New Life by Dan O’Brien

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“Poetry and journalism are both trying to do the same thing. They are trying to say as much as possible in as few words as possible.” Raymond Tuers, a crusty New Jersey newsman, said that to me in 1973, the year before Dan O’Brien was born. Auden, in his introduction to a collection of poems by Cavafy, declared that one duty of the poet is to bear witness to the truth, and words of witness, it goes without saying, are too precious to waste.

O’Brien, a prize-winning playwright , poet and recent Guggenheim recipient, understands this, as his latest collection New Life, makes devastatingly clear. He shows it by elaborating on his long collaboration, which he initiated with Canadian war reporter Paul Watson.

Part of what makes this volume so strong is that though there is an unforced order to the pieces, and a basic coherence, each stands alone, demanding, without being a harangue, to be heard, to be absorbed, and to not stand idly by in our world so in need of informed citizenship. Each one of the poems here is more necessary than the next. “The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Son of the Tortured” is typically stunning in every sense of that word :

She looks like a woman at first. A man
the same moment. A young father. Fetal
on the floral pallet, with another
floral bed underneath. Different flowers.
Rug seeded with ash. Head bound up and knotted
as if garlanded with ivy. To blot
out the memory, the wound. Throbbing upon
a turgid pillow, floral also. Spine
to the coral wall that reminds one of
the holy sepulcher. An empty bowl
in a niche, a plastic water bottle
half full of more swallows of tea. Could be
medicine. The torture victim’s mute. Closed
eyes on an open fist, his own, cradling
a slack cheek. Collapsing, reviving . Sheets
swallow what’s left of him, as if he’s lost
his body. He breathes, we breathe. A boy sits
with muddy Wellies crossed. Kandahari
cap, geometric mirror flecks flashing
with his sneaking gaze, as he ascertains
not my camera but his father feigning
an endless sleep. Flies trace his sleeve. Our boy
decides. The doorway behind him plummets
deeper into evening.

This is an expertly framed, unblinking collage of part of our present and our history. It is impossible to be motionless in the face of it because that would make us inhumanly immune to who we are, and what we can and have become. That becoming–on the page and away from it– is sometimes tacit, sometimes blazingly apparent. And it is wrong to deny any aspect of it. This is the terrible and necessary gift of this poem and its companions, and the gift would be incomplete or tarnished if the pace and the sound of O’Brien’s word-mix were not so finely calibrated.

Depending on perspective, war and sex together can be toxic or healing, and all the shadings between. Here is one view:

Ex-military are the worst. Breakfast
at a Novotel in Turkey en route
to the border. With CIA fumbling
tongs at the hot bar like they’ve been handling
gun shipments to rebels. When she flags me
over Is that you? My tray in my hands
like some crater-face in a Hollywood
high school. And she’s with a muscle
-bound Belfastard. Thousand-yard glare. Tipsy
with testosterone from the front coursing
through his veins. Looking at me like, Who’s this
eejit? So I sit down and I begin
to namedrop where I’ve been while he namedrops
the caliber of the handgun he keeps
in his Y-front. No longer performing
the age-old journalistic pantomime
of acting like we’re innocent, even
when we know we’ve never been.

That is the whole of “The War Reporter on Machismo,” and it brilliantly speaks for itself. O’Brien’s descriptions of how torture is a livid infection, not surprisingly inhabiting dreams, is equally devastating :

Last night I dreamed Syrian kidnappers
shot a video for You Tube of me
beaten with hoses . Water boarded. Mock
executed. Who I give this gift to?
into the ceiling and plaster pummels
my head. So he gives me some juice. Scripting
my pleas to pressure the paper to pay
my ransom. Because Hezbollah Shiites
know in their bones how poetry changes
hearts and minds, they provide some Persian verse
that magically I comprehend.

Dan OBrienThis is from “the War Reporter Paul Watson Dreams of Poetry, ” and there is more, all containing uncompromising music . We flinch, we take the nightmare and must continue to labor to make it ours. This is the price of being born in the USA, though our birth was obviously not a gift we could have asked

There is a back and forth between engagement and observation that serves prose reporter and poet reporter here. There is also a tender awareness of a passage of time longer than a short war-tour:

Your poetry is elevating you
to a nobler calling, curator to
my memory museum. Serving a tour
of duty in southwestern Ontario,
I dropped some white lightning on a picnic
and thereby bungled my one-and-only
chance to romance a receptionist with huge
owlish spectacles that were all the rage
in the 80’s. Sublime breasts, too, or so
I remember hoping. Things got swirly
before she bolted into the Van Gogh
of those schizo tobacco fields. To file
your story you’d have to slip in between
the ropes with this Teletype machine
whose keys would jump back, then jam if you stopped

Reporting on any subject is a multitask hike if it has integrity , and part of O’Brien’s gift is to blend perspectives of all the participants he names, without slipping off a cliff. With his Teletype nod to the past, and the title of the piece, “Now the War Reporter Paul Watson Really Sounds Old,” we arrive where witnessing stops for a breather, a reminder that an original voice speaks, on a plane with earlier masters.

Barbara Berman's poetry collection, Currents, has just been published by Three Mile Harbor Press. More from this author →