Review for Michael J. Whelan's Peacekeeper
Peacekeeper, by Michael J. Whelan, Doire Press, 80p, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9
Review by Daniel Wade originally for Writing.ie
In a 1732 letter addressed to Charles Wogan, Jonathan Swift wrote admiringly of the legions of displaced Irishmen who served in various European continental armies following the 1691 Treaty of Limerick (and whose mass departure from their homeland is known to history as the ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’), praising in particular the bravery of their decision to enlist: “I cannot but highly esteem those gentlemen of Ireland, who, with all the disadvantages of being exiles and strangers, have been able to distinguish themselves by their valour and conduct in so many parts of Europe, I think above all other nations.”
It is true that the Irish have a long history of fighting other nation’s wars. From the galloglaigh or ‘gallowglass’ corps of elite mercenaries deployed to assorted conflicts across mainland Europe in the 1500s, to the 40,000 documented Irish ex-pats who fought for the Union and the 20,000 who fought for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, the Republican and Blueshirt volunteers who signed up to fight one another in the Spanish Civil War, as well as the thousands who swelled the British Army’s ranks in WWI (and indeed, the countless more who wore a British Army uniform down the centuries), not to mention the 5,000 members of the Defence Forces who enlisted to fight in WWII, following Ireland’s officially neutral position in that particular conflict, and who were later branded deserters by the Irish government of the day upon their return. This isn’t even including the pioneering work undertaken by Irish-born war correspondents such as Peter Finnerty and Sir William Howard Russell, who covered the Napoleonic wars and the Crimean war respectively, as well as Samuel Beckett, who volunteered with the French Resistance in WWII and was awarded a Medaille de la Resistance for his efforts.
The nuance and increasingly complex gradations of Irish identity that resulted in this mass involvement with the military affairs of other nations is perhaps best summed up by Christopher St. Lawrence, the 10th Baron Howth and a captain in the Earl of Essex’s army during the Nine Years War, who, frustrated by the ridicule he received as both an Irish-born peer and a loyal follower of the Crown, declared: “I am sorry that when I am in England, I shall be esteemed an Irishman, and in Ireland, an Englishman. I have spent my blood, engaged and endangered my life, often to do her Majesty’s service, and do beseech to have it so regarded.”
To this end, it is no surprise that Irish poetry has rarely shied away from addressing bloodshed and the full effects of warfare. The Tain Bo Cuailnge arguably counts as the definitive Celtic war saga, while Piaras Feiritear, who fought in the Confederate Ireland wars, ranks as an invaluably early example of a soldier-poet writing in the Irish language. In the contest of the Easter Rising, Padraic Pearse, Joseph Plunkett and Thomas MacDonagh were each published poets, and the outpouring of poetic tribute to them subsequent to their executions, from authors as disparate as James Stephens, Katherine Tynan, AE and Francis Ledwidge, proved once more that poetry is instrumental in making sense of bloodshed’s aftermath throughout the nation’s most historic events.
Meanwhile, in the trenches of WW1, Tom Kettle and the aforementioned Ledwidge (both avowed nationalists) would become known for their poignant verses, if not for their direct depiction of the war itself, and would come to symbolise the loss of the Irish involvement of in the trenches. W.B. Yeats repeatedly addressed the thorny and troubling effects of the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War upon Irish life during both their duration and aftermath in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, ‘The Second Coming’ and the long poetic sequence ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ (and also infamously refused to write about WW1 in ‘On being asked for a War Poem’).
Later on, the growing sectarian tensions that would eventually culminate in the Northern Irish Troubles and the growing crisis of same is tackled by a plethora of poets such as Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Michael Longley (the latter in particular noting time and again the lingering after-effects of battle on his father, who had seen service in WW1). Yet for all this, and in spite of exquisitely exhaustive anthologies such as the 2009 Gerald Dawe-edited Earth Voices Whispering: An Anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945, there is no longstanding equivalent tradition of Irish war poets to equal the pantheon of that encompassed Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Gurney and Thomas.
Despite all this, and despite the long-standing stereotype of the ‘Fighting Irish’ embodied by the G.K. Chesterson line concerning the alleged inborn Gaelic readiness for battle:
For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad:
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad...
it is actually Ireland’s long association since the founding of the State with overseas peacekeeping operations that has proven to be its most prominent and exemplary martial endeavour on record. Following Ireland’s 1955 entry into the UN, the Irish Defence Forces has found itself involved in various peace support and crisis management missions, chiefly in the Middle East. Irish peacekeeping missions, under the various auspices of UNFICYP (the Congo), UNDOF (Syria-Israel Border) and UNIFIL (Lebanon), to name but a few are examples of this tradition. Indeed, the recent return of Irish troops from the 50th Infantry Group, on April 7th, to Dublin Airport after a six-month deployment to the Golan Heights on behalf of UNDOF, indicates the currency of this aspect of Ireland’s international relations. Since the beginning of these operations, there have been 85 recorded deaths among Irish military personnel.
Hence, the debut collection of Tallaght-based poet Michael J. Whelan, entitled Peacekeeper, is the first such volume of poetry to address this fascinating if often-overlooked aspect of Irish history and current affairs. Whelan himself is a member of the Irish Defence Forces and has seen service in South Lebanon and Kosovo as an Irish United Nations support operative. Because his poetry has the added credential of being authored by a former member of the Irish Defence Forces, it draws immediate comparisons with the poignant and often harrowing poetic accounts of modern warfare by contemporary American war poets Brian Turner (Here, Bullet) and Kevin Powers (Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting), both veterans of the Iraq War. As such, it is a slim and unassuming volume, but certainly not a trivial one.
Whelan is no propagandist, but nor is he condemnatory. He certainly details the horrors and attendant upset a war-zone will induce, and does so with an admirably unflinching eye. His poetic voice is that a survivor and an eye-witness, not of a triumphalist. The complex nature of being a soldier fighting to preserve the peace in a combat zone is an ever-present source of tension within the book. The work is brutal and thankless, yet necessary. There is no glory to be expected. Indeed, early on in the collection he writes,
I come in peace not victorious or triumphant
no palms will be thrown under my feet
when I enter the City of David.
His poetry serves as a valuable and even historically-significant document of the Irish soldier’s experience in peacekeeping work. Arguably, Whelan proves that those most qualified to talk of war and war’s alarms are those who see it from the coalface, as in ‘Portal’, when he writes: “The rest is just history/shovelled down the neck of a hungry war feeding/on souls, a monster that’s never satisfied.”
Whelan makes it clear that he and his fellow soldiers are in as much as danger as those they either sent in to protect or fight. The human cost is never far away. The danger is ever-present, and is devoid of any glamour or adrenalin-inducing thrills that might be expected in a warzone. Whelan makes it clear that, for the peacekeeper, every footstep taken is risk for the peacekeeper “whose only armour/was the feeble weave of a blue flag”. Their status does not shield them from being shot or bombed (“Our presence does not halt their conflict”), and in fact gives them a clear indication of both sides being equally lacking in compromise:
“...we who keep the middle ground will feel
the vibrations of their vengeance.”
In ‘Moral of the Story’ which details the shooting on an IDF checkpoint by a runaway squad of Hezbollah fighters fleeing the Israeli army, he states:
Peacekeepers in Lebanon may not always
hold the centre ground but they are always
caught in the middle.
Combined with these moments of heightened chaos, the boredom of down-time is mixed with the ever-present anxiety of sudden, random outbursts of carnage, as in the poem ‘Funeral’, where the speaker’s enjoyment of a televised World Cup match is interrupted by the sudden attack of Resistance fighters: “all commentary lost in emotions,/I reach for my helmet and gun,/in a moment the shells will start falling.”
But perhaps most poignantly is the aftermath of such encounters, as exemplified in ‘Prishtina’, wherein the speaker finds himself having to confront a seriously injured comrade after a detonation, and, in a space of a few short seconds, getting a glimpse of his and everybody’s mortality:
It was only a moment
but he looked into me.
Could see me as clearly
as I see him after all this time,
his eyes piercing my soul,
This poem easily ranks among the collection’s best. It most clearly demonstrates Whelan’s ability to bring alive the most harrowing of scenes with the most economized of language. The helplessness of the situation described above is lessened only the mutual, unspoken understanding the two men come to have, an understanding which perhaps could not have been reached in less traumatic circumstances. The poem’s conclusion is terse and superficially matter-of-fact, but the reader is left with no doubt as the effect such an encounter will leave on the speaker: “I couldn’t help him/but I know he sees me,/like I can see dead people.”
As already stated, there is no prettification or avoidance of the sanguine realities of warfare in Peacekeeper. The imagery Whelan makes use of is visceral, uncompromising, cinematic and yet, the reader instinctively feels, somehow true to life, reaching a stark vividness on a par with the horrific nightmare-verses of Wilfred Owen. A boy buried in rubble is found by his grandmother: “his shrapnel body lashed to the ruins/and mixed with false promises,” fresh rain falls “to wash away the footprints of killers/and the hopes of the hurting,” a fatal wound is “the ball of his knee hanging,/attached by loose skin and gristle/and wrapped in a bloody white shirt.
But to counterbalance the carnage are the evocative landscapes in which Whelan the soldier finds himself deployed to. Binaries are in the very nature of peacekeeping, insofar as soldiers fighting to keep the peace is in itself a contradiction in terms. The sheer physical beauty of the Lebanese countryside acts as a fragile counterbalance to the carnage threatening to engulf it.
It is contrast that informs the collection’s longest poem and easily its thematic mission statement, Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land, a prolonged and moving meditation on the long, diverse and complex nature of the land he has been sent to. Myth, history and current affairs are each brought to bear: Lebanon is “where Gilgamesh cleaved the cedars for his ships” as well as a place where “so much metal has been fired in this cauldron/from arrowheads and spears to icons and the corrupted jagged shards of bombs,/shrapnelled landmines and bullets.” In stanzas such as these, we see the landscape serve as a witness and a theatre to the chaos that has tainted and moulded its history, a history which Whelan knows is ongoing, where chariots are replaced by tanks, yet with the effect of these war-machines being much the same:
This is the land of the Canaanites,
the Phoenecians who traded from these beaches and ports
and I know it can never be as it was.
Alexander’s siege of Beirut can still be heard,
in the tracks of a tankthat replaced the chariot,
the bullet that replaced the arrow,
the rise and fall of empires.
Overall, Peacekeeper is a challenging, robust debut collection and a clear result of years of contemplating and traversing such disturbing terrain where violent death is an everyday occurrence. With these poems, Michael J. Whelan has achieved something very singular that deserves to be read by soldier and civilian alike.
Divertimento: The Muse is a Dominatrix, by Peter O' Neill, mgv2>publishing, €12.00, ISBN: 978-1-326-62734-B
The title poem of Peter O Neill’s twelfth poetry collection Divertimento: The Muse is a Dominatrix begins with the following lines: “After every beautiful encounter/Someone is bound to end up getting hurt.” In that opening salvo, the cadence of O’ Neill’s aesthetic is made clear to the reader: visceral, sexually-charged, well attuned to the realities of life, and almost determinedly resting beyond the pale of the Irish house-style poetic. Taking their stylistic cues from the hallucinatory revelry of Baudelaire and the early Modernists than from the more customary guidance of Yeats, Heaney et al, the poems to be found here are visceral and sexually-charged, each one acting as a surreal report for O’ Neill’s awareness that sex and death, two key drivers in human experience and endeavour, are inextricably tied:
O love is a limousine built for two
Driving down the open road,
And where all of the signs seem to be leading me to you.
And death is a motorcycle cop
Who flags you down for driving too fast.
O’ Neill keeps his personal life at arm’s length in the book, but does not leave it entirely at a remove. Poem by poem, the reader is held in a state of uncertainty, feeling they are being teased as to whether a personal account of wretchedness or an equivocated fever dream is being read. O’ Neill is a poet, and the final litmus test of poets is to know and confront the failure of language itself in broaching the thorny intricacies of life, when the reliable store of eloquence finally runs out. All that can then be expressed is one’s inability to express. This ambiguity runs through even the moments of seemingly-naked vulnerability:
But the other [words]
that somehow escape my aim,
pulling the whole mortal weight of my time with them
with those few
I can only lower my gun and marvel
at their brief moment of eternity,
before they slip behind the sun.
O’ Neill’s finely-tuned sense of the macabre does not stem from a puerile desire to shock, but an unflinching affinity to the abject, of the uglier side of passion. In ‘History’ there is a disturbing sense that the speaker may be addressing their beloved, or someone recently departed, after a particularly draining bout of sex:
You float like the dead,
ferried across the Styx
in my veins
It is ghastly.
And our mutual silence
is the silence of the dead…
O Neill’s binding of the sexual and the macabre recalls the stately darkness of Les Fleurs du Mal, but curiously, also lends the poems the same nightmarish atmosphere of a psychological thriller. In ‘This Side of You’, he finds that there is still much to be discovered about his muse. He concludes that “Love is hate in reverse, the world upside down,” whilst also accusing the addressee: “Go on, you would never even dream of showing this side of you to another.”
Poems such as these illustrate T.S. Eliot’s principle of the psychological fissure existing between “the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” O’ Neill has turned his hand to poems which reveal an inner life acutely in the grip of an existential and spiritual turmoil, yet also one that is supremely aware of this condition and quite determined to weather it. The seemingly conventionally-romantic sentiment of poems such as The Mona Lisa are warped into something decidedly more sinister with lines such as:
Through the smooth corridors of urbane
Domesticity I go to sometimes view you,
Secretly applauding how magnificently you’ve been framed
To this writer at least, the poem calls to mind the malevolent hand-wringing of Robert Browning’s My Last Duchess. O’ Neill’s classic affinity with the poet as outsider, a theme arguably as timeless as war, death or love, is expressed throughout the collection like an obsessive motif. There is also Beckettian sense of nihilism permeating poems such as ‘Rumours Break Upon the Air’, where O Neill asserts that:
The truth is, we were born to suffer,
At every chance destroy.
Cruelty, by implication, is by design.
O’ Neill’s skill for the redolent image, the evocative vision, are on full display. A crowd of rush-hour Londoners is described as ‘battle-hardened Amazons/In their mid-thirties march through the labyrinth/of streets and corridors in pairs’; a page-three girl becomes ‘a paper Venus, Madonna of the celibates/who kneel before you to offer up their prayers’; ‘blood and death coagulate in the mercy cup’ in ‘Burlesque’; a speedboat observed from a distance in Dunmore East is ‘an amphibious car.’ The synthetic ostentation of contemporary pop culture and advertising is aligned (and implied to possess the same sense of time-defying durability) with the lofty masterworks of the Renaissance era, and past, present and future are in constant friction with one another. Under an Armani billboard in Rome depicting David Beckham “like a colossus/evoking Michelangelo”, the immediacy of the present moment and the timeless are conjoined like yin and yang forces, perennially at odds yet inextricably defined by their very contrast.
In the book’s final section, entitled ‘Divertimento’, a great sense of cosmopolitanism in O’ Neill’s work is presented; his affinity for Baudelaire and the luminaries of modernist poetry have led directly to poems set in London, Italy and France. Yet cosmopolitan does not necessarily equal refined, nor does it lend a superficial veneer of worldliness to the proceedings. Ugliness and danger have their place even in the most seemingly quaint of locations. ‘Avenue Arthur Rimbaud’ describes:
Blocks of flats, urban
Tissue box, tower above us.
And above them, as a backdrop,
The sky lit up, a safari.
O’ Neill writes occasionally as a flaneur and always as an outsider, but his understanding of the reality of far-off destinations as real, lived-in places and not airbrushed receptacles of exotic sojourning is what keeps these poems rooted in their humanistic nucleus. In ‘Siliqua’ the atmospherics of a small Italian town square are cemented by the elucidations of a local tour guide: “The authenticity of the guide/Is always revealed in the quality of the information received -/Mine did not to me just about buildings/And if she did it was only in relation to the living.” And in ‘Needles’, a poem mercifully void of the mawkish introspection or smug self-referentialism that characterise so many poems concerned with sightseeing foreign travel, O’ Neill addresses his own displacement and the anxiety that arises thereof:
So that I appear to be lost in a nameless country,
Without a map, whose country is northless.
Meanwhile, patron saints of the grim and grotesque, such as John Milton, Bram Stoker and Francis Bacon, are also given clear, if offbeat, homage. At times a frustrated relationship exists between the avidly contemporary O’ Neill and the great men of letters of the past whose influence he yearns to escape and yet knows that he can never fully evade. In ‘Milton’, he imagines the necessary but often devastating isolation the author must undergo in order to master their craft:
On first contact, it was as if we were both thrown
From a cliff, and holding onto one another,
As unforgiving angels, we wrestled together
Seemingly oblivious to our fall, so concerned
Were we in our own actions.
There is indeed a darkness to O’ Neill’s work and yet it is necessary darkness, one that any poet worth their salt must try to look unflinchingly in the eye. And yet the love poems, which form the bulk of the collection, are not entirely marked by despair or depravity. ‘A Game of Chess’ brings the failures of macho posturing to bear when the speaker has ‘…talked myself silent,/Like some ritualistic male unburdening, my embarrassment is then so acute -/For all this while you have been constantly giving.” It is lines such as these that form the tempo of O’ Neill’s profane lyricism. In addition, the recurring theme of empathy and tenderness in the face of near-catastrophic breakdown adds a greater dimension to the collection. To the idea that love can be simultaneously a source of great elation and crushing despondency, O’ Neill claims that: “Love is the currency, a regal tender,/And each is to their throne, in the valley of Kings and Queens./Yet all about you now lies desert.”
Divertimento is ultimately a book of dualities and nuance. O’ Neill emerges as poet operating with a plethora of influences looking over his shoulder, yet also resolved to exert his own style and poetic identity. His work stands as a singular and under-looked, at a remove of the Irish canon, but not completely disengaged from it. This ability to stand alone and to also be able to shoulder that aloneness are what makes this collection an absorbing and challenging read.