Friday, April 19, 2013

BPR LIT TRIP 20 with Dan O’Brien

Man’s inhumanity to man, woman, humankind is something we live with everyday but will never get used to. In today’s 20th Lit Trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet looks at poet-playwright Dan O’Brien’s “The War Reporter Paul Watson on the Examination of Women.” It is one of two poems from the point of view of Canadian journalist Paul Watson, Canada’s only journalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize. The Steiny Poet strongly believes these two poems are related to O’Brien’s award-winning play The Body of an American. OK, yes, the Steiny Poet finds the following quote from O’Brienon on The Missouri Review’s website where they have published another poem in O’Brien’s series on Watson:

The purpose of my work with Paul has been to try to use poetry to bridge the distance between an “average” person like myself, and someone who has witnessed some of the signal atrocities of our era, in places as far-flung as Angola, Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan (the list goes on). The poems are derived from his memoir, Where War Lives, his journalism, recordings and transcripts he has shared with me, and most valuably our emails and conversations. Some of these poems take place in Ulukhaktok in the Canadian High Arctic, where I visited Paul there in the winter of 2010 while he was enjoying a brief respite from war reporting, covering the “Arctic and Aboriginal Beat” for the Toronto Star. He’s now based mainly in Kandahar. Our peculiar collaboration has also produced a play, The Body of an American, but after finishing the play I found I couldn’t let his story go. In a very personal way, his voice continues to haunt me.

In “Watson on the Examination of Women,” an eighteen-lined, single stanza poem that makes no attempt to be a heroic sonnet—neither in rhyme scheme nor metrical count (iambic pentameter is the traditional rule), O’Brien through the voice of his narrator Paul Watson carves out the plight of a woman in a burqa deprived of a woman doctor and so she bleeds to death. However, even when the women doctors are reinstated, the male doctors, who are forced to stay behind closed doors, are in charge of the sick women’s examinations. Watson reports that once he spoke with the poet Dr. Abdul Samay Hamed and Hamed said, “The Taliban is a mystery/ its Creator is unable solve.”

What makes this a poem versus sudden fiction are lines like “Cassettes/ get unspooled and strung from checkpoint towers/ festively like intestines” and “female sick/ must of course remain at all times shrouded/ in their burquas.” The simile of the recording tape compared to intestines and the word choice shrouded cement the sick women’s inhumane fate. The women’s medical treatment is barbaric and they are the walking dead. Subtle internal near rhymes ebb and flow with such combinations as cassettes/checkpoint, shoes/taboo, black/doctor, part/hurt. If just the last word of every line is read, one gets the essence of this poem (a sign of a good poem with strong line breaks). Here are the end words: cassettes, towers, shoes, women, sick shrouded, reaches, part, eyes, prove, naturally, doctors, blindly, hear, poet, said, mystery, solve.

Perhaps it is small consolation the last words O’Brien’s poem come from a Afghan poet who indicates that Taliban behavior is even a mystery to the Creator (the Steiny Poet believes one can substitute Allah) but Dr. Hamed was also a trained as a physician and understands the plight of Afghan women whom he writes compassionately about in his poetry. In repressive countries, only the poets dare tell the truth and often at great risk to their own lives. Hats off to Dan O'Brien's brave work.

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