Valence: Considering War Through Poetry and Theory by Susan Hawthorne. Spinifex 2011.
The fact is that it is not important to many people: They get by their whole lives without encountering it, and who is to say they are the worse for it?………..it is important to me. It’s an art in which language is put under pressure and investigated in ways which questions the assumptions that we make about it” (http://www.poetrylibrary.edu.au/poets/croggon-alison/a-unicorn-0612043/reviews/interview-alison-croggon-may-2013-21)
For the poet who comes to poetry with an avert political consciousness, who wants poetry to speak, question and argue, the issue becomes more complex. They are, for example, confronted by Auden’s statement in ‘In memory of W. B. Yeats’:
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.
Poetry can be an effective tool in to pressure both language and the assumptions that underlie society – but if such analysis remains, for the most part, firmly anchored in “the valley of its making” what is the point. The question, for the political poet, or the poet that has written a political poem, is how to escape from the valley?
Recently, during the ‘festival’ that ANZAC Day seems to have become I considered what happens when poetry/art does venture out its valley. I repeatedly heard Eric Bogle’s ‘The Band Played Walzing Maltida’ being played on the radio and TV – but the more I listened to the context it which it was being played the more I realised that it was no longer the anti-war song that I remembered. The words hadn’t changed but it had become an almost anthem, a hymn if you like – the message was now celebrating sacrifice and death rather than mourning and questioning them.
I guess if you work hard enough you can turn anything on its head – the ruling classes, after all, are not noted for their appreciation of irony and subtlety.
In approaching Susan Hawthorne’s extraordinary chapbook, Valence I found myself thinking of a number of things. Of course there was the tradition of war poetry, which most of know from the poetry of the First World War (Wilfred Owen and Sigfred Sasson). But there were also other images – a beautiful illustration by Carol Archer of a fence at Pine Gap on which the women who had camped at the gates, had tied many little ribbons (P76 Issue 2 1984). I also recalled an exhibition I had seen and reviewed in 1985 – Peace and Nuclear War in the Australian Landscape, an installation by Darani Lewers, Jan Birmingham and Tanya Crothers. In an interview I conducted with the artists Jan Birmingham spoke of the difficulty of representing images of war as powerful sections of the media have appropriated many of the more terrifying images of war and made them seem glamorous and exciting. (http://printedshadows.wordpress.com/category/exhibitions/peace-and-nuclear-war-in-the-australian-landscape/)
Valence is an “annotated poem”, each page contains a poem, together with some notes describing the thoughts and references behind the poems. At the back of the book there is a Bibliography referencing books and journal articles. Clearly this is no ordinary poetry book. We are also given a brief introduction:
I wrote this poem in 2009 over several weeks. I had been thinking about war, about the roles played by my mother and grandmother in the twentieth century wars. Then there was my mother’s brother, imprisoned in Changi who never recovered. How do you measure this loss?
The poem begins with the suggestion of war, the language which prepares us, pushes us towards acceptance:
all day long the gods have been screaming
their prevalent song of war and pre-emptive strike
language is important here, the language of war, of grief, of violence and loss. There are images, unexpected, that take your breath away – lines like:
that widowed ground has been filled with half-grown trees
recall old battlefields, the bodies buried and the vegetation returning. It also calls to mind the women, the civilian victims – the rape, the loss of family, the destruction of community – all part of the modern war machine: “buried poetry risen unbidden”
Memory plays a central role in these poems. The personal history of war, remembered atrocities, still fresh/flesh after decades – a lived history. In poem 6, about the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Hawthorne writes:
in Sabra and Shatila only bodies are left
shadows of screams echoes of eyes
that have stopped seeing stopped recording
a nation’s memory will not unwrap when the chain
is nothing but missing links one by one
each memory becomes a wilderness
The book ends with a sense of despair – the legacy of the horrors of the 20th Century which continues into the new century:
you dream of flight with wings with claws some days
you sob because all the elegies for the dead all the strings
played with furious pathos will not stop the clot of war
But the poetry is really only half of Valence. It is an annotated poem and each page contains both a poem and a set of notes/observations. While at first this is a little disconcerting – do you read the poem and the notes at the same time or do you read all the poems before going back and reading the annotations? Once you overcome this slight dilemma, the annotations actually add to the impact of the overall poem.
The annotations often extend the poem they are linked to, expanding both the context and the meaning. The annotation for the first poem, for example (“all day long the gods have been screaming/their prevalent songs of war and pre-emptive strike/ war leaves you gobsmacked words slaughtered in the throat”), expands the impact of the poem:
Militarism, fundamentalism and the sex industry share the same ideology. Traumatised and vulnerable individuals become fodder for war and religion and pornography and prostitution.
In poem 6 (about the 1982 Lebanese War), Hawthorne shares with us the inspiration for the poem:
This poem came from seeing the film, Waltz with Bashir, an animated film made by Ari Folman in search of memories he had lost following the 1982 Lebanon War. Like the patients referred to in the poem, the minds of those who participate as soldiers in war sometimes stop recording
Valence is a powerful book on a number of levels. It contains a powerful anti-war poem, rich in imagery and history, full of passion and measured anger. It also operates on a more direct level, directly confronting the culture, language and history of war. In the end it doesn’t fit well in Auden’s poetic valley – it is a work that demands to be widely read. Perhaps it should be compulsory reading in the period leading up to the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings.
- Mark Roberts
Mark Roberts is a Sydney based writer and critic. He currently edits Rochford Street Review and is working on a collection of poetry.
Valence is available from http://www.spinifexpress.com.au/Bookstore/book/id=226/