A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing Kanina Dawson read several of the poems from her stunning debut volume Masham Means Evening, at the opening night reading for the latest Ottawa Small Press Bookfair. She read well and the poems, full of obvious gravitas, caught the audiences full attention.
The Road to Bagram
Horizons away from where I am going
we stop to change a tire on a road leading north.
It's littered with scrap metal, red and white painted rocks
telling us to be careful of mines.
Nearby is the faint clinking of goat bells
and the remnants of a checkpoint
where an Afghan guard is banging his pot against a metal post.
A speed bump in the middle of nowhere is what he tends to.
Long ago he might have kept a garden or read books.
Now he smokes hash and merely stares at us as we pass,
his AK slung, his kettle hung on a hook.
The wind makes a moan that cuts across the sun,
kicking up dust devils near an old Soviet tank
destroyed over a decade ago - its side ripped open,
its turret popped off and flung fifty feet
down a gravelled slope - nothing
history remembers. War came too many years ago,
scattered too many teeth among the rocks
where the goats now graze
and where the guard goes to take a shit -
uninterested in the lost jaw bone of some Russian
whose parents no one can name.
To read Dawson's on the ground account of her experiences is another realm entirely. It is not only easy to suspend your disbelief, Dawson grabs the reader full frontal and screams - here it is, the face of war, have a bite.
The visceral reaction one has to poem after excellent poem is shattering. Kanina Dawson marches into a very small cadre of writers who have captured the true heart of war from the ground. You can think of Philip Caputo's Rumour's of War, If I Die In a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O'Brien, Gustav Hasford's The Short Timers and Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun.
As I write these names there is the realization that these books are all from the Viet Nam generation or older and that I am showing my age.
Crumpled, dusty, whirling into the camp wall,
a helicopter folds, burning like a metal deck of cards,
melting the seatbelts.
No way to get them out, the pilot and door gunner.
Inside the operations centre the order gets given -
start making calls back home.
The officer in charge swallows hard, nods.
Poised on the last step of the stairs
he feels his own bones on fire,
thinks of his boys, eleven and thirteen, says -
It would be quick though.
It would be quick.
But I can tell from his face -
how he sees those flames
like a tableau, those hands
in a cockpit spasming for air -
that he's not sure.
Kanina Dawson has tapped into a vein of literature that is soaked in blood, terror, valour and every extreme emotion imaginable, but like Herodotus, it is the details flashing by at the side of the frame that sometimes tell the story.
I remember a village in which we sat,
the local men and us, a tiny gathering on a grass patch
bleached by the daily dump of night urine,
salty hot. I sat with my back against a fire brick wall,
sweet with smoke and crawling with flies.
The men there had laughed at my hair,
used their hands to scoop the insides out of melons,
taught me words for bird and trees and sky.
We were offered apricots, the hospitality of almonds
and we talked about the price of peace.
We didn't know until later how dangerous
these men were, pretending to be friends of the coalition,
covering our hands with both of theirs, smiling,
letting our trucks return home in the semi-dark, unmolested.
We thought that meeting a great success.
Back in Canada we figure it out - what duplicity means -
when we hear that one of our own got his head cleaved with an axe.
He'd been sitting among the elders, sipping tea and spitting seeds
when someone slumped him into darkness.
Made of him a melon, split,
They hoped it would be enough to make us leave.
And I remember how I'd sat not six months before
in a place like that, laughing, cross legged on the ground,
my helmet off, my grimy tea glass resting against one knee -
the men with their sticky hands, sucking their fingers cleans,
telling us how their district was famous for its melons,
What Kanina Dawson does in poem after poem in Masham Means Evening is to tell us about the real experiences of a Canadian soldier at war. The where and when hardly matter. Poem after poem in this rich and tender book sweat, bleed and confess truths and conundrums beyond reason, yet Dawson makes either sense or soldier's prayer out of every moment.
I'm sitting with my back against a building
by the runway, kicking at my kit, anti-social as hell.
The sun is burning circles into my legs. I'm waiting
to get on the plane. I'm out of here for good.
I watch a newswoman on the tarmac
talk to troops about going home, their faces smiling,
heads nodding. I look away, sad
that I can't quite get there.
Still dwelling on suicide bombers and perfect paper sky,
this fight, both winnable and un-won,
the silence of mountains in the distance
This morning the plane sits ready out on the runway,
its shadow rippling in the heat, its ramp folded down.
We head off towards it in single file.
My lungs go in and out like a last look.
I try to breathe it all in - all these hard things -
this detached ache like a paper kite on a cut string.
I can't figure out what it is I've lost.
I could have chosen any of the poems from Kanina Dawson's Masham Means Evening for this review. Every poem in the collection as crystal clear as a bullet from a gun.