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George Orwell 1984

George Orwell 1984 (Photo credit: newyork music)

The Guardian’s coverage of the 2004 Madrid train bombings was the first time that I considered the burden shouldered by newspaper picture editors in their vocation to tell the truth. A clutch of UK nationals had opted to airbrush the image of wreckage – and people – blown across the tracks, in the interests of decency. The Guardian desaturated the offending area, blending it into the ballast. In my opinion, only the Independent and the Mirror got it right, printing the unexpurgated image in black and white, allowing them to sidestep accusations of Orwellian manipulation while cushioning their readers from further horrors –  the scale of the atrocity was horror enough.

English: UNOSOM compound in Mogadishu, Somalia

UNOSOM compound in Mogadishu, Somalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The poems in War Reporter take Paul Watson’s memoir, Where War Lives, together with emails, telephone calls and a face-to-face meeting between Paul Watson and Dan O’Brien as their source material. Watson is the war photographer who seared Somalia deep into the international consciousness with his image of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland’s mutilated body dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Watson’s vocation places him on a knife-edge of ethical judgement and the reader might suppose that, as a man who is prepared to stare unblinking down his viewfinder at barbarity, he will shrink from nothing. However, self-censorhip is in evidence. The poem ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson Attends a Stoning’ took an act of physical endurance to read, and I needed a couple of weeks to recover my equilibrium. Now I’ve read it, I will never be able to predict the trigger which will bring it back to mind. ‘This is victory / for Mohammed. Take heed! you young women / who walk out in the sunlight embracing / young men – take heed! The judges are angry / at what I still regret: Why did you not / take pictures? Because you wanted me to. / Because this time I did not want the world / to see.’ Images are essentially voyeuristic and it is easy to see why even the seasoned war photographer lowered his camera. O’Brien’s poem revisits the horror of the photo not taken, dodged and burned into the mind’s eye like a scar and, by doing this, the reader begins to understand what it might feel like to be haunted. Suddenly, the vodka, the antidepressants and the hallucinations make sense.

In ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson on Censorship’ the power of public opinion, and its purse, is felt: ‘Drifting downriver at sunset / with Andrew Stawicki, Polish émigré / photographer who snaps a picture of / boys running naked like a snake along / the river’s bloody spine. That’s going to be / a beautiful picture. They won’t print it. / Why not? The kid’s dick is showing! Open / the door! Open it! This time I frame out everything shameful. Except the woman / slapping the corpse with a flattened tin can.’ The reader would be prepared to accept a snake of naked boys as beautiful, but we’re brought up short as we realise that the Paul Watson character’s not talking about that. We’re in Mogadishu again, looking at the body of Staff Sgt. William Cleveland – beautiful. The disgusting irony of the commercial forces driving the industry is felt through the collection and in ‘The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Poet Make a Plan’ we read that ‘I’ve got to go / to the Philippines where Abu Sayyaf / the neighbourhood Al-Qaeda affiliate / is on the march once more. I’m worried that / my editor, who hates me for reasons / I can’t even begin to imagine, / won’t like it. It’s not the sort of story / that tends to garner those coveted clicks / on the LA Times website. Here’s a link / to a soundbite directly from our paper’s reptilian overlord / Sam Zell: http://gawker.com/ / 5002815/exclusive / -sam-zell-says-fuck-you-to-his-journalist.’

This is a complex collection. As Watson is haunted, so too is O’Brien and the affinity between them suggests that, to O’Brien, Watson is more than mere subject matter. Something in Watson resonates for O’Brien and, over the years, perhaps he is haunted by him. It is difficult to comment on O’Brien’s technique. The poems feel like bricolage, and whether a turn of phrase was crafted by O’Brien, or lifted straight from an email, it’s impossible to tell. Either way, these poems are fresh and loaded with eye-witness testimony. All of this adds up to the most visceral poems that you are likely to read. War Reporter offers the reader a journey into the heart of darkness.

Buy War Reporter from CB editions