Let me pass please: PETER FORBES introduces a group of poems on the Gulf War, and argues that war poetry in not an anachronism
Saturday 18 July 1992
It was obvious from the media coverage that, for many people, the horror of the war came second to the terrible beauty of it, the heightened sense of a life more fearsome and dramatic than the everyday. Oscar Wilde said that for the criminal classes crime was 'simply a means of procuring extraordinary sensations'. It may be that, in an unpoetic age, war is the only access people have to poetic exaltation. And when it ends, the media circus moves on.
One of the most dreadful ironies of the war is that, in the confrontation between two cultures, the West went into it with its fast- food verbiage while Saddam Hussein, gangster that he is, was employing in his speeches a flowery rhetoric distilled from the tradition of Arabic poetry. Dirty deeds were sanctioned by corrupt language on both sides, but the kinds of corruption were poles apart.
Words, images, polemic and the battle for the hearts and minds of world opinion were at the centre of the storm. But where does this leave poets? Poets understand the manipulation of rhetoric and images as practised in the Gulf war better than most - it's a trespass on their territory. But their ability to counter linguistic deception is restricted by their tenuous hold on the audience. Only a very few poets - Ted Hughes or Tony Harrison, say - have the clout to find a large readership. For the rest, the audience is limited to a few hundred readers. What's the point?
This is an old question. One version of the history of 20th-century war poetry sees a steady decline from the First World War on. Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Rosenberg had a significant influence on an entire generation, that of the 1930s. In the First World War the nature of warfare changed utterly and the poets were the ones who alerted the world to the fact. Whereas the poetry of the Second World War is far more incidental. The poetic techniques forged in the trenches of the First World War seemed inappropriate to the Second, with its long periods of inaction, its more remote battles, often fought in the air. Now war has changed again.
In December 1991, during the phoney war before the allied offensive began, Paul Fussell wrote a provocative piece on these pages in which he suggested that none of the requirements for war poetry, even of the Second World War variety, would be met in the Gulf: no alcohol, no decadent Alexandria for sexual relief, no poignant crosses in the desert. And Peter Porter has said: 'Hi-tech wars drain all poetry from the world; they become video games leaving only charred bodies behind. Even Shakespeare could do nothing with Baghdad and smart bombs.'
Well, we hope that some of these poems prove Fussell and Porter wrong. But of course Fussell is clearly right on one level, in that these poems were not written from first-hand experience. Such poems do exist, and anthologies of Forces' poetry are likely to be published eventually. But so far this work seems to be heartfelt if conventional sentiments expressed with no technique at all. Paul Fussell blames the video age. Whatever the reason, no one expects to find a Keith Douglas in uniform now, in the professional forces.
Tony Harrison, for one, would take issue with this sort of argument. 'Poetry used to inhabit all the important public arenas,' he said. 'The theatre, politics, that was where poetry operated. Then it retreated and shut itself away in the poetry magazines. What defeatism] What a pathetic decline]' He is off target. It is the wider arena that shuts out poetry.
The initial reactions to the Gulf war were almost entirely Western. Everyone pronounced upon the fate of Arabs but Arabs were rarely consulted. Now there is for the first time at least a curiosity in the West about the cultures concerned. Arabic poetry, for instance, is little known in the West but in April a Camden Lock festival called 'Poetry Across the Gulf' featured mainly Iraqi and Kurdish poets, including Salah Niazi (see left) and Fawzi Karim, plus Michael Hulse and John Rety, along with a celebration of Iraqi art and much material on the plight of Iraqis now. Interestingly, the Arab poets at Camden said little about the war. Instead they highlighted the cultures that had been so grievously damaged by Saddam Hussein and the war.
The work printed here, which includes poems from Britain, Iraq and the United States, should speak for itself, but Jo Shapcott's poem calls for some comment because it seems to crystallise what many felt about the language of the war. War culture is acronym culture. The Harm referred to (apart from the literal harms invoked) is is an acronym for Homing Anti-Radar Missile. Why do the military so love acronyms?
The love of euphemism is legendary - surgical strikes, collateral damage, friendly fire. Acronyms take military evasion one step further because they are only words in a whimsical sense. They are often tedious circumlocutions, stripped down to their first letters and then cobbled together into something that looks like a real word. 'Harm' is a classic example because although Jo Shapcott is right to point to its terrible irony, the acronym is rather misleading. Harm isn't an anti-personnel weapon at all. It homes in on radar beams and travels up the path to destroy the equipment.
The military deploys euphemisms, people say, to hoodwink both the public and itself. I only believe the first part of this. But acronyms are different. Acronyms really do befuddle the user. You only have to pick up an aviation magazine to see the magnetic attraction they have: BMEWS (bemuse?), Sam, Slam.
The military loves quick fixes, and acronyms are linguistic quick fixes. They always sound as if they ought to work. Poets lack mega budgets and smart weapons, but they should at least know more about words than the warmongers. 'Phrase Book' targets the abuse of language during the war with devastating accuracy.
A larger selection of poems on the Gulf war, and a fuller version of Peter Forbes's essay, are in the summer issue of Poetry Review.
CAFE ON AL WAZEER STREET
I have seen the old men
In the cafes on Al Wazeer Street
With their sun leathered skin
And a fist of dead teeth.
Lost and uncomprehending
That the certainties of dawn
Have been thrown to the wind
Like an open hand of fine corn.
Their talk wrapped in rumours.
And what shall I say to my son?
That his life will be better
Once the Americans have gone?
I have met their strange eyes
Sand blasted and midnight black,
As they watched me suspiciously
From their tables at the back
Of the long, windowless room.
Like chairs covered from the sun
They wait for the future to remove them.
Powerless now, powerless when it begun
They are big men made small.
My youngest calls me a liar, said one
He says only fools still believe.
That's not right from a man's son.
I have listened to them talk
In voices part spit and part whisper,
In voices roughened by burnt coffee
And a lifetime of devotions.
Men whose dreams were simple
And whose disappointment is greater
Because they asked for so little.
Men looking for a traitor
Who took them from nowhere to here.
Mine is the worst, said another,
He says I should work in the factory
Earn good money like my brother.
I have heard their conversation
Fall silent, against the sound
Of the foreign aircraft filling the sky
With their pounding drone,
As if in respect to a new faith.
The sound comforts and scares.
It is the persuasive music of the new world order.
Look to the sky, poor fool] Replace your prayers,
With a religion that pays by results.
Have pity on them, said the fourth.
When the war is over and our sons are men,
Then we will see which course
It is that appeals to them.
ON THE OBLITERATION OF 100,000 IRAQI SOLDIERS
They are hiding away in the desert,
hiding in sand which is growing warm
with the hot season,
they are hiding from bone-wagons
and troops in protective clothing
who will not look at them,
the crowds were appalled at seeing him,
so disfigured did he look
that be seemed no longer human.
That killed head straining through the windscreen
with its frill of bubbles in the eye-sockets
is not trying to tell you something -
it is telling you something.
Do not look away,
permit them, permit them -
they are telling their names to the Marines
in one hundred thousand variations,
but no one is counting,
do not turn away,
for God is counting
all of us who are silent
holding our newspapers up, hiding.
That was the year the future arrived,
or so we thought, the promise we never gave up on.
History, the tragic figure in black,
became confused and descended on us
in a shower of gold, and we were quick to believe
the change was real, was forever, and we
were a generation elected to witness
the abolition of darkness. That year
we lived in perpetual sunshine, light
as balloons skywriting paradise.
Wasn't it the mildest winter on record,
the most benign summer? Birds flew down from the north
with dispatches of joy in their beaks.
Was it all a dream? History is back
in its funeral clothes, the shining year
behind us, a collapsed miracle,
already a legend, like childhood,
an irretrievable golden age.
If among earth's kings Lord Gilgamesh should remain unreasonable,
if civility refuses to assume citizenship between the rivers,
Sir Agamemnon will assemble a diligent Protestant coalition
to administer death as appropriate lesson and punishment.
We'll station right-thinking King Herod with his updated hoplites
backed by Xin the Emperor's deathless terracotta battalions
beside Mercury, Mars, and Athena from the province of Olympus
to institute, as a deterrent, termination with extreme prejudice.
Young Colonel Bonaparte, upgrading to Alexander, will distribute
slaughter by African blowguns, phalanxes, tortoises from Cipango,
hairy helicopters from Attila's stables, Cyclopean missiles,
and Greek fire to melt brute Saracens flourishing scimitars.
If Lord Gilgamesh should remain unreasonable, we will coalesce
to incinerate retreating Uruki soldiers, furthering the project
of Pharoah Death, Imperator Death, Shogun Death, President Death.
I'm standing here inside my skin,
which will do for a Human Remains Pouch
for the moment. Look down there (up here).
Quickly. Slowly. This is my own front room
where I'm lost in the action, live from a war,
on screen. I am an Englishwoman, I don't understand you.
What's the matter? You are right. You are wrong.
Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?
TV is showing bliss as taught to pilots:
Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small,
Secluded. (Please write it down. Please speak slowly.)
Bliss is how it was in this very room.
when I raised my body to his mouth,
when he even balanced me in the air,
or at least I thought so and yes the pilots say
yes they have caught it through the Side-Looking
Airborne Radar, and through the J-Stars.
I am expecting a gentleman (a young gentleman,
two gentlemen, some gentlemen). Please send him
(them) up at once. This is really beautiful.
Yes thev have seen us, the pilots, in the Kill Box
on their screens, and played the routine for
getting us Stealthed, that is, Cleansed, to you and me,
Taken Out. They know how to move into a single room
like that, to send in with Pinpoint Accuracy, a hundred Harms.
I have two cases and a cardboard box. There is another
bag there. I cannot open mv case - look out,
the lock is broken. Have I done enough?
Bliss the pilots say is for evasion
and escape. What's love in all this debris?
Just one person pounding another into dust,
into dust. I do not know the word for it yet.
Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.
What does it mean? What must I do? Where
can I find? What have I done? I have done
nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.
Did you say civilization?
My abode is the crossroads of the ages:
The Gardens of Babylon
Are hanging on the wall,
In which rivers nearly flow, and birds swim in the sky.
And there stands the sentinel of my gate:
A Sumerian lion.
Soothsayers are gazing
From the balconies of the miniatured Nineveh on my desk.
A fragment of a handle from an old jar -
I see in the blueness of its clay,
The thirst of men who are melted in the sands of time.
Don't you hear Sinbad in the drawing room?
Jinns in his saddlebag, he spins yarns,
How often he forgets what he was telling,
His handmaids are painted on bowls, painted on platters.
They have embroidered verses on their robes:
Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.
Their anklets tinkle with beauty,
And their feet are not unlike buds of cotton and henna,
A cascaded brook when they bend down,
And when they rise, a bird hovering over a twig.
They have embroidered verses on their robes,
Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.
Bit by bit they strip the bark from their twigs.
This is my abode,
The roots are shooting up with songs
But whence comes the mysterious wailing?
How a buzzing silence lurks in the instrument of music,
The waters flow, but I hear something of thirst in the waves.
The air blows, why is it hard to breathe?
Why do lungs shrink and breathing is sticky in the trachea?
Thus the hedges round the house are swollen with roaring.
Whence are anxieties engendered like dizziness,
The earth rocks and the bed is made to stagger.
Did you mention civilization?
Don't mention the night,
The city seems listening for a coming foray.
She falls down unconscious, how long is a single night]
As if destruction lies hidden beneath the stagnant highways,
Silence is so thundery in the crowded darkness.
The corridors of the habitation are hissing,
The ceiling rocks to and fro.
I hear bolts slide open
As if the wind with claws of hungry wolves,
Like a thunderous guffaw at a wake.
I sleep and I rise on a single thought.
When people of bridled cities sleep,
They sleep with swelling of their bodies,
As if ants crawl in their bones,
Migraine worms split their skull.
When they wake, they are diminished.
Why does the fearful man become even smaller and smaller?
When sleep enters me and my soul surrenders,
I listen to the foray of the swelling,
To the ants crawling in the bones,
To the migraine splitting the skull.
When thunder rumbles I say there it is, an assassination,
And if lightning flashes I say it is a coup.
I sleep and I wake with one single thought.
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