments — objecting, essentially, to an occasional poetry of war — echo Bertolt Brecht’s half a century earlier, which mourned poetry’s disconnection from a world in which the Nazi Party was rapidly consolidating its power. “What times are these,” Brecht asks in “To Those Who Follow In Our Wake,” “in which/ A conversation about trees is almost a crime/ For in doing so we maintain our silence about so much wrongdoing?” Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno put it even more directly in 1948, famously stating that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” But where Brecht and Adorno imagine poetry as an almost complicit silence in the face of historical injustice, Darwish locates poetry within history itself, arguing that “Beirut itself is the writing […] Its true poets and singers are its people and fighters, who don’t need to be entertained or spurred by a lute with broken strings.”
Insisting on what we might call a “lived poetics” over and against traditionally romanticized war poetry, Darwish locates himself at the center of a question — how, if at all, to aestheticize the violence of war — which reaches back far beyond the violence of the 20th century. Virgil himself, poet-historian of the Trojan War, calls upon the muse for assistance to fit language to its military subject, in singing, as he says, of “arms and the man” and in so doing understanding, through poetry, “the causes and the crimes” of that conflict. But the relationship between war and its poetic representation is also one of poetry’s newest, most pressing problems, particularly at a time when our own War on Terror continues to render language itself suspect (one thinks of “Mission Accomplished” or “signature strike” or “enhanced interrogation”) and particularly, too, at a time when publishers of poetry are showing a renewed interest, in contrast to the first Gulf War, in the poetic production of veterans.
In the last eight years, five critically-regarded books of poetry by veterans have been released by distinguished presses, each of which responds to the problem Darwish raised — the problem, that is, of poetry’s commensurability to war and the violence it engenders. In Here, Bullet, released in 2005, Brian Turner asserts that “I have no words to speak of war./ I never dug graves in Talafar./ I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.” Turner, also the author of the 2010 collection Phantom Noise, underscores Darwish’s point that the real poetry of war is written by history, forged, as Darwish writes, to the “rhythm of rockets.” Hugh Martin makes a similar gesture in the poem “The War Was Good, Thank You,” responding with a series of fragmented, incoherent images when questioned by “a freshman girl [who] asks, So, how was the war?” “I didn’t tell anyone,” Martin writes, “I lay outside shirtless/ and set ice cubes/ on my closed eyelids.” Martin’s book, The Stick Soldiers, released in 2013, is filled with this kind of comédie noire, a knowing authority which seems deeply suspicious not only of its own attempts to reduce the war to language but also of the capacity of its civilian audience to comprehend this language.
Both of these poets style themselves as reluctant witnesses to a historical event irreducible to language, an event that at once resists poeticization and yet, given the current vogue for veterans’ poetry, seems remarkably generative of it. This tension — between poetry and history, language and experience — constitutes a main focus of the two most recent collections from veterans, Kerry James Evans’s Bangalore, released in October, and Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers, published in April. In a poem called “Improvised Explosive Device,” Powers contends that “If this poem had wires/ coming out of it,/ you would not read it.” And Evans, in a poem called “Seven Chants, A War Cry,” explains to “you nothing of a reader” that “this is the savage age of battleships and bombs,” an age, Evans suggests, which refuses to be reduced to glib, well-meaning poetic sensibilities. “These are mornings,” Evans writes, “roosters eat eggs, ant colonies gasolined —/ tortured, the queen dead, her neck noosed and hanged.// I am not your Savior. I am not your King.”
Evans’s defiance of his readers — the move is a common one throughout his collection — rings false, however, when we consider his willingness to court those readers through precisely the aesthetic rendering of war that he disavows in claiming, for example, that “I wasn’t there./ I can’t give the image.” For the collection, drawing heavily upon Evans’s experience in the military, is chock-full of images of war and violence: “When I say kill,” Evans writes in one poem, “I mean wrap det-cord around your face.” And indeed, Bangalore‘s front cover features a literal image of the schematics of a Bangalore torpedo. In the same way, Powers’s Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting invokes in its very title the spectacular image of a soldier scrawling furiously amid the rain of shrapnel and the thunder of explosions, all despite Powers’s frequent protestations that he can’t write about the war. “Guns are not ideas,” he says in one poem, “They are not things to which comparisons are made.”
Such hand-wringing about the relationship between poetry and war suggests, on one hand, an effort to engage ethically with this most complicated of subject matters, a kind of “hedging of bets” on the part of veteran poets wary of the difficult, controversial aesthetic problem into which they’re venturing. On the other hand, however, these poets’ seemingly vexed relationship to their craft is symptomatic of a more glaring problem, particularly in the work of Evans and Powers. These writers, invoking the imagery and rhetoric of the War on Terror in the name of marketing, ultimately elide the real violence of that war, shielding themselves from accountability by asserting the exclusive right of the American soldier to narrate the war experience.
“This poem is for every dead American,” Evans writes. “This poem is not for anyone who reads poems.” Implying that the war’s “true poets,” to quote Darwish, are its fighters, Evans nonetheless abstains, as does Powers, from what might be a discomfiting engagement with those other fighters of the War of Terror, with “every dead” Iraqi and Afghani soldier, as well as with the civilian populations of both countries, transformed, by the very nature of this war, into fighters themselves. We should, then, tread carefully in our fetishization of veterans’ poetry as if such writing constitutes an unbiased account of the war experience and not, as it more accurately does, a representation of the war curated for American audiences enamored — as evidenced, for instance, by the success of the Call of Duty series or by the critical acclaim for films like Zero Dark Thirty — with war and war-related violence. And we would be well-served, as a literary culture, to demand from our poetry a richer, more nuanced conception of what it means to engage aesthetically with that timeless and most fraught of poetic subjects — human suffering.
In his review of Turner’s Here, Bullet for The New York Times, Joel Brouwer anticipates much of the recent criticism surrounding contemporary veterans’ poetry, lauding the “terrific immediacy” of the collection as well as Turner’s “brisk, precise — and nonpartisan — attention to both the terrors and the beauty he found among Iraq’s ruins.” Brouwer’s statement is an important — and, as I’ve suggested, representative — one for the way it frames Turner’s work as a poetry of witness, documenting the war in “earnest and proficient poems” that “deliver […] the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release.”
And indeed there is much of the War on Terror witnessed to in Here, Bullet. But of the book’s 47 poems, only three treat the deaths of Iraqis themselves in a significant manner, and never — excepting an image of American soldiers “stand[ing] over the bodies” of dead Iraqis “saying/ Last call, motherfucker. Last call” — does Turner show an American soldier actually killing anyone. The same omission is present in Evans’s Bangalore, an 82-page collection in which not a single Iraqi or Afghani is killed, and in Powers’s Letter Composed, in which only two poems out of 34 mention, however briefly, the deaths of Iraqis. One could be forgiven for imagining, based on these poets’ experiences, that the War on Terror was a relatively bloodless romp through a land where, as Turner romanticizes, “white birds rose from the Tigris.”
If contemporary veterans’ poetry is, as a genre, a poetry of witness, it is one of selective witness, eschewing sustained engagement with the deaths of Iraqis and Afghanis in favor of comparatively myopic reportage on the day-to-day lives of American soldiers. To be sure, such reportage constitutes an important archiving of one side of the war experience, but to laud such poetry for providing a human face to the war or for transporting Iraq, as Brouwer claims, “from the fog of political oratory into tangibility” is to have a very narrow idea indeed of what — and for whom — “Iraq” actually means.
The most complex of these veteran poets, Martin is for his part more responsible in his treatment of the War on Terror’s collateral damage. In the poem “Observation Post,” Martin powerfully dramatizes the death of an Iraqi interpreter:
We drive with the captain in a Humvee
and find the two boys
crouched together, hands
over heads on the floor, their father
wet on their bodies.
Captain takes a photo, and we lean
toward the backseat window, as he points
at red scraps of Marwan,
beside the seatbelt buckle. Later,
he’ll show everyone, magnifying
the camera’s screen, that’s skull
right there, that’s skull,
as if needing others to agree.
Rather than glossing over the violence elided by other veteran poets, Martin self-consciously renders his own titillated witness to this violence, suggesting the mediation implicit in any attempted witness to war. Likewise, in “First Engagement,” Martin relates an incident in which his unit mistakenly guns down an Iraqi “dragging rebar from the back of his truck,” though no one knows, Martin says, that “he was taking it to rebuild his home;/ no one knows his son, the passenger, is shot in the arm.”
Martin gestures in these poems, as his fellow veteran poets rarely do, toward his own active yet self-critical participation in the War on Terror, but even Martin stops short of showing us the true extent of that war — the “enemy combatants” hooked up to car batteries, the weddings struck with Hellfire missiles, the hunger strikes, the bodies of Afghans on which US Marines urinated. Such events have long been the province of protest poetry, but they’re conspicuously absent in contemporary veterans’ writing. On the one hand, of course, this absence points to — and can be explained by — the limitations inherent in any poetry of witness; neither Martin nor his contemporaries, it seems likely, would have witnessed all, or even any, of these atrocities, and it therefore seems unfair to demand they write about them.
On the other hand, however, these poets’ inability to transcend the local, to engage the war on more than a diaristic level, suggests that we should take with a grain of salt Brouwer’s claim that in such “nonpartisan” poetry we find “the kinds of observations we would never find in a Pentagon press release.” Failing to engage with the full ethical complexity of the War on Terror — to engage, that is, with the war as an idea — this poetry is in fact often uncomfortably similar to Pentagon press releases, themselves concerned with comparatively myopic reportage framing the war as an a priori legitimate undertaking. We might very well expect this from the Pentagon, but we shouldn’t, I don’t think, accept it from our poets.
In seeking an alternative model of what a more socially-committed war poetry might look like, it may be necessary to look beyond our current war — and even the first Gulf War that preceded it — to Vietnam, and in particular to the work of veteran Bruce Weigl, whose dozen books of poetry document richly and often disturbingly his wartime experience. In “Surrounding Blues on the Way Down,” from the 1988 collection Song of Napalm, Weigl describes an older soldier assaulting a Vietnamese woman “bent over from her stuffed sack of flowers” who “smiled her beetle-black teeth at us”:
I have no excuse for myself.
I sat in that man’s jeep in the rain
and watched him slam her to her knees,
the plastic butt of his M16
crashing down on her.
Similarly, in “The Last Lie” Weigl relates an incident in which a soldier throws C rations from the back of the truck at a group of trailing children. The poem bears quoting at length:
He didn’t toss the can, he wound up and hung it
on the child’s forehead and she was stunned
backwards into the dust of our trucks.
Across the sudden angle of the road’s curving
I could still see her when she rose,
waving one hand across her swollen, bleeding head,
wildly swinging her other hand
at the children who mobbed her,
who tried to take her food.
and the guy with me laughed
and fingered the edge of another can
like it was the seam of a baseball
until his rage ripped
again into the faces of children
who called to us for food.
It’s a haunting image, an almost mythical depiction of a sort of parental relationship gone awry, utterly transformed by the inhumanity of war. Things get messy in this poem. Things, as they do in war, get strange and out of control and violent, and it’s precisely this tonal range, this complexity of feeling which gives to Weigl’s work a broader, more nuanced conception of war than exists in our own generation of war poetry.
In contrast, contemporary veterans’ poetry seems strikingly flat, its structures of feeling one-dimensional, its tone, as Weigl describes it, “muted.” Such flatness may, of course, be taken to enact on a tonal level what Weigl calls that “necessary numbing of the senses” by which soldiers disengage from the trauma around them, and certainly many soldiers have themselves been numbed by an economic and military system designed to strip them of their individuality. In contemporary veterans’ poetry we find an emotional palette reminiscent of Camus’s “white style” or what Barthes calls the “zero degree of writing,” a tone — neutral, simple, and spare — that pretends to a scientific objectivity conferring both authority and authenticity on its writer.
This poetry is often uncomfortably similar to Pentagon press releases.
This style, however, is consciously chosen and carefully cultivated, and, in its ostensible objectivity, it has the effect of de-ideologizing war, treating it not as a contestable undertaking in the name of select interests but as a natural — and neutral — form of international and interpersonal relations. This poetry never risks the grand statement or the bold gesture, and only rarely — “We know [Saddam Hussein] had weapons,” one civilian says in The Stick Soldiers — does it locate the War on Terror within the political ideologies for which it’s carried out, those systems of rhetoric and force responsible for putting these veterans’ “boots on the ground” in the first place.
Leaving intact and unchallenged our media-curated understanding of the war, this poetry at the same time preserves our conception — molded largely in the mass-market, Hollywood blockbuster — of what a soldier is and does, characterizing its own soldiers as the stoic professionals with which we’re so familiar. In one poem, for example, Powers resorts to one of the most ubiquitous stock images of the war experience as it’s been registered on film, describing “a black sedan/ with GOVERNMENT USE license plates/ and […] two men/ walking up the front steps.” We’ve seen this film before.
But shouldn’t we expect from our poetry a more complex subjectivity than can be rendered with cliché? Shouldn’t we ask that the spare, controlled lyricism of these poems give way, sometimes, to chaos? Shouldn’t we ask for anguish and loneliness and terror? Shouldn’t we expect rage? Western culture’s earliest war poem, after all, opens with the poet invoking divine assistance to “sing the rage of Achilles,” naming its focus as that very fury which causes Achilles to drag Hector’s lifeless body three times around the gates of Troy. “My rage,” Achilles says to Hector before stabbing him through the stomach, “would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw, such agonies you have caused me.” Shouldn’t we expect that?
Instead, these poets work primarily in an epiphanic style — Charles Altieri calls it “the scenic mode” — that preserves intact the mode of narration by which news pundits and politicians explain the war to us. Here, for example, is the conclusion to Evans’s “Blanket Party,” a poem in which Evans and his fellow soldiers gang up on an outcast soldier. “I called him a faggot,” Evans writes,
who couldn’t fight, and since
our heads were shaved to fend
off ticks and lice, I didn’t pull
his hair, only planted my elbow
into his temple. He passed out.
One month later he was discharged.
The barracks blackened with sleep,
and that darkness was broken
by a bugle. We’d killed our own.
The poem is a powerful depiction of soldiers exorcising those parts of themselves and of military culture they’d rather not acknowledge, yet the poem only becomes legible in this way in its final line, which Evans delivers with all the heavy-handedness of a math problem: “We’d killed our own,” that is, provides the epiphanic “answer” to the narrative preceding it, rendering that narrative retroactively meaningful. Likewise, Powers ends one poem with a description of himself as a child climbing into the seat beside his presumably-tubercular father, “that rag he had/ by then begun to cough into/ already resting on his knee.” It’s a forced, last-minute injection of pathos intended, it seems, both to ominously foreshadow the speaker’s own growing awareness of death and to wrap things up in an emotionally-resonant manner.
Much of contemporary war poetry is similarly tidy, tied off with a bow at the end as if to reassure its readers that there are meaningful answers to this war, that things are under control here, that the traditional structures of meaning-making, whether poetic or political, remain firmly in place. Yet how, Darwish asks, “can traditional verse […] define the poetry now fermenting in the belly of the volcano?” How can contemporary veterans’ poetry continue to rely on and perpetuate old modes of writing in this new, radically different kind of war? If it’s perhaps too much to demand an aesthetic revolution in the vein of modernism — which responded, in part, to the increasingly technological and mechanistic nature of warfare — shouldn’t we hope, at least, for some measure of formal and linguistic innovation from this poetry? Shouldn’t we make it make itself new?
Contemporary veteran poets, however, are not necessarily the culprits here, working as they are within a publishing industry a tad too eager to capitalize on the timeliness of war writing. Such writing is, after all, far more marketable to wider audiences than other modes of contemporary poetry. Here, Bullet was one of the best-selling poetry books of the decade, and both Evans’s and Martin’s collections sold out their first print runs. Likewise, Powers’s collection was reportedly slated for an unprecedented 100,000-copy first printing.
So too, it’s worth reiterating, might we read the political ambivalence of contemporary veterans’ poetry more generously than I have here, as expressing something akin to Darwish’s anxiety about the appropriateness of poetry about contemporary warfare. Indeed, all of these poets are at their best when self-consciously accounting for their own aestheticizing of human suffering. In one of Powers’s most moving poems, he describes “a parking lot, which covers up a grave,/ a name we give in singular for the hundred slaves/ they buried there back then.” The poem’s conclusion is a frank and powerful acknowledgement of the callousness required to aestheticize suffering, as well as of the complex relation between aesthetics and history: “There were some names here once,” Powers writes at the end of the poem. “Some children, too. So what? Nothing/ was counted. Order is a myth.”
Contemporary veterans poetry documents firsthand the lived reality — or at least one side of that reality — of a historical conflict we in this country experience at such a remove. This poetry is most important as a corrective to the pretension of a single, monological narrative to the War on Terror. Yet too often this poetry simply reinforces that narrative, resembling too closely those unquestioned ideologies — economic and political, of American exceptionalism and militaristic triumphalism —responsible for the war this poetry takes as its subject. We should be wary, then, as Darwish cautions, of “defending the role of the poet whose writing is unique because it is rooted in his relationship to the actual as it unfolds.” For despite this poetry’s often spectacular invocation of war and war-related violence, there is no real atrocity here, no dead or displaced Iraqis, no double-tapped family members, no waterboarded combatants. There are, as Evans puts it, “No ghosts. But the ghosts // of soldiers.”
Also Recommended from MRB:
- The Poetics of Tragedy – By Christopher Kempf
- Translating Poetry: An Act and Art of Preserving the Essential – By Rachel Tzvia Back
- Incarnational Poetics and the New Theological Literary Studies – By Ryan McDermott
- Prayers amidst Parodies and Empty Praisesongs – By Luke Johnson