A Poetry Review by Edward Reilly
Michael J. Whelan, 2016, Peacekeeper, Doíre Press, Casla, Co. na Gaillimhe.
These poems are firsthand reports from the newest episode in a continuing war. In 638 Jerusalem fell to the Arabs, and the Levant was lost. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Vienna was finally relieved in 1683, and it took 250 more bitter years of struggle to expel the invaders from all but a small pocket of Europe. Yet their legacy remains; the Balkans are littered with mosques, pockets of Turks and Muslimized populations, havens for the new, and ambitious Islamists. And today, Jerusalem is only half-free, whilst Europe, in its widest sense, is under attack once again.
At first, Whelan seems to play the rôle of an honest soldier, a wide-eyed innocent of sorts, merely recording reactions to the situation in Lebanon: ‘The journey from Beirut … was long and hot’, a battle becomes ‘a circus / of tracer and flash’, whilst his contingent is ‘always caught in the middle’ between ‘Hezbollah’ and ‘Israeli backed militia’. Yes, but this is the modern soldier’s lot, and in being thrown into a hot war, like my uncles coming up against the Japanese, a man can only hope to survive against ‘booby traps’, ‘bullets’ that connect to an ‘unlucky peacekeeper’ caught in crossfire. All the romance of tourist brochures is eventually swept away with the realisation that Lebanon ‘is the land of giants, where Gilgamesh / raped the mountains of cedars’, and the vocabulary grows battle-hardened.
Progressing beyond a travelogue, Whelan begins to use his schooling to shape thoughtful and engrossing poems. In the finely wrought ‘Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land’ (p. 39), he comprehends the nature of the sacred land, seeking ‘redemption’, from what we’re not told, calling to mind the long processions of Syrians, Romans, ‘Jewish zealots’, St. Helen of the Cross, Crusaders and so on. But also sees beauty in ‘red anemone, wild tulip and poppy / and young girls [who] might seek the damask rose’ amidst the carnage, wherein ‘we must watch our step’. Certainty is a fleeting quality in this blood-soaked land.
By the end of this section one must ask what, if anything, was achieved by successive UN interventions in the Lebanon, noting that the current UNFIL mandate expires at the end of this August. Will Hezbollah resume its blindly merciless attacks on Christian communities in Lebanon, or even seek to resume full-scale war against Israel? Will the loss of 47 Irish soldiers, ‘martyrs’ he nominates them, all be in vain?
By the second section Whelan’s vision has grown even darker, for if Lebanon was dangerous ground, giving rise to dreams of redemption and martyrdom, then Kosovo was Hell. While Tito’s Jugoslavija fell apart at the seams, the vultures moved in. Serbians wanted to regain Kosovo, a tangled ‘field of blackbirds’, that had been lost during the Turkish occupation to the largely-Muslim Albanians, the new Islamicists seeing an opportunity. It was as if the Four Horsemen were going into rehearsal for the next big one.
In the midst of this brutal war, Whelan is an acute observer, noting how the village children can be welcoming, indifferent or even threatening. He sees how ‘The rain has come / to wash away the footprints of the killers’, where the victims are reduced to fragments of ‘white bone on the deepening red mud’. It’s worse than in Lebanon, now it’s ‘always’ raining, and ‘the fear comes when no adult comes to greet you’, where the survivors may be alive but ‘not happy’.
Another finely observed, deeply moving poem is ‘Broken Spade’ (p. 60), wherein he contemplates a farmer, slain in the act of tending his fields, his ‘harvest, un-reaped and yet reaped upon you’. Not even in the days of sacred observance were people safe. In ‘Roadside Bomb’ (p. 61) he records the effect of a massacre, ‘legs hanging from roof windows’, ‘others swimming in boiling / blood’, ‘broken conversations’. A group of Serbians had been under NATO escort as they were going to visit their local cemetery in preparation for the annual Day of the Dead, their bus ripped apart by a ‘perfectly’ timed bomb. All were killed, so callously. Whelan noting, ‘we heard / the details later’. This is about as close as the book comes to an open expression of anger. But the ire boils and nags at him in the last half dozen or so short poems, as NATO cluster bombs ‘accidently’ smash friendly villages, the poet realising ‘the merchants never cared’, finally lapsing into despair, as ‘there is no end to old stories’.
One puts the book down, numb beyond weeping, for it goes well beyond the romance of being a soldier-poet ‘in the tradition of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon’ and others, as one reviewer, K. Higgins, would have it, as the conflicts in Lebanon and Kosovo did not have the same moral clarity as the invasion of Belgium. If any soldier-poets can be invoked it would be the battle-weary and despairing Solženycin of Prussian Nights, or Grass as author of The Tin Drum. And if Whelan comes close to a fit of Celtic despair in the final pages, we as readers must withdraw somewhat, re-reading these poems as a record of the continuing interaction between an enlightened Good and a persistent Evil, both of which change in ‘form’ according to time and situation, an essentially moral, problem Whelan asks us to consider.