Wales Arts Review brings you part two of Nerys Williams‘ captivating memorial lecture from the Estyn yn Ddistaw/ Holy Glimmers of Goodbyes: A Day of Reflection on the Poetry of War and Peace in Wales organised by Literature Wales and held at the National Assembly for Wales in February of this year. In this second part, Williams explores how Welsh poet has engaged with the subject of war in the 21st century.
Geographic Complexity/ Temporal Complexity
Where is Welsh War Poetry in 21st Century?
Where indeed might welsh war poetry be found in the 21st Century? Political devolution in Wales, and its concomitant ambition of presenting a unifying identity, becomes fraught and complex once one considers Wales’s relationship to the British Army. It should be noted that the process of devolution for Wales has been simultaneously framed by extensive British military expeditions in both Iraq (2003–11) and Afghanistan (2001–14). Moreover, the extent of Welsh participation in and recruitment to the British armed forces has, in terms of the wider UK, been disproportionate: in 2006, Rhondda MP Chris Bryant pointed out that although Wales made up 6 per cent of the population of the UK, it produced 9 per cent of the armed forces.
The absence of any evidently accessible first-hand Welsh veterans’ poetry is notable. It could be argued that for the contemporary Welsh veteran, surrounded by social media and its premise of immediacy (and a responsive audience), the writing of such ‘soldier poetry’ may well be a cultural anachronism, notwithstanding the complexity of finding the necessary support structures on returning ‘home’. In the US, however, the prevalence of professionalized writing groups for veterans is evident. There does exist, of course, veterans’ contributions to multi-authored anthologies such as the one published in 2011 to support the charity Combat Stress, Enduring Freedom: An Afghan Anthology, which commemorates operations in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011 – but, notably, voices of contemporary Welsh veterans are not explicitly identifiable in this particular volume.
Here I turn to the work of Wales’s most visible civilian war poets, Owen Sheers and Robert Minhinnick. Sheers through veteran interviews attempts to document the return home from war, whilst, Minhinnick offers multiple perspectives on the landscape of Wales viewed through the legacy of two Iraq Wars.
Owen Sheers’s documentation of war experience must initially be read in tandem with the difficulty or visibility of finding Welsh veterans’ voices in the public realm. Sheers has worked with the testimonies and memories of British veterans in his play (created and acted by wounded soldiers) The Two Worlds of Charlie F. (2012).
The idea of a transition to home, a return journey which is a central pivot of most veteran literature of the 20th Century in 21st Century writing, becomes more pressurised in this work. In The Two Worlds of Charlie F.the key protagonist Charlie, comments on the physical and mental dislocation and disorientation that occurs following medical care in transit and the rapid return journey to the UK. He compares the experience of the twenty-first-century soldier to that of the wounded and traumatized veterans of earlier wars:
When British soldiers were wounded in the Napoleonic wars it took them months to get home, if they did. In World War One a fortnight at least. World War Two, about the same from France, much longer from India, Egypt, Burma.
Now? Medevaced from Nad Ali north to Bastion in twenty minutes, back in the UK in twelve, thirteen hours tops. But in here –
He taps his head.
Even quicker than that. Pretty much insta-fucking-taneous. Blink-of-an-eye kinda stuff. With a few weeks’ high-definition hallucinations thrown in for free.
Sheers has mentioned in an interview that the later poetry volume Pink Mist (2013) arose from a sense that ‘I still felt I had many untold stories to tell’. As such, it is clear that Sheers presents his work as documentation and voicing of veteran experience. This work offers perspectives on the impact of the Afghanistan War on veterans and their families. Pink Mist, uses the topography of Bristol to explore the experiences of three Afghanistan War veterans: Hads, Taff and Arthur. Their ‘return’ re-inscribes experiences of trauma: Hads is a double amputee and Taff is a bomb blast survivor, and both, we learn, are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
As the poetic text advances, we also find out that Arthur, who acts as an omniscient narrator, has taken his own life. Most specifically, however, Pink Mist is a volume that is focused on the processes of rehabilitation as opposed to military action itself. Thus, Captain Ed Poynter, C Company 2 Rifles, is quoted in the introductory matter to the book itself as saying that the volume ‘captures the reality of what it’s like to adjust to “normality” when one comes home from war’.
Geographically, ideas of ‘home’ are initially presented as Bristol; numerous references to Bristol’s street culture are made, such as evocations of artist Banksy’s ominous reaper on the side of The Thekla, a floating nightclub. There is also the inclusion of dubstep and trip-hop artists associated with the city (such as Portishead, Tricky and Massive Attack). Although set in Bristol, the text also includes references to Wales, the most obvious being a character named Taff and the citing of the River Severn as a geographical border. Moreover, Sheers is keen to situate his work as part of a lineage of writers with a distinct connection to Wales and war poetry. He states that he wanted ‘to write into a British tradition of conflict poetry – from Y Gododdin, through Wilfred Owen and, perhaps most significantly, David Jones.’
The archive left for soldier widows to curate in Pink Mist is an ephemeral one. The most tangible documents left by Arthur are ‘videos on my phone, / […] the messages I still can’t delete.’ The duration of a person’s memory is a fragile thing, but Sheers offers us a contemporaneous form of documenting the lives of the dead. Thus, the opening of Pink Mist curiously rewinds a process of growth through social media – as Arthur one of the soldiers invites us to:
Friend us on Facebook and you’ll soon see
how quick our profile shots scroll back
from battledress to uniform,
from webbing to sports bag,
from ration pack to lunch box
from out there to back here.
Robert Minhinnick has earlier investigated the use of depleted uranium for arms manufacture against Iraq in the 1990–1 Gulf War, as well as researching Gulf War veterans’ experiences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Moreover, Minhinnick’s volume of prose To Babel and Back (2005) includes essays that document time spent in Iraq following the Gulf War.
In ‘The poem An Isotope, Dreaming’, also from King Driftwood (2008), the poet weaves together the language of science with meditations about his hometown (Porthcawl), as well as narratives highlighting the human cost of war in Iraq. Nuclear waste and its radioactivity become both a benign and malign vehicle in the poem to illustrate the dissemination of ideas, the birth of languages, acts of mobility and spirituality, as well as entropy and destruction. ‘An Isotope, Dreaming’ begins in south Wales, but the radioactive isotope moves beyond the ‘iron womb of Sellafield’, the ‘cubist monument of Trawsfynydd’ and the ‘accelerator tunnel at Berkeley’, to make three journeys. The first of these is to an undisclosed ‘nameless place’ where the ‘geiger talk / like a black habanero rattling with seeds’; the second is to Iraq’s Basra and the ancient city-states of Nineveh and Babylon; while the third visits Belarus and the legacy of Chernobyl.
Minhinnick is also looking for connections, for a sense of linkage between communities. However, his poetry refutes a straightforward linear narrative or chronicle of different conflicts. There is also an element of synchronicity in the poem as past events are reinterpreted and re-encountered. Thus, the reader is faced with the Swansea Blitz of World War II from a new temporal standpoint:
Now Swansea is burning again,
its sky the stained glass in the Brangwyn Hall.
The epicentre is Green Dragon Lane,
and as the Guildhall
melts its limestone lifts
In short, Minhinnick’s poetic works to withhold a single omniscient view of both Iraqi wars the form of the piece – with its drafted-in voices as well as stammers, visual performance, repetitive clauses and pared-down lyrics, as well as the momentum of radioactive activity. Thus, the poet acts as a voyager.
Minhinnick’s poetry establishes a dynamic relationship between the local and the global. However, Home in Minhinnick’s work King Driftwood often signals acute strangeness, where every day becomes menacing such as in ‘St John’s Sunflowers’. The sunflowers in this poem are presented as ethical witnesses; they are the inherently ‘good’ of the democratic polis operating beyond the hierarchies of power. Yet, in observing the sunflowers in his Porthcawl allotment, the poet shows how the machinery of war invades the individual consciousness. The sunflowers are described in militaristic terms: ‘Safe in their silos’ where ‘No warhead gleamed so brightly’. Indeed, Minhinnick creates a defamiliarised world where even the benign sunflowers are presented in toxic terms: ‘In Babylon, the sunflowers / are yellow as uranium’.
As the poem proceeds, Iraq coexists with the Welsh landscape and the sunflowers become more than a visible beacon in an allotment, since they are the incubators of written language as they ‘ferment the words / themselves’. This positing of the sunflower as the source of all language (and consequently, one assumes, knowledge too), only generates violence from the angry masses:
They cut open the St John’s sunflowers
and saw there was nothing to be done.
But the crowd demands the heads, the hearts,
as the crowd demands the medicines and the missiles
that will make us brave.
At this moment, the poem brutally evokes the hostage beheading videos that have haunted the web and other media since the execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl went viral in 2002. Minhinnick foregrounds the contradictory impulses of two seemingly antithetical crowds: one desires absolute submission, ‘the heads, the hearts’, whereas the other seeks retribution and humanitarian aid. Sardonically, the poem comments that it is only through funded diplomacy (‘the medicines and the missiles’) that Western powers are made brave. At the close of ‘St John’s Sunflowers’, then, Minhinnick reasserts the complexity of living in a devolved Wales at war in Afghanistan and Iraq. We are left with an impression of blood sacrifice, as the sunflower stalks are laid in the ambiguous, and potentially threatening, space ‘of dark and glittering things / that we call home’.
Where is Welsh war poetry: Juliana Spahr and Ecosystems of War
I have attempted to show how one might locate war poetry, about ideas of home and how these characteristics change from WW1 to contemporary war poetry. Finally, we need to reflect on the fundamental question: where is war and how does war impact the everyday?
I am concluding with a remarkable female civilian voice; the American poet Juliana Spahr and her volume this connection of everyone with lungs (2005). The volume consists of two extended poems both written in response to the 9-11 attacks and the subsequent Iraq War. The first poem is simply entitled ‘poem written after September 11, 2001’ and the second ‘poem written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003’. The poems are intimate and epistolary addressing two lovers or what she calls ‘beloveds’. Spahr intersperses factual information with lyric appeals and private mediation. In the volume, there are encounters between very different forms of information, from comments on climate change and data on the Iraq war to information about the celebrity sightings of Winona Ryder, Fat Boy Slim, Zoë Ball, David Letterman and Roman Polanski.
Written initially as a response to the US government’s intervention in Iraq Spahr’s ‘poem written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003’ delineates an overwhelming pressure to give form to information regarding the war. Spahr was based in Hawaii at the time and the interconnected sections are all dated individually. Flora and fauna and the landscape of Hawaii are depicted in the midst of thinking about war. Spahr comments in her notes for this connection of everyone with lungs:
I felt that I had to think about what I was connected with, and what I was complicit with, as I lived off the fat of the military-industrial complex on a small island. I had to think about my intimacy with things I would rather not be intimate with even as (because?) I was very far away from all those things geographically.
Spahr is looking not only for connectives that bind communities together but to show how the machinery of war appropriates the environment. Her speaker illustrates how Hawaii’s status as a military base redefines the ecology of the island:
And because the planes flew overhead when we spoke of the cries
of birds our every word was an awkward squawk that meant also
AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, UH-60 Black Hawk troop helicopter.
Here we might pause to reflect on the simultaneous inhabiting of weapons and landscape in our own country. Indeed, my impossibly general question ‘Where is war poetry?’ cannot be given a simple, clean answer. We are reminded that in Hedd Wyn’s Trawsfynydd, there was Bronaber army camp which incorporated an Artillery Range. The practice range generated the indignation of the community when a local chapel, Penystryd was damaged by the force of the guns on 31st July in 1914.
And maybe looking to the landscape of a West Wales childhood, I am aware of the signage of war in many of these spaces. The private company QinetiQ now runs the ammunitions testing for the MOD in Pendine Sands, near the beach where children continue to build sandcastles and J.G. Parry-Thomas once broke the world land speed record. QinetiQ boasts that Pendine Sands is home to ‘a 1500 metre long test track the beach is littered with signage warning the public: ‘RISK OF EXPLOSION – UNUSUAL OBJECTS FOUND ON THE BEACH MUST NOT BE TOUCHED’.
Mirroring the sentiment of Osmond’s destabilising images of West Wales landscapes in Hawk and Helicopter, we must admit to a disturbing circularity in reading these signs. What is evoked by these commands on Pendine Beach is the fraught intersection of military hardware and civilian leisure, the MOD landscape and its oppressive militarism. The role of any contemporary non-combatant poet is to interrogate the complex intersection between landscapes of home and industries of war, and how these spaces are forced to coexist.
(Image credit: still from that stage adaptation of Owen Sheers’ Pink Mist by Mark Douet)