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