Thomas Roberts reviews a new collection of war poetry: 

Enduring Freedom: an Afghan Anthology


I attended recently a series of readings from a new anthology of war poetry: Enduring Freedom, an Afghan Anthology edited by Ryan Gearing (Firestep Press, 2011).  It features new verse about conflict (and in particular the war in Afghanistan) as well as better known poems about other wars.  The Duke of Westminster provides a forward, Sir Andrew Motion an introduction.

The new poems were written by both civilians and serving Forces’ personnel and as I listened to the readers after a contribution of my own, three sets of thoughts began to form.  The first was a judge’s report from Michael Longley in 2010 in which he commented that, despite the fact that Britain was fighting a war, no poems entered for the prestigious competition were about that war (before me there were definitely poems about that war); the second was the monument to the Women of World War Two on Whitehall, which provides a small counter-balance to male-centric memory-making at the bosom of the nation (before me there were women poets relating their experiences); and the third thought was of W.H. Auden’s often cited line, poetry makes nothing happen (more on this later).

Every poem in this anthology feels as if it needed to be written.  The poems are direct and in many instances vivid.  They also illuminate the inside (sometimes with the perspective of a return of the poets to the outside) of an often stereotyped British institution, the military.

The poems deal with subjects we would expect with the territory – but it should be said there is no flag waving with the contemporary verse.  There is however fear, injury, loss, grief, death, admiration, respect for others, survivors’ guilt, comradeship and the warfare that takes place inside a mind.  This is appropriate given that part of the proceeds go to the charity Combat Stress. The difficulties of returning to civilian life also feature, as does, on occasion, anger at politicians for playing fast and loose. I didn’t read a drop of over-sentimentality.

Different styles are on display including free verse, villanelles, sonnets, found prose. Many of the poems are accomplished, some are rough around the edges but that is to miss the point.  They connect.  Dean Horton’s ‘The Airborne Medic’s Creed’ speaks from the heart:

I will go toe to toe with the Angel of Death
I will use every weapon at my disposal to defeat him
I will remain tuned to the highest level at all times
And my skills shall never fade……[ ]
I will carry you through the darkness

(and he does in his day job).

J.B. Brown has several poems featured and he writes with a tone that suggests authority, reflection and emotional intelligence.  In ‘The Conservation of Angular Momentum’ he says,

If you lined the Appian Way
With the souls on crosses
Of all of our dead soldiers
And had the widows grieving
At their spectral feet
What a monument to God it would be
A multitude of Golgotha. 

Tim Hodgetts in ‘A Hymn for Helmand’ refers to the horror and brutality / of taking life for liberty (there is a clear impression he knows what this means).

Approximately one quarter of the poets featured are women (whether in the capacity of mothers, carers, mourners or just witnesses) and it quickly becomes clear that the side-effects of conflict are shared between the genders. Sally Ainsworth writes of incessant worry about the door knock late at night; Barbara Stocker about the enduring sense of loss when a close family member dies, even when that has been long ago; Sheila Webb stands as a mourner.  Their empathy comes to the fore.  Heartbreak is a word that is repeated in several poems.

I would like to turn to W.H. Auden’s “poetry makes nothing happen quote” because the work in this anthology has provided me with a new prism through which to view it:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.
                                                                     (from ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ by W.H. Auden)

No surprise then that the context of this quote is mourning after the death of a friend (W.B. Yeats).  No surprise then that the bedfellows of mourning are isolation, busy griefs and raw towns that we believe and die in.  No surprise also that, far from being pessimistic, the quote actually has a positive message, it [poetry] survives.  Many of the contributors to this anthology have survived.  So too has their poetry: a mouth.

Thomas Roberts is a poet based in London where he also works as a lawyer.  He is originally from County Antrim in Northern Ireland.