2008, Basra, Black Swans, David Finkel, Iraq, poem, poems, Poetry, Pomona Press, Ratko Mladic, Remains, restrepo, SImon Armitage, The Charge of the Light Brigade, The Good Soldiers, The Manhunt, The Not Dead, verse, war poetry
An officer, fresh from Helmand, played us the mobile phone footage: the excited chatter and the puny rifle cracks were alien to someone steeped in the tidy narratives and the high fidelity sound of the war film. Suddenly, the hillside erupted to a soundtrack of irrepressible obscenity. In Oxfordshire, this unbridled joy was shocking to witness and difficult to understand but there it was: the battlefield laid bare.
In The Not Dead, Simon Armitage works with interviews from veterans from a number of conflicts. The results are painful, memorable and demand the reader’s respect. In The Black Swans, the narrator plays at soldiering with a clichéd blend of eagerness and boredom. The ‘panel of glass in the back of the wagon’ signals his thwarted desire for combat and the heavily punctuated lists creates a frustrated lack of pace as ‘You clean your weapon, / make camp, drive around, stand guard, stand down’. The repetition of ‘stand’ suggests how one bored action morphs into the next. Just as the glass in the back of the wagon forces the soldiers to view the landscape at one remove, so they are forced to watch the hostilities as ‘Then one day the Black Swans drive by in a van – / a death squad of Bennies in bobble hats, wielding Kalashnikovs, / smirking, running their fingers across their throats’. You need to have suffered the British soap, Crossroads, to appreciate the reference to the feckless Benny‘s bobble hat. Armitage’s juxtaposition of a gauche comic character and genocidal evil is obscene, brilliantly creating the tension between the Black Swans’ humanity and their inhuman behaviour. Crossing the emptiness of the stanza break, the narrator follows in the wake of the Swans, taking a ‘Walk in the shadow of death’, which evokes the one-sided carnage of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade. Armitage’s reference telescopes time and conflicts merge into one. ‘This woman won’t talk, standing there open-mouthed, / tied to a tree, sliced from north to south’. At first viewing, Goya’s The Disaster’s of War floored me and I wish that Armitage’s reference here was merely a cultural one, such is the common ground between this atrocity and those Goya observed back in the early 1800s. However, Armitage was working from interviews and tells us in the introduction that Eddie, his subject, ‘describes at one stage, a pregnant woman tied to a tree, cut open, with her dead unborn baby hanging from her womb. There are other things he won’t describe, he says, because they are worse. After returning home, to try and cure his nerves and overcome his paranoid reaction to loud bangs, he took a revolver into the middle of a field and fired several blank rounds against his head. He also tried to hang himself from a tree’. That Goya’s art is still imitating European life beggars belief. ‘In the town square, a million black-eyed bullet-holes stare / and stare’ bearing mute, forensic witness to silent atrocity. Ratko Mladic‘s arrest in Serbia last year shows that pock-marked walls and shallow graves do indeed have eyes and that the impotent horror inflicted on UN observers at the time will see the light of justice.
However, like Brian Turner‘s exceptional poetry borne out of the conflict in Iraq, Armitage’s focus is the discharged servicemen, the not dead, and their families. In Remains, the body of an Iraqi shot by a serviceman in Basra leaves a blood-shadow ‘and out on patrol / I walk right over it week after week. Then I’m home on leave. But I blink // and he bursts again through the doors of the bank. / Sleep, and he’s probably armed, possibly not. / Dream, and he’s torn apart by a dozen rounds. / And the drink and the drugs won’t flush him out’. Armitage’s language is brilliantly economical, as the ambiguous ‘bursts again’ suggests a dark subtext. The humble squaddie is recast as Lady Macbeth, troubled in her sleep and attempting to wash the blood from her hands with a bout of OCD. The irony’s a bitter one, as nothing could be filthier than the drink and the drugs and still the blood-shadow persists on the streets of England.
The Manhunt offers the reader a blazon, voiced by a serviceman’s partner. Given that the blazon usually presents a man exalting in the beauty of the female form, Armitage invites us to consider the wounded hero as unmanned, as feminized, even. There’s an irony here too, as the blazon celebrates physical perfection and not the woundedness we’re offered. ‘After the first phase, / after passionate nights and intimate days, // only then would he let me trace / the frozen river which ran through his face, // only then would he let me explore / the blown hinge of his lower jaw’. Visually, this poem is broken on the page.
Films like the brilliant Restrepo and books like David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers show how vital non-fiction forms are at the moment. It seems that poetry responds equally well to this treatment. Elsewhere in this blog I praised Andrew Motion’s hypnotic Coming in to Land, a literary treatment of a young pilot’s diary and Armitage’s distilled interviews retain the best of the soldiers’ testimony whilst lending their voices a power and gravitas which will, I hope, have us memorializing their sacrifices on the battlefield and their quiet, painful unblooming at home.