Literary: The passion of poetry against war

From Jerome Kugan

Sept 10:  
Much hope was lost during the war in Iraq, but much remains. JEROME KUGAN writes.

SHELL shock, disbelief, utter horror. Death at its most violent and spectacular. War is the stuff that violent Hollywood action thrillers feed on, in turn feeding our own insatiable hunger for confirmations of life's fragility.

It's a strange relationship we have with war. Within war, we feel the purposelessness of our actions. Without it, we lose purpose altogether.

It's almost as if we need war (or the threat of it, at least) to give us a reason to exist. Who doesn't experience a connotation-loaded shiver at the mention of Gallipoli, Midway Island, Hiroshima, or Saigon? Uttered in the context of war, these names ring in one's ears as potent symbols of victory or failure, of death and innocence lost.

Whether you're for or against, war gives you something to fight for. If you don't take sides, you're just not human.

But whose side could one take when it came to the Iraqi invasion - less of a war than a playground bickering between two overblown egos with real guns instead of plastic ones? One on side, there was Bush, intent on seeking retribution for 9/11, complete with anti-terrorist, anti-dictatorship rhetoric. On the other, you have Saddam, the quintessential dictator underdog who stood up to Western military intimidation. Both are (or if you believe SH was killed in his palace, then "was") power-mad, eager to leave their names in the history books of stupidity.

Bush instigated the war by claiming Saddam was hiding WMD but everyone knew that Pentagon had more warheads than all the sheep in New Zealand.

Nobody wanted WW3. So when American and British troops rained Baghdad with fire (watching it on CNN more likely), it came as no surprise that international reactions were strangely fragmented.

Governments and protesters either pleaded to a paralysed United Nations or claimed neutrality ("neutrality" meaning indirectly supporting Bush). Most crossed their fingers and hoped for as few casualties as possible.

But watching CNN footage of not-your-normal-independence-day-fireworks going off over Baghdad's skyline, it was ironic how everyone knew that it was an unjust war and yet there was nothing any of us could do. Except maybe, pathetically, to clutch the remote with our clammy palms and continue watching in disgust, puzzlement, fury, helplessness. Or even arming ourselves with a tinge of defeatist cynicism.

However, that's not what one gets from reading Iraq 2003: The Reactive Verses, a slim volume of poetry written by poets from Britain and beyond, and of all backgrounds too - from lawyers to schoolmasters, United States Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (whose inclusion is most definitely meant to be tongue-in-cheek) to Beano collectors.

Penang's own Cecil Rajendra contributes an epic, fashioned on Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat. The poems collected here, varied as they are in terms of style, tone and approach, are linked by a very clear outrage that the Iraqi invasion was allowed to happen in a world that was supposed to have learned from its past mistakes.

There are poems here that directly attack the powers that be.

In Hail to the Chief, Peter Musgrave writes on the self-righteousness of the American military. "[...] Folk like us when danger threatens/ Take decisions where others shirk/ We are free and they are captive/ We will do their dirty work//Donald Rumsfeld, hero, leader/ I will praise you evermore/ Even if your name is German/ Halleluia! let's make war."

The poet's sarcastic tone leaves no doubt that Rumsfeld is a hero deluded.

Some invoke the ghosts of wars past. In 1943 and 2003 - A Paradox, Estelle McCready writes: "Exactly sixty years ago today I crouched, aged ten/ Beneath our kitchen table; shrapnel clattered/ Echoing down the street. [...]// At least I knew my bogeyman. Malevolence was Adolf [...]// But under kitchen tables in Baghdad tonight/ Sit children much perplexed: nice Mr Bush will save/ You from the bogeyman, my dears, so never mind/ Don't cry: he must be cruel only to be kind."

The poet's juxtaposition of the London and Baghdad bombings reveals the inhuman horror of revenge. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Other poems question the outsider's estimation of another culture's injustices. In Tell me Saddam - by James Bretteville, the Westerner asks: "[...] What's your redeeming feature? Have you some excuse? [...]" And an imaginary Saddam answers: "[...] Don't be too hard/ On tyrants, after all, you've had a few yourselves, you Westerners/ Bismarck, Napoleon, Franco, Tito, Stalin and Ceaucescu./ Some died in their beds, some people loved them. Who are you/ To judge?"

Still other poems regard the Iraqi invasion as yet another tragic bead in the long rosary of wars in our shared history. Cecil Rajendra's The Rubaiyat of Busblar Saddam records the loss of human lives against the capitalist interests of the invaders: "[...] XII/Come, fill the breeches and Fire at will;/Give the blasted Enemy no respite until/ He is pulverized - Never mind the Cost,/ Their Oil will pay - no matter what our Bill! [...]"

Linguistic bravado notwith-standing, some of the most moving poems are also the most simple and direct.

In Brave Little Boy by Sumiah Alzeib, attention is drawn to the victims themselves, in this case a traumatised child and the ones who caused it. "[...] They think your pain is worth the gain/ they think your arms have freed some souls/ they think? they think? I do not think!!/ They feel? I suppose that they just may/ but not for you, only for themselves [...]"

While most of the poems in the collection probably wouldn't pass the rigours of literary fickleness, the sincerity and immediacy invested in them proves that while some hope may have been lost through the Iraqi invasion, some of it is still intact.

However, noble as the cause behind the publication of this brave little book is, it remains to be seen whether or not poetry can change the world.

Perhaps Raymond Tong's Silent Poet can provide the glimpse of an answer. "When the Poet remained silent before Sargon/ the king knew the appropriate punishment./ He ordered that the poet's tongue and eyes/ should be removed [...]// [...] knowing that while/ even the most carefully worded protest/ can be deftly scorned or laughed to shame,/ a silent poet is far more eloquent."