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David Harsent was born in Devon in 1942. He grew up in Buckinghamshire and left school at 16 to work in a bookshop. After working in publishing for many years, he embarked on a new life - under the names Jack Curtis and David Lawrence - as a writer of crime fiction. His poetry collections include Selected Poems, News from the Front, A Bird's Idea of Flight and Marriage. His new collection, Legion (Faber), was shortlisted for the Whitbread poetry award, won this year's Forward Prize and has been shortlisted for the T S Eliot Prize. David Harsent has also collaborated on operas and song cycles with Sir Harrison Birtwhistle and written for stage and television. He lives with his wife, the actor Julia Watson, and their daughter Hannah, in Barnes.
Brian Turner, born 1967 is an American poet, essayist, and professor. He won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award for his debut collection, Here, Bullet, (Alice James Books) the first of many awards and honors received for this collection of poems about his experience as a soldier in the Iraq War. His honors since include a Lannan Literary Fellowship and NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, and the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship. His second collection, shortlisted for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize is Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, 2010).
On the Use of Diffusion in War Poetry
by Michael Rotenberg-Schwartz
On the Use of Diffusion in War Poetry: A Reading of David Harsent’s Legion (Faber and Faber, 2005) and Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005)
Writing war poetry means making predictable choices. One may choose, for example, to depict violence graphically or abstractly. Jeremy Bentham, who was not a poet, believed that vivid detailing of wounded bodies and grotesque deaths would shock readers out of complacency and into pacifism. He was wrong. For long before Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen wrote of trench rats and gas-choked, gargling lungs; before Robert Southey and Lord Byron mocked hack-gazeteering descriptions of Horror; even before Lucan lamented the lost Roman Republic as a fragmented body; Virgil, Homer and the carvers of the Bible happily gave guts in celebration of glory. If even gore (itself an aesthetic, obscurantist word) can sway sentiments to opposing ideologies, to what linguistic device can a poet, whether pro-, anti-, and especially ambivalent (that is, ready to seek answers honestly) about war, resort that is not already burdened with multiple and contradictory meaning? A postmodern exploration of this very dilemma? Even eighteenth-century pro-war poetasters like Richard Blackmore once whipped themselves to frothy, self-conscious sublimities to face the challenge of depicting a battle. When one discovers this, one understands everything has been done to death.
Not that this has silenced anyone, nor should it. Indeed, while the war in Iraq has been losing support steadily ever since it started, war poetry (these days, the prefix “anti” can be assumed) has been received quite favorably. To date, “Poets Against the War,” an organization founded early in 2003 by poet and pacifist Sam Hamill, has collected 20,000 poems on its website. Moreover, Voices in Wartime, a movie documenting Hamill’s movement and the history of literary responses to war, was released last year, and with it an anthology of the same name edited by Andrew Himes.
Most notably, two single-author collections of war poetry garnered attention in 2005: Brian Turner’s debut collection, Here, Bullet, published in the U.S. by Alice James Books as part of its Beatrice Hawley prize series; and David Harsent’s eighth collection, Legion, which won the Forward Prize. Just like war, the awarding of literary prizes is politics, pursued by other means; and so it would be more surprising if a book of war poetry had not yet won an award in either country. By now trackers of such awards should be savvy enough to differentiate why something wins from its artistic merit. Readers should not bother asking, therefore, if either was deserving of accolades. Merit itself is a symptom of culture.
Therefore, what the rewarding of these volumes reveals about the expectations of British and American readers of poetry is a more interesting question to ask. Do these volumes merely enable us to stare blankly at, in Pound’s terms, an image of our accelerated grimace, or do they demand that we reconsider our understanding of war, either by posing a new problem or illuminating a known one in a nuanced way?
Both Turner’s and Harsent’s collections suggest that what’s left for war poets is the rejuvenation of old ideas with new language—be it of contemporary political rhetoric, the patois of particular war zones, the newest technology of destruction, etc.—and the diffusion of such verbiage into as many different imagined voices as possible. The goal here is a truth that admits its limitations. Achieving this is no small task (aspirants to Blake should apply), for it means not resorting to either the patriotic truths of epics and beer-hall ballads or their simple negations in satire and lampoon, but trying to harmonize all of these in a polyphony that includes the voices of the so-called enemy, not merely out of sympathy or empathy (a.k.a. guilt), but in bitterness, depression, rage, lament, and despair. Both writers are to varying degrees engaged with this project, and reading them together causes the moments where each succeeds and fails to emerge. It also teaches readers something about what’s at stake in the writing of war verse.
Turner is a veteran of the current war, and I (who have never served) bow to his experience of the grim realities of war. Even if the honesty of his emotions were ever in doubt, it would be disrespectful to impugn them. One may feel discomfort with the uncomplicated directness and plainness of its statement, however. Turner sees with an appropriative eye and speaks with an abstracting tongue. One does not get from his work many questions but rather foredrawn conclusions. This becomes evident when he gazes at a woman through a pair of binoculars in “Observation Post #798”:
When a woman walks out onto the rooftop
smoking a cigarette and shaking loose her long hair,
everyone wants what I hold in my hands,
but I am stilled by her, transported 7,600 miles
away, as a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves,
thinking, how lovely you are,
your pain and beauty a fiction
I bend into the form of a bridge, anything
to remind me I am still alive.
Here the poet sees an Iraqi woman for the taking. She is one whom “everyone” wants to stare at, not for her sake or on her own terms, but because she represents women beyond herself. Ignoring the individuality of this Iraqi woman’s beauty and pain, Turner “bends” her image into something usable, extends a metaphorical bridge from it to a lover at home, in the name of feeling alive. What might it mean instead to have drawn the bridge to the Iraqi herself, or her lover, or to have extended it from her to his own love? Turner’s “fiction” shapes life into standard forms. In a companion to this poem, “Observation Post #71,” the poet watches a shadowy “him in the circle of light / my rifle brings to me.” The poet observes by taking in what is brought to him, but not keenly. He does not seek truth but accepts simple platitudes such as, “Each life has its moment.”
Like Turner, Harsent makes a theme of observation itself. In “Sniper,” the poet imagines looking through a scope:
…pulled up to my eye, the world is close
and particular: this granddad, hugging the shade, each hair
on his head, the wet of his eye, the pre-war
coin on his fob-chain, the weave of his coat…Over there
by my friend the Marlboro Man is where
I would sit with my morning coffee: Arno’s place,
its pinball machine, its jukebox, the girl with Madonna’s face
until she showed her teeth; I would tilt my chair
to the wall and take the sun. They go in fear. They go in fear
of me. And where they go they go by my good grace.
Unlike Turner, Harsent attends to particulars. He sees “each hair” on a grandfather’s head, and a woman who looks like Madonna until she shows her teeth. The details stand for themselves; they are not symbolic. There is latent violence in this act of seeing, and, as Robert Browning would, Harsent makes his persona confess as much. “They go in fear,” he says twice, the second time adding “of me.” From his safe and distant view, the sniper feels omnipotent, like a benign but dangerous god doling out his “good grace.” The truth of this poem lies in its individualized voice.
Never having fought in a war, Harsent depicts life in a war zone through various personae. “Snapshots (1)” and “Snapshots (2)” offer spare one-line images of death. “Chinese Whispers” (an alternate name for the game “Telephone”) describes in different sections all of the following: a man who searched for his brother in a pile of corpses only to find his wife, son, uncles, sister, father, and mother; a man who slaughtered his herd (of what is unsaid), “then drew a hood / over the trembling head of each blonde daughter / and shot them where they stood”; a recruit who crawled from beneath a pile of corpses and attacked a machine-gun nest “armed with only a shovel, with only a trowel, with only a toothpick, with only his teeth.” Likewise, “Arena” catalogues strewn-about bodies, only to end with the ominous thought that: “Not everything buried is dead.”
Occasionally, Harsent forces our gaze with the intent to punish. In “Street Scenes” the reader is encouraged, twice, to look closely at his surroundings:
If you look closely you can see what it is, but you do have to look
This would have been three hours or more after the attack,
everything lying heavy, everything seeming to own the trick
of stillness, that shopping trolley, for instance, the gutted truck,
and these: one face-down over there, one in the crook
of another’s arms, one flat out, one heaped like an open book,
one caught on the turn, arms out like a stopped clock,
one leaning against a door, as if about to knock.
But that over there: look again: did you ever see the like?
Here once-living people are included in a list of junked inanimate objects and referred to as “these.” The tableau of death is fairly conventional, but Harsent’s final refusal to describe “that over there,” calls attention to the fact that neither his writing nor our voyeuristic imaginations can grasp the brutality of war. That said, in “Ghost Archeology,” the unrecognizable is named:
we agreed, was whatever-it-was, shiny and plump like a worm-cast,
curled tightly against itself, though you felt there was no defence
for the little blunt head in the heft of the little blunt fist.
This is not contradictory. In Harsent’s poems what one gets is not the view, but a sight (“whatever-it-war”), and a way of seeing (“there was no defence”)—one readers may feel empowered to dismiss.
As with vision, the nature of art, and presumably the relevance or usefulness of art in times of war, is a theme both poets explore in helpfully contrastive ways. In “Easel,” Turner describes a man named Nathere experiencing a sudden moment of reluctance while he paints a desert landscape:
There is too much heat. Figures of people
fade into a canvas blur, mere phantasms
of paint, their features unrecoverable, their legs
disappearing beneath them as Nathere realizes—
There are no shadows to hold them down,
no slant and fall of shadow,
light’s counterpoint, the dark processing
of thought. All burns in light here…
Is the failure the painter’s or is it due to the climate? It seems the latter, for “all burns in light” in the desert. Can the painter or poet add nuance? Can the soldier afford to? Turner never explores these questions. Instead he lets the “mere phantasms” of human form inhabit this collection in all too vague language.
Harsent confesses a similar attraction to incomplete figures, but he never surrenders expressive exactitude to it. In “Art,” the speaker says he once “liked a sketchiness in art, / figures, say three or four, half-done in white on almost-white.” But this was before war made sketchiness a ubiquitous signifier of death and destruction:
It’s everywhere now, in the city’s broken stone, in the glint
off smashed glass, in the much-told tale
of the bombed-out house where someone peeled off the wall
a face stuck flat that came away whole
still wearing the puckish stare of the hierophant,
just a touch or two left on the whitewash, the art of hint.
This image of a face peeling off a wall can be placed next to Randall Jarrell’s hosed-out ball-turret gunner in poetry’s pantheon of horrors. It works because it does not shy away from detail. The face still wears a “puckish stare.” Not just any stare, but the stare of a high priest expert in the sacred mysteries of Ceres, the goddess of agriculture. As in “Sniper,” Harsent plays with religious diction to point out the failure and perhaps complicity of religious truths in war. The care of land is as out of place here as in Turner’s desert landscape, but its evocation indicates that in war, culture of all kinds fails: the art of agriculture as well as the crafts of painting and poetry. The point is not to quit, but to continue writing anyway, piecing together as many details as possible, even if just “to hint” at some truths of experience.
Harsent does this in part by letting a few recurring images accrete meaning. Whiteness is one. The speaker in “Notes from Exile,” suffering from a delirium induced by endless snow, ice, and loneliness, writes that: “white laid on white is endlessly revealing.” Indeed, as in “Art,” Harsent uses whiteness throughout his collection to evoke graphic violence but also to hint at and hide things. In “Caterpillar,” otherwise camouflaged troops leave evidence of themselves only in snowtracks:
You wouldn’t have seen them, topped off in white,
boots and all, vehicles draped in white, or painted white,
white facepaint too, the only part not white the white
of their eyes, and the long, slow column moving across a dead-
white landscape like a marble bas-relief.
That nothing is seen does not mean nothing is to be seen. Thus when he prays the caravan will move on, the speaker also hopes that “nothing might surface after the first spring thaw.” Whiteness may signify death, but also mock-death, as in Harsent’s darkly comic “Piss-Pail,” in which a soldier awakens from a fall from a tree:
…to a world of light
such as he’d never seen, the cryptic white-on-white
of clouds and sky, white of gunsmoke, white of the trench walls,
whites of our eyes as we knelt and called to bring him back,
of his wife’s shift, her steady smile, the slack
of her breasts as she stooped to gather windfalls.
Finally, as Pierre Nora’s sites of memory and James Young’s counter-memorials of the Holocaust do, whiteness represents the problems of differentiating public history and subjective memory. In “Black Tor,” an antiquarian tries to understand the significance of a standing stone by punning on the etymology of the word “black,” the source of which means either “bleakness” or “paleness.” The ambiguity of its name exposes the limits of historical conclusions:
- …if we take
The first meaning, the
Limit of paleness is
White, and places
Bleak and exposed are
Apt to be covered with
Snow, as on the day of
His birth. The other
Extreme of colourless-
Ness is black and this
Colour also suits him
Well enough. The task
Of determining which
Meaning of black is
Intended is wellnigh
Whiteness and blackness thus complicate Harsent’s vision, lending it contrast and depth, but also at times blurring it.
Turner must have seen worse things than Harsent, but he seems unsure of his ability to convey them in penetrating ways. In “16 Iraqi Policemen,” he describes the consequences of an explosion in some fine detail (a faceless moustache lies alone on a sidewalk, for example). But as if fearing his readers won’t follow, Turner interrupts the poem with an editorial: “the shocking blood of the men / forms an obscene art.” The participial adjective “shocking” would be unnecessary if, like Harsent, Turner simply showed his readers the things that shock. Likewise, we would understand the obscenity of war. Like the German survivors of British air bombings described by W. G. Sebald in On the Natural History of Destruction, it may be that Turner has asked himself to write too soon, before he is able to face his difficult experiences with a craftsman’s eye.
Throughout his collection, expected or infelicitous language abounds. The poems are all set in the war zones of Iraq, but rarely do we feel situated in a particular place. Breasts are “swollen” with milk, skulls have “curving domes,” sands “blow,” soldiers are “frightened” by gunfire, and earth is “pregnant” with the dead. In “AB Negative” a nurse attends to a soldier named Thalia, dabbing “her lips with a moist towel, / her palm on Thalia’s forehead, her vitals / slipping some.” So that the reader does not think the nurse’s vitals are dropping, the final pronoun should be replaced with “whose.” “Najaf, 1820” needs the same editing: “where the first camel / dragged Ali’s body across the desert / tied to the fate of its exhaustion.” Whose exhaustion is being described here, Ali’s or the camel’s? In “Two Stories Down,” someone is said to fall “suspended in a blur.” But suspense means hanging, not falling; and what does it mean for one to hang “in a blur”? Similarly, in “Hwy 1,” a crane “pitches” over and falls in an “unraveling of feathers and wings.” Raveling is something for threads to do, not feathers or wings. In “Mihrab,” the poet hears jays “cawing their raspy throats.” Birds caw sounds, not throats. He hears in their song “a ghost of beauty / lingering in the shadow’s fall.” I do not know what this means. I do understand the final thought of the curse-poem “Sadiq” (Arabic for “friend”), but wish for something more stunning than, “It should break your heart to kill.”
I dwell on these moments (there are more) not to be snide or curmudgeonly, but because Turner makes an issue of language in the collection’s opening poem, “A Soldier’s Arabic.” The poem starts ambitiously and powerfully, exposing the tendentiousness of historical interpretation by showing how cultural presumptions are embedded in language itself:
The word for love, habib, is written from right
To left, starting where we would end it
And ending where we might begin.
Where we would end a war
Another might take as a beginning,
Or as an echo of history, recited again.
Plainness of diction here suits the poem’s content (“take as” doesn’t seem right, though). That an “echo” might be “recited again” is an apt observation, since history can only repeat itself when people choose to act in particular ways. But after these strong opening tercets, the poem loses its hold:
Speak the word for death, maut,
And you will hear the cursives of the wind
Driven into the veil of the unknown.
This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.
Of whose language is Turner speaking? A soldier’s Arabic, but a soldier from where? Is this what an Arab thinks of his own language? If so, does “earning” it mean killing? Or is this what an American thinks? If so, the thought is presumptuous and betrays ignorance, if not prejudice. Is only Arabic “made of blood,” and how so? What does it mean that speaking death in Arabic form will drive “cursives of the wind” into “the veil of the unknown”? Aspiring imagery, but empty as air. Throughout this collection, Turner peppers poems with Arabic words, but the seasoning isn’t quite right. Speech must indeed be earned, and though I applaud Turner for trying to earn it, I must say that he has not mastered his own, much less that of another culture.
Harsent, on the other hand, is a master craftsman. Besides the grotesque, he has a fine eye for the mundane horrors one notices while waiting around for something to happen:
Some took to their beds; some played wild
music, as if the thing might be kept off
by the sheer burst of it; some spiked jugs of juice
and called their children in; some yammered; some threw dice,
the bounce of the bones like a chuckle or a cough.
There is a pleasure even in his lists, which are specific and full of melody. In “Filofax,” people flee a town “in trucks, on bikes, on foot,” and carry with them the stuff of daily life: “(as it might be) armchair, armoire, samovar, black and white / TV, toaster, Filofax, Magimix, ladle, spindle, spinet, / bed and bedding, basin and bassinette.” With them, Harsent moves from various ‘ar’ sounds to t’s, el’s, ed’s and finally in’s. “Honey,” about a father and mother waiting for any news of impending pestilence, provides a list of their possessions:
Him with his father’s rook-gun, her with her mother’s recipe
for hunter’s stew, with her flour and yeast, with her longlife
milk, with rice, with wrasse, with huss, beef jerky, turkey,
lemons, lemon curd, cured ham, lamb both on and off
the bone, pizza, pesto, pasta, tabouleh, flageolet
beans, beans both baked and green, green
tomatoes, sprats in brine, Cheddar, Cheshire, the locally-grown
cabbage and kale, salt beef, salt pork, Saltines, salt
both sea- and Cerebos, apples, apricots, biscuits, brisket, brawn…
Reading this list is like chewing the stew whose ingredients it names. Rice, wrasse, and huss (the latter two being kinds of fish), play with r’s and s’s, as jerky, turkey, curd, and cured play with er and ur sounds. There is more, of course, enough to indicate a lifetime’s worth of cooking and experience.
When it comes to craft, it is not fair to compare a debut collection to an eighth. I should note that Turner at times seems aware of his weakness. In “Night in Blue,” a meditation on what he has learned from fighting, the poet says: “I have no words to speak of war.” All he has is “moonlight and sand as a resonance / of the dust of bones, and nothing more.” This has a companion line in “Tigris River Blues,” where everything is said to have “sunken into the abstruse.” Perhaps Turner will learn to imbue opportune moments like these with detail rather than abstraction. If so, he will become a much better poet, and a quite good one at that. In “9-Line Medevac,” a prose dialogue of sorts featuring a soldier caught in the line of fire radioing in for help, we get a glimpse of that potential:
I can name this spot, but cannot make it real…too eager for night as the sun is still slowed by the horizon at dusk, too eager to romanticize the land and maybe even what’s happening, though there’s nothing romantic about this, unless pain and sweat and heat and blood and a grown man pissing in his pants with fear are romantic, all of this and more is where we are.
Turner names his eagerness to “romanticize” war so he can dismiss it; the operative emotion here is fear, and Turner conjures this with a list of abstractions that gets anchored (and saved) by a specific image of a “man pissing in his pants.”
There are other strong poems in this collection. The title poem, an invitation to a bullet to enter the poet’s body, sustains language and metaphor quite well. The same can be said of “Baghdad zoo,” in which the release of zoo animals into Baghdad evokes comparisons to the animalistic behavior of humans. (By contrast, Harsent’s “The Wall” describes the climate of war as one in which natural events are out of place and only signify doom: “Soon after which (we should have guessed) / the first hint of that unearthly weather: a test / of music in summer orchards, birdsong, a single bell / tolling at dusk over ploughland, over water-meadows: all / we have learned, at length, to mistrust.”) One may worry over the degree of moral relativism it takes to liken war to a lion chasing down a horse, but poetically speaking the metaphor works. “Last Call” and “What Every Soldier Should Know” together create an affective frisson: where the latter shows why soldiers need to favor “prudence” over moral skepticism in order to stay alive, the former admits the brutishness of such a perspective. “2000 lbs.” itself conveys a multiplicity of views, albeit through a third-person narrator; about a suicide bombing, the poem includes the thoughts of victims as well as the bomber himself. But perhaps the best poem is “Caravan,” which describes ships at a port on the Persian Gulf, and in so doing widens our view of war by describing the complicity of global commercial interests in it:
They carry .50 caliber machine guns
in packing grease, dunnage, ammo crates,
millions of bullets laid side by side,
toilet paper, insecticides, light bulbs.
The dockside floodlights hum
with mosquitoes and malaria. Cranes
hoist connexes onto flatbed trucks
which line Highway 1 from Kuwait City
to Dohuk in the north, just south of Turkey,
with enough boxes of food
for a hundred and thirty thousand meals,
two to three times a day for a year,
an army of commerce, a fleet
of corporations with the Pacific as its highway—
these are boxes we bring to Iraq.
Unlike his more usual lists of blood and sand, this list is precise and suggestive. Dunnage and connexes, toilet paper and food, travel the world to sustain, not life, but “an army of commerce” and a “fleet of corporations.” Even better, though, is Turner’s protest of what does not get sent back:
gather body parts from the roadway
to collect in cardboard boxes
which will not be taped and shipped
to the White House lawn, not buried
under the green sod thrown over, box by box
emptied into the rich soil in silence
while a Marine sentry stands guard
at the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown,
our own land given to these, to say
if this is freedom, then we will share it.
These bodies are not Rupert Brooke’s, transforming some little corners of a field into Iraq. They are not naïf Drummer Hodges dying for they know not what. Sharing the freedom of death may hardly be consolatory, but even this, the poet writes, is denied the people to whom those seated in the White House claim to bring democracy. In a book addled with weakly-expressed emotional commitments, the anger of this meditation serves Turner very well.
That Harsent visited Bosnia while it was being ravaged by genocidal murderers may explain why he seems interested in a wider set of experiences surrounding war. Legion is divided into three sections, all of which seem set in a fictional place named by the speaker of “Ghost Archaeology”: Terra Damnata. Where Turner’s Iraq is non-specific and spoken for by himself alone, Harsent’s Damned Land is purposefully located anywhere so that it may be described by many nameless speakers, and be the more horrifying for it. The land is even inhabited by voices of those unscathed but nevertheless victimized. “The Goodwife’s Tale,” for example, is spoken by a woman who has escaped rape but cannot say the same of her family, friends or associates:
They touched her they didn’t touch me. I wasn’t touched.
The neighbour her recipe for Lenten cake they touched
her they didn’t touch me. I wasn’t touched. The teacher
her way with words they touched her
they didn’t touch me. The girl from Paris Chic her switch-
switch walk they touched
her they didn’t touch me. I wasn’t touched.
The shakiness of speaker’s voice, and by implication the fragility of her psyche, is indicated by the running of sentences and phrases into each other. The inclusion of one particular detail grants some identity to each of the women whose victimization the speaker recounts. This can only document, not empower. And so, when the speaker turns to her family at the poem’s conclusion, her language fractures into the most basic relational labels:
…My mother my aunt my sister-in-law my sister my daughter
-in-law they touched my daughter
they didn’t touch
me my blonde my crowning glory. I wasn’t touched.
Though she inhabits the book’s first section, the Goodwife could easily be at home in the third, where the voices speak less about war than the dead or otherwise lost. The speaker of “Notes from Exile” explores the arctic and ideas of north, but others similarly seek homes, as indicated by their poems’ titles: “At the Graveside,” “At the Riverside,” “At the Roadside,” “At the Bedside,” “At the Quayside,” “At the Seaside.” Of course, people are lost in the first, eponymous section as well. In “Daisychain,” not a trace is left of women who committed collective suicide. In “Toffee,” the speaker looks for people he once knew—among them a man who made toffee, another who made animal sculptures out of scrap-metal, a third who was a portrait artist—so he may find out where he is: “I thought that if I could find him, / or one of the other two, or any in that street, I might know / what became of my house and those in it; and what to do; and where to go.”
The main object of the first section, however, is worked out in a sequence of poems titled “Despatches.” These despatches are war-time communications, but the sense of killing (the word is a variant of “dispatch”) applies as well. Written as incomplete, interrupted, or fragmented speech, these poems exemplify the impossibility of unified vision or unitary meaning in a time of war (and possibly ever). One describes a desolate town where even easy dichotomies like outside/inside are collapsed by war: “and traces among the rubble, enough to give you the heebie-jeebies, as you might imagine, and bad enough; but more than that, the inside-out of bedsheets on the road, the lazy-susan in a ditch, the chair drawn up to a fireplace, the stair-way to nowhere, CDs, TVs, DVDs, PCs, VCRs…” Another describes a town where there is no sign of life but a radio playing news and then a toccata, “or Bach or.” Another describes the encampment of a troop after a three days journey in which soldiers tortured prisoners, “the report states, amid ‘general laughter.’” Still another, the opening poem of the collection, hints at the “shape of a man” who has no particular identity but as a victim gaping for breath: “…You could see him guern / with effort, hunched, as he scraped along between / road and verge, between stone and fern, / until finally.” Nothing is certain here but what can be seen. Finally, the most significant plays on phrases of the word “nothing”:
Stop at nothing, think nothing of
Nothing more, nothing less
Like nothing on God’s earth
So nothing for it, but to
Could do nothing, unless
All this to imagine in the end a landscape “where nothing remained, nothing more / to be seen, nothing more to be heard, nothing on two legs, / nothing on four, nothing, in fact, but.” As a sequence, “Despatches” achieves understanding through a renunciation of knowing. In fact, this is Harsent’s goal throughout: to become wise by thinking in modest and careful ways.
While both Turner and Harsent consider war from a historical perspective, only Harsent seems to know there is nothing inevitable about societal change, and only he is ready to let go of specific ideologies to tell a new tale. This can be seen in their uses of history. In “Gilgamesh, in Fossil Relief,” for example, Turner watches an archeologist pausing over a bone in dirt and imagines a 7th-century poet chiseling the Sumerian epic into stone tablets:
It is an old story now. It was an old story then,
full of gods and beasts and the inevitable
points of no return each age must learn.
History is a cloudy mirror made of dirt
and bone and ruin. And love? Loss?
These are the questions we must answer
by war and famine and pestilence, and again
by touch and kiss, because each age must learn
This is the path of the sun’s journey by night.
This is history writ large, and faced with it poetry can do nothing but document the repetitive cycles of love and war that must be lived to be understood. Though it sounds like a grand gesture of defeat, in fact it stubbornly sets in place a narrative of history, the rise and fall of empires, at least as old as the Enlightenment. The individual gets lost in these great historical waves, and that is precisely why in “Ferris Wheel,” the poet vents frustration while trying to account for fallen soldiers. Describing the search for survivors of a helicopter crash, he writes:
The history books will get it wrong.
There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above as his friend swam toward him
instead of the shore, how both would drown
in this cold unstoppable river.
I sympathize with Turner’s desire to set the record straight, but admire Harsent’s willingness to question the meaning of history itself in the middle section of his collection, “Stelae.” The poems of this section are about (and are printed in the shape of) various tors, kists, and stone circles which dot the countryside of Dartmoor, England. Once assumed to be memorial stones or ritual rocks, tors are in fact nothing but geologic formations caused by weathering. In “Stelae,” Harsent describes eight different sites to sketch out, with impressive playfulness, thoughts on the failure of collective memory and the artificiality of historical imagination. If these stelae are memorials of death, they say very little, except about our refusal to stop making meaning from unmeaning. None are; but even if they once had been, certainly they have lost their status by now, as the poem on Beardown Man admits:
This fine stone
in wild surround-
ings, brings little
back to mind
except, as with all
these, the wind
hanging on gran-
ite edges and
singing its song.
So long as people insist on reading the past for traces of specific truths, we may indeed be doomed to repeat human self-destruction. Harsent’s impulse is not to forget, but to sing a new song for both the past and present by letting go of certain truths phrased in ready-made language. Harsent reminds us that memorials only tell one side of a story. We need not dismiss that side, but we may get along better in the world if we consider others as well.