Thursday, October 31, 2013

War Reporter - Dan O'Brien

Today's book of poetry:  War Reporter.  Dan O'Brien.  Hanging Loose Press.  Brooklyn, New York.  2013.

American poet and playwright Dan O'Brien uses Canadian war reporter Paul Watson as a conduit for this examination of what happens when someone sees too much horror, sees the worst we can do to one another.  By mining Watson's memoir, Where War Lives, his journalism, recording and transcripts, and apparently a great deal of personal correspondence between the two, O'Brien has taken it all and finely distilled it.  As a result we get this collection, War Reporter, a startlingly harsh and crisp telling of so many horrors, the brief respite of beauty.

The War Reporter Paul Watson on Suicide

On a bed we discover the body
of a child at the bottom of a pile
of children.  Quartered like chickens.  Outside
another's buried alive.  The hand is
like a tuber.  At the refugee camp
a girl stumbles barefoot into a ditch
of corpses.  Some wrapped in reed mats.  Looking
for help, crying.  But nobody's coming.
I say to myself,  This will make a great
picture.  This is a beautiful picture
somehow.  Raising my camera to my face
I step on a dead old woman's arm:  it
snaps like a stick.  In Nyarubuye
we push open a gate on a courtyard
of Hell.  Tangles of limbs junked.  They'd come to
this church hoping God would protect them but
it only made things that much easier
to be hacked to pieces.  A survivor
shivers on the filthy foam.  The mayor
asked for wallets, tossed them grenades.  Men blown
into pieces in midair.  These are snakes
whose heads must be crushed.  Neighbors took neighbors'
children and bashed their heads together till
brains strewed the dirt.  Infants keening beside
their decapitated mothers were plunged
head-first into latrines.  A pregnant friend
slit open and her fetus extruded
like a docile calf.  There was so much noise!
the survivor recalls.  All I wanted
was to close my ears and lay on the ground
and sleep in my family's blood.  Till her skin
itched with maggots.  Then 40 days cowering
in the charnel church.  Praying I'd be killed
too because I believed the world had been
swept away.  Of course I wanted to kill
myself before, write the war reporter
to the poet, but the truth is I lack
the courage.  So I tell myself, Just go
someplace dangerous, let somebody else
kill you.


Many of these poems are sledgehammer poems.  Vicious, kick you hard in the groin of reality poems, but a reality most of us have never really considered much less experienced.  O'Brien mines Watson's world and bleeds it into poems for us, one incredible story after the next.

The War Reporter Paul Watson Was Talking to His Mother

and I asked her, Did you ever ask him
about what happens after?  He'd been sick
for a while, of the same kidney disease
that's killing me.  Did my father believe
he'd be going somewhere?  And she said,  Well
how should I know?  Ha ha ha.  We just talked
about, you know, how to take care of all
you kids, what our savings account was and
that sort of thing.  And I told her, You know,
I find that hard to believe.  He's staring
into the abyss — how could he face this
fact?  And she just shrugged and answered, Bravely,
I suppose.  And, well, that kind of told me
everything I need to know.


Unflinching honesty and hard chemistry has Watson judging himself harshly, he has seen too much for any other vision.  Yet O'Brien sees Watson as a hero.  A flawed Colonel Kurtz type experienced hero full of flaws and fears and flitting through a world that both boggles the mind of the innocent and beggars belief for the inured.  Dan O'Brien's War Reporter feels more than true than the ground beneath your feet and explosive enough to knock you off them.

The War Reporter Paul Watson on Guilt

This was in Mosul at the beginning
of the war.  A boy was throwing pebbles
at a machine gun twisting like a hose
spraying death.  A bunch of students pulling
another student bleeding from a gash
over his eyes.  Someone made that sound click
like, you know, Take his picture!  I had to
swap my lenses, and you could see the switch
go off in someone's head.  I was lifted
off the ground, tossed around, stoned,  Someone slid
his knife into my back and I could feel
the blood pool in my shirt.  I was trying
to hold on to my camera as they stretched
my arms out like this till I was floating
on top of the mob, and I'm not trying
to be cinematic but it was like
Christ on the cross.  I am not Innocent
nor have I ever been.  I don't deserve
your mercy.  But the truth of these places
is always the same.  A dozen people
formed a circle around me, a dozen
people against a thousand.  Approaching
a row of shuttering shops.  And these people
simply pulled the shutters back up and shoved
me under.  That's when I saw my camera's
gone, the hand's empty, the mob is pounding
on metal.  The tea shop owner says, Look
you know I'd really like to help you but
would you mind leaving my tea shop soon?  Out
into the street again lying prostrate
in the dust at the order of some pissed
-off marines, and I somehow convince them
to take me back behind the wire.  That's why
I can't blame it all on my brain, Dan.  Or
my father dying when I was young.  Or
this missing hand.  It would be poetic
justice to get ripped apart.  Remember
what the ghost promised me:  If you do this
I will own you.  I just have this feeling
he's thinking,  You watched my desecration,
now here comes yours.


Paul Watson is a Pulitzer Prize winning war reporter, most famous for a photo of an American soldier taken on the streets of Mogadishu after the crash of a Black Hawk helicopter.  In these poems that dead soldier speaks to Watson again and again and there isn't enough forgiveness to go around.

Getting as close as Watson has to the dark heart of the beast, comes at a cost.  These astonishingly honest poems show the scars a witness must bare when telling the truth.  O'Brien has given these sad tales of woe,  and the stories that connect them, some elegance and beauty, perhaps even some purpose.  No one gets out unscathed seems to be a common enough theme but these poems are not common at all.

The War Reporter Paul Watson Considers the Peacekeepers

At the traffic circle I see hundreds
of men, women and children, some waving
branches.  The blue-and-white flag.  Reciting
Aideed's name.  Pakistani peacekeepers
open fire so I hug the wall.  Trying
to meld with the brick.  A drill hammer.  Pause
and somebody's moaning.  Bursts of gunfire
and a child screaming.  A man is pleading,
Stop!  Please stop!  A crack.  Then another.  Then
nothing.  Nothing moves.  I turn to the sound
of moaning.  He's maybe seven, lying
on his side in the street.  While I'm standing
in a web of rippled gray mush.  No blood
on him.  The top of his head's sliced open
like an eggshell.  The skull's completely white
and empty as if someone's wiped it clean
with a cloth.  A spray from a machine gun
blew his brains out.  That's what I've been standing
in.  With his father lying beside him
facedown, an arm behind his back.  He's cut
almost in half.  Bullets perforated
his belly.  The moaning is a woman
next to them, rocking back and forth, Allah,
Allah.  Peacekeepers in their armored trucks
looking down on us as they drive around
and out of the circle.


O'Brien has also written a play about Paul Watson called The Body of an American, it opens in London, England, in January of 2014.

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