Tuesday 20 November 2012

Metamorphosis: Poetry from Art at Tate Modern, autumn 2012, war poetry and Brian Turner

Last night was our last session of the poetry from art autumn term at Tate Modern so we spent the second part of the class in a reading celebration. For the first part we responded to two monumental war paintings: Leon Golub's Vietnam II and the Iraqui artist Dia al-Azzawi's Sabra and Shatila Massacre, which depicts the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut in 1982. We discussed the difficulty of writing poems about war when not a combatant, but these two artists were not directly involved with the wars they depicted. Is it possible to write authentically about such a huge subject if we have not experienced it? I've worked with students in Algiers who have lived through and are still living through terrorism, and mentored the UK poet Mir Mahfuz Ali, who writes powerful poems about the trauma of war in Bangladesh, and one of the problems for them is being too close to the subject, as well as the events simply being too shocking for the reader to be able to take in. So we studied three poems by Brian Turner, from his collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise, about his time as a soldier in the Iraq war, to see how he dealt with being up close, and how he found a language for unspeakable things. 

Vietnam II by Leon Golub (detail)
We used three of Turner's poems as models for possible approaches to such a tricky subject. His poem 'Here, Bullet', for example, focuses on one detail of war: a bullet. The speaker talks to the bullet, which is whizzing through the air, so speed is arrested for the space of the poem, to allow a human to engage with a power object, and offer himself as a sacrifice to it against the harm it continues to do. Addressing the bullet rather than the 'enemy' takes away notions of blame and gives the soldier-poet distance, so although the tone is passionate this device gives him the objectivity to make a work of art. I suggested the group try picking out a detail from Golub or Azzawi's paintings instead of taking on the whole composition.

'Easel' uses the metaphor of a soldier painting a canvas of blue and desert yellows as he bombs his target, so that the action is conveyed through date palms that "open / in a burst of green" and where people are "mere phantasms / of paint, their features unrecoverable, their legs / disappearing...". Again, everything in the poem is happening at high speed, and the conceit of painting distances what might otherwise be too unbearable to describe. We read how Leon Golub, when he was painting Vietnam II and after the first layer of paint was applied, placed his vast canvas on the floor and scraped it down with a meat cleaver before reconstructuring the figures of American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians. The painting process could be a way in to write a poem, allowing the scene to remain open and metaphoric.

'Howl Wind', from Phantom Noise freezes a crucial moment, when a missile is released from "the high angle of hell" and the poem switches from this sky-high angle to zoom in on particular lives, couples who must kiss or say what's on their minds now, before "the steel-hard visitations of death" – "now is the time". Perhaps, like 'Howl Wind', a poem can imagine the sounds of a massacre (which can only be suggested in the painting), or shift angle to high up or ground level, play with perspective and scale. Anything that allows the imagination to fully inhabit the horror within a contained frame, to make order – art – out of chaos.

Sabra and Shatila Massacre by Dia al-Azzawi