Monday, 2 December 2013
War Reporter: ‘like’?
Odd, that ‘like’ button on Facebook. Does one ‘like’ Titus Andronicus? And if so, what exactly is it that one is liking?
Peter Blegvad, one of the three judges who awarded Dan O’Brien’s War Reporter this year’s Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize, described his experience of reading the book thus: ‘It was painful, I didn’t like it, but I sensed it was probably crucial.’ Thomas E. Ricks, in a US blog post on the book today, writes: ‘This is a book you read because you have to, not because you want. Even as I settled down in the living room to read this, I began to find reasons not to – I disliked the cover, even more the blurbs. (I mean, invoking Wallace Stevens?) By the time I got to the title page, I felt a little antsy and didn’t know why. I think I probably was a bit scared, unconsciously, of what I was getting into. I have worked hard to leave all that behind and I now lead a peaceful life. Even my dreams are pretty good nowadays.’
Ricks is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported on US military activities in Somalia, Haiti, Korea, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq. He knows war photographers: ‘some of the scariest people I’ve ever met … These sometimes are people who have grown too comfortable with looking violent death in the face, at some cost to their souls.’ About the book, he has a caveat: ‘Not all the poems are good, or are even poetry.’ Some lines describing Canadian peacekeepers torturing a captured youth felt, he says, ‘more like a human rights report than a poem’. But this was after he’d pushed through his antsiness and started reading, and ‘Soon I thought, this might be the best book ever written about war photography.’
Not ‘book of poems’, just ‘book’. War Reporter is in the ‘best books of 2013’ list picked by the staff of the US magazine Slate: ‘War Reporter is visceral, disturbing, at times consoling, and always honest. O’Brien’s work is an incredible achievement. Anyone who cares about how we go to war – and how we return – must read it.’ This is their politics and foreign affairs editor choosing, not their literary editor.
The poems tumble, surge, they have momentum. ‘Meditative’ is not their way. (For the Guardian review, see here.) Yet I know someone who’s had the book for months and still hasn’t finished it: one poem at a time, then do something else before coming back.
The stage version of the material from which this book is made, Dan O’Brien’s The Body of an American, inaugural winner of winner of the Edward M. Kennedy Prize and winner of the 2013 PEN Award for Drama, will be on at the Gate Theatre, London, from 16 January to 8 February. More details and booking info here.