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Poetry Review: Slow War

SLOW WAR, by Benjamin Hertwig: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.

Reviewed by Daniel Cowper

Slow War, by Benjamin Hertwig, is a book of poetry that is about something which is simultaneously personal and political, experiential and objective. It is a book about military service during the Afghanistan war.

It is more than that, of course. Hertwig writes about an upbringing that invited him military service, about homecoming, readjusting to civilian life and coming to criticize the conduct of a war he helped to carry out. It is, as well as war literature, a nstlerroman, about a boy growing into an artist. The poems are nearly all addressed to Hertwig’s younger self in the second person:

you picked rocks for a farmer one summer,

in the fallow you found an arrowhead

so sharp it sliced the tip off your finger:

blood fertilized the soil. you kept the stone

secret for years, sometimes you pulled it out,

held it in your hands, held it under

the light.

Rock Picking

Hertwig speaks frankly about the facts of his own experience of war and its aftermath. Most controversially, Hertwig speaks of befriending Omar Khadr (who as a boy was involved with Taliban fighters in the war, before he was injured, captured, tortured, and held in Guantanamo Bay on charges of participating in combat).

Remember David Jones’ dedicating his account of World War I to the German soldiers who fought against him “by mischance”? James Salter hoping for the survival of his “friends” the MIG pilots he shot down? St. Exupery’s reporting how soldiers in the Spanish Civil War called out across the lines “Good night, friend,” when they each retired to bed?

Artists can (perhaps must) bring empathy to their understanding of battlefields, and Slow War reads as an ongoing attempt by Hertwig to engage compassionately with his past self and erstwhile enemies. Perhaps because of that empathetic approach, the unfolding narrative of the book is startlingly engaging. This is the rare poetry book that is hard to put down, and which can naturally be read all the way through in a single sitting.

Hertwig is an highly effective storyteller. He knows how to introduce anecdotes, animate characters, and nail down themes as well as any novelist. His writing always obeys the maxim that verse should be also good prose.

Because of its success from a narrative point of view, it is easy to overlook the lyricism of Hertwig’s writing. The poems in Slow War are not written in a showy style. They are written with a subdued but persistent rhythm, and the most musical passages are based on cyclical patterns of thoughts, words, and sounds. Sometimes they cycle despite persistent interruption:

you have seen

  visions and bodies

in flame

 

the body of christ

  shed foryou do not

belong. gunfire and

bombsong you do not

  belong. her eyes are

coal a face of wind

the place you stand

  is holy ground.

Fruit on a Wooden Table

The transition from the liturgical “the body of christ shed for” to the accusation “you do not belong” is a fair example of Hertwig’s deft handling of pivot points throughout the book.

Similarly, Hertwig’s handling of Christian iconography in this passage is typical in its naturalness and sincerity. Hertwig notices the parallel of soldiers removing their boots to enter Afghan homes, and the Almighty’s instruction to Moses to remove his shoes; he notices that war seemingly burns without exhausting its fuel, like the burning bush. These parallels naturally give rise to thoughts of what war does reduce to coals – individuals. The impression one receives is of the poet almost being startled by encountering, in chaotic destruction, a mirror image of holiness.

In acknowledging the power of both grace and violence, Hertwig’s poetry takes on a special forcefullness, which can only be described as the force of honesty.

A lesser writer would have made of similar material a more political book. Slow War succeeds because it reports facts about the human heart and human behaviour: those facts may have philosophical and political implications, but Hertwig allows us, as readers, to draw our own conclusions.

Daniel Cowper is the poetry editor for Pulp Literature. Daniel’s poetry chapbook is available from Frog Hollow Press, and his first full-length collection is forthcoming in 2019.

Benjamin Hertwig’s poem Inglewood Courts appeared in Pulp Literature Issue 15.

Review: I Remember Nightfall, by Marosa di Giorgio

 I REMEMBER NIGHTFALL, by Marosa di Giorgio, translated by Jeannine Pitas: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017

Poetry Review by Daniel Cowper

Often my own dreams are set on a fictional island. The shores are dark rock, cluttered with docks and boardwalks. Shallow lakes and marshlands pockmark the interior, interrupted occasionally with steep hills and mountains. Sometimes the hills are only little sugarloafs you could scramble up in half an hour; sometimes they are filled with alpine flowers, and depressions shelter reservoirs of snow in summer.

 I am inclined to think most of us have one such landscape inside us, which we have created unconsciously. Sharing that internal world is part of what art can offer.

An extraordinary dreamscape belonged to the Uruguayan poet Marosa di Giorgio (1932 – 2004), four of whose books of poetry have been published by Ugly Duckling Presse collectively under the title of I Remember Nightfall, with en face English translations by Dr. Jeannine Marie Pitas, a poet and scholar.

The translations themselves are fluid and supple, maintaining momentum and rhythm with simplicity of phrasing. The poet’s voice feels entirely natural and consistent throughout.

Perfect translations fit the original so naturally that the translator’s word-choices and turns of phrase feel inevitable, once compared with the original. Judged by the limited samples over which I applied that test, Dr. Pitas’ translation approaches perfection.

 I Remember Nightfall is a rich and mercurial collection, and provides English speaking readers perhaps their first access to the work of di Giorgio. I regard this as an event of some significance, since the more I read of di Giorgio, the more I am persuaded that she is an essential poet.

The best poems are overwhelming in their originality and visceral power. Their narrative unfolds like an avalanche. Blessings and torments are dispensed in an agony of beauty. There is an experience of both helplessness and power.

It is not unfair to compare the astonishment with which one reads di Giorgio’s poems with the experience of first reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both portray a specific natural order, on which the supernatural constantly impinges. This technique of apparition or visitation can lead to an excessive reliance on the element of surprise, but di Giorgio refrains from ambushing the reader. She is a poet of discovery, not jump-scares.

Much of di Giorgio’s power, especially in translation, derives from the incredibly vivid world she describes in her poems. To give you a sense of that world I will simply list the ideas in a randomly selected passage of poetry:  baskets, fruit trees, mushrooms, chimeras, horses, eggs, bones, bells, the slaughter of livestock, grapevines, almonds, fire, planets, hunger, the moon, feathers, lettuce, magnolia blossoms, coconut, bonfire, boat, telegram, teacup, tablecloth, hyacinths, roses, star anise, honey, dentures, citrus fruits, squashes, tulips, the sense of being followed, vermin, escape, concealment, cattle.

The items on this list are representative. Di Giorgio’s world contains a kitchen, where food is stored and prepared; a garden, where flowers are grown; and farmland, where food is produced and livestock maintained. This kitchen, garden, and farmland provide a mental setting within which the poet may ecstatically describe domestic incidents, spiritual visitations, or the enactment of mythic parables:

The Carnival barely arrived, there in our beloved land.

The pea plants loaded with little fruits and flowers burned, and the long-antlered potato, and the pink, hairy yams; and in the air, the spiders walked, calmly…

And the house. There were only two dwellings in that vast region. Ours and “the other”. Our family and “the other”; that was how we referred to each other.

At times we would exchange an emissary, a hare; otherwise we would say “It’s raining ‘over there.’”

But we went for years without seeing each other. The children married their own siblings at a young age. When hunger and thirst became unbearable, a family member would be surrounded, then roasted, and life would go on. …

The Native Garden is in Flames, poem 4

Frequently the poet depicts, with mingled alarm and delight, encounters with of the alien or supernatural in her essentially domestic landscape:

Everyone goes to bed. The romantic aunts rest with a hand on the pillow and their corollas open.

Then someone gets up. Are they going to commit a crime? But all we hear are moans and then everything remains at peace.

A horse comes up the road like a terrible girl, with its mane and its haunches. In the air a planet or a bat is spinning.

…And under the magnolias — who’s there?

The War of the Orchards, poem 7

It is impossible to fairly excerpt these poems, and they must be read in full to experience their effect.

Di Giorgio’s poetry has a tendency towards the naive, and an inevitable criticism of a large volume of her work is that she can be repetitive.  I do not consider repetitiveness to be a major defect in a writer, as it is often the result of either perfectionism or a refusal to shilly-shally. With Di Giorgio, it seems to me to be the byproduct of the density or concentration of her inspiration.

I do not advise trying to read all of I Remember Nightfall at one sitting. I found the poems most refreshing and exciting when taken in small batches.

The four books collected in this volume (The History of Violets, Magnolia, The War of the Orchards, andThe Native Garden is in Flames) were published between 1965 and 1975, and represent the poetic production of the poet’s thirties and early forties. It would be interesting to compare these poems with the work produced in her youth and later in her life.

It is always a gift to encounter a poet of unique vision and powerful expression. I will return often to this collection, and I look forward to the release of any future translations of Di Giorgio’s work.

-Daniel Cowper, Poetry Editor, Pulp Literature Press.

Daniel’s poetry has appeared in the Literary Review of Canada, Prairie Fire, Vallum, CV2, Dalhousie Review, Freefall, the Hart House Review, and is forthcoming in Noise Anthology; his poetry chapbook, The God of Doors was a winner of Frog Hollow Press’s Second Chapbook Contest. His non-fiction has appeared in the Puritan’s Town Crier.

Issue 2, Spring 2014

Jeannine Pitas’s poem ‘Feynman’s Flowers’ appeared in Pulp Literature Issue 2, Spring 2014.