10 years ago this week, the military invasion of Iraq began. I was 24 and backpacking around the world, on an adventure that would form the basis for my long poem ‘The Journey’ in Look, Clare! Look! The poem was a kind of travel journal, jotted down in fragments, and that evening in Khao San in Thailand I scribbled:
The man in the bar asked: why do you hate Iraq?
as the hulking ships closed in on CNN,
as the dusty camps set up,
as the choppers descended,
and we tried to explain over beers or Mai Tais
that we didn’t, we hated the war.
That there was just nothing we could do.
Coming as this does after a passage in which entitled young westerners trash a beach at a full-moon party, I hope my readers get the undertow of irony. Of course, I did hate the war. Of course, aside from protesting and signing petitions, which I did, there was on some level nothing I could do. But how hollow it rings. It’s hand-washing; a lame excuse. A shrug over a cocktail umbrella.
It is this that makes the Iraq war hard to write about for many British poets. We can say not in my name, but it was/is. And ‘not in my name’ sounds a bit like ‘not my fault’ or ‘nothing to do with me’. A government that a majority of us voted in (including myself) took us to war. And after this, in 2005, they won another election. We are on some level complicit, and the grown-up thing is to accept some responsibility. I’m reminded of that Mitchell and Webb sketch where two Nazi officers notice the skulls on their caps and it suddenly occurs to them that they are the ‘baddies’.
Last night I went to a very thought-provoking night of poetry organized by Reel Iraq at the Rich Mix. The first half, curated by SJ Fowler for Maintenant, was a response by British poets to 10 years in Iraq: a fascinating hour, but also one in which poets seemed to struggle, slightly, to know on what terms to engage with the war. Patrick Coyle read a transcript of an interview between Tony Blair and Kirsty Wark backwards – an interesting way to defamiliarise the language of propaganda but also a slightly wishful rewinding of events. Nick-e Melville made poems out of coalition leaflets dropped on Iraq and read out numbers of casualties like football scores, suggesting that for its instigators the war was part of a global game. Deconstructing the language of war is necessary, of course, but I wondered if some of this satire was a bit easy. Other poets tried more oblique approaches – Joe Dunthorne read a poem about his grandmother escaping the holocaust; Jon Stone some brilliantly bawdy translations of female poets; Kirsty Irving a dramatic monologue in the voice of a young gay man in Baghdad.
With an audience that included many Iraqis though, I did feel a little like our answerability for the war was ducked. SJ Fowler, though mentioning the ‘stain’ we had as British citizens, also said we should remember that it could as easily have been us, having our culture and our language taken – but this isn’t quite true, is it? It’s not about chance: it’s about power. And whilst the west still holds the balance of power, it’s never going to be me living in a war-zone.
The second half of the evening was devoted to a translation project – poems by the Iraqi poets Ghareeb Iskander, Sabreen Kadhim (sadly unable to get a visa), Awezan Nouri and Zahir Nousa, with translations by William Letford, John Glenday, Jen Hadfield and Krystelle Bamford, who worked with literals and through conversation with the writers. There were some profoundly moving poems, particularly those of Zahir Moussa. In ‘Born to Die’ he asks his premature son to take a letter to God, the refrain ‘tell him…tell him…’ creating the unspoken argument that God must surely not know what is happening or he would stop it. (This is him reading with Jen Hadfield – videos from the rest of the Reel Iraq event are on Youtube too)
In other poems he showed us a world where ‘our young women flare like flames on a stove…my mother’s hair is too bright for her grief.’ Elsewhere Ghareeb Iskander reworked the story of Gilgamesh to resonate with modern Baghdad: ‘All around him the endings of things, nothing more…There wasn’t even a song in that desolation’. These were important voices, and it felt important to hear them.
Does that mean we should leave writing about Iraq to the Iraqis? Do we have no right to write about it, when we have not suffered, and are culpable for suffering? No, that’s not ethical either – our country has been at war and to ignore that reality is also obscene. In a climate where many dismiss political poetry as unfashionable or preachy, I admire any attempts to at least engage – from Maintenant’s to Carol Ann Duffy’s war poetry commission in The Guardian or Simon Armitage’s brilliant found poem ‘Hand Washing Technique – Government Guidelines.’ Since ‘The Journey’ I have found myself circling the subject of Iraq again and again, in poems like ‘The Two Ravens’, ‘The Cruel Father’ ‘Amtssprache’ or ‘Babylon’. None of them feels like an adequate response, but I keep trying to comprehend what was (and is) being done by my country. There is no comfortable way for British poets to write of the war in Iraq, nor should there be.
The Two Ravens
As I walked down a street alone,
I heard two ravens make a plan,
one bird unto the other said:
‘Which shall we dine on of the dead?’
‘Out there upon a dirty track
way down a down, way down
a woman’s spread upon her back,
in the mud.
her throat cut and her body raped,
for bags of books, a glimpse of face.
O down, derry derry, if she’s bad they’re good.
The bird said: ‘no one cares she lies
in dust near dogs in smears of flies,
the army’s led by fear and oil,
the husband’s had his honour spoiled,
‘her son’s stood in a hood of black
way down a down, way down
a donkey, ridden, told to crack,
in the blood.
and other women fear to speak,
which means she’ll waste if not for beaks.’
O down, derry derry, if they’re bad she’s good.
So low as planes they did swoop down,
to chew on unveiled eyes of brown,
they pecked out clumps of her dark hair
to line their nests when they grew bare.
And many commentators moaned,
way down a down, way down
but armored cars drove past the bones.
and I stood
I watched the ravens feed on war,
and knew I’d watch for evermore.
O down, derry derry, if she’s bad we’re good.
From Changeling, first published in Poetry International