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Opening with ‘Auspices’, an astonishing performance by Susan Mason which straightaway reminds of the African workers singing blues in 19th Century South American coltures, Poets on War clearly committed to the sufferings of war and imprisonment from the very beginning.
Held on 1st February 2017 at the Southbank Centre, London, as part of The Poetry Library’s special edition, which takes place every first Wednesday of the month, the event was based on the participation of four contemporary poets, Ruth O’Callaghan, Adnan al-Sayegh, Jenny Lewis and Hylda Sims, who tried to look at war with the sentiments of horror, sympathy and humour. As a result of a splendid collaboration between the diversity of such poets and their poems and the way they decided to lead them, the event immediately took the shades and the features of the so-called “world literature”, moving from London artistically and linguistically for a couple of hours.
Ruth O’Callaghan and some extracts from her collection Vortices (Shoestring, 2015) directed the first part of the evening. Approaching the idea of war and borders between countries and people, Ruth discusses and traces conflicts from bibical times to present day, raising the thought-provoking reflection that war has been an unfortunate constant in human beings’ lives and that poetry has followed it, giving voice to its effects and consequences.
Hotel Owner is the poem that opens the first section and meditates on the idea of the hotel as “a country without boundaries”, in which people could feel safe, live and escape the world outside. 1914, on the other hand, treats the more technical part of the war, accounting for the ways in which slaughters have been perpetrated over history and particularly how “death had different ideas in 1914”. However, the most interesting points came out from Meine Liebe Mutter, which outlines the horrors of the war touching sensitively and respectfully the theme of son-mother relationship on the background of the Second World War. In concentration camps death had become ordinary and Ruth profoundly describes how the prisoners used to confront it: “we never turned our face against the enemy”, as “killing is an intimate act”. This striking idea of a connection between victim and murderer had a chilling impact on the whole audience: it placed a real difficulty in deciding with which part the reader would sympathise. The relation established is so close but we are still so far from understanding the private, perpetual awareness of death.
At last, before ending accompanied by a singing duet by Susan Mason and Emelia Lederleitnerova, Ruth quoted Tony Blair in his famous 1997 victory speech in which he claimed that his would have been the first generation ever not going to war or sending their children to war: as the poet observed after, he did not make the dream last long, declaring war on Talibans in 2001 and giving life to a new generation of soldiers and war poets.
The second part of the event left space to the distinguished Iraqi poet-in-exile Adnan al-Sayegh. Experienced imprisonment during the Iran-Iraq war and sentenced to death in 1996 for the publication of the poem Uruk’s Anthem, Adnan took refuge in Sweden and has been living in London since 2004. His poetry, translated in several languages, is actively political and set against oppression and injustice, demonstrating an intense passion for freedom, love and beauty. In Poets on War, he gave the audience the pleasure to hear his lines recited in Arabic, their original language and then read out loud in translation thanks to the collaboration of Jenny Lewis, writer and teacher in poetry at Oxford University.
Adnan transported the audience into another world: the melodic sound of Arabic was incredibly effective in trasmitting the sufferings and despair of the Iraqi experience and gave the event a touch of powerful originality. Delivering the message in the original language, the poet made clear how feelings such as pain and fear are universal and how languages and cultures become a way to make their acquaitance under different perspectives. Wars have broken out terribly equally everywhere and have made people escape their homelands in search of safer places, devastating lives and families: if nowhere is immune to war, then, as it was remarked in Second Song to Inanna/Ishtar, “Let poetry be our country”.
The Iraqi poet actively shared the stage with two wonderful women: Jenny Lewis, who collaborated with him and participated with some poems of hers and Hylda Sims, who elegantly challenged all the skeptics who claim that war cannot be approached with any kind of humour. Gripping her guitar under her arm, she started singing her famous Bin Laden:
“Bin Laden’s in my garden
outside Canada Square!
Shall I bring him a cup of tea?
I’m afraid he’s got to go!”
Making the atmosphere lively and vibrant, Hylda gave a huge contribution to the structure of the event: she offered a new modern view on the theme of war by also incorporating the genre of the song and involved the audience in it teaching them her version of Adnan’s Sketch to sing, which made the small library look much more familiar. Besides being the elder component of the troop of Poets on War, her voice and tone proved to extremely grasp our times with consciousness, from the side of common people.
Introducing her poem 21st Century War, which is very much about the 11th September 2001 terroristic attack, Hylda made a salient point about how war is still thriving around us but we are not always directly aware of it, even when we see its brutal consequences: as the event’s programme stated, “The 21st century appears to already have equalled previous centuries for death, displacement, terrorism, political misjudgement and religious conflict” and we as historical witnesses should keep a better pace with it.
Overall, meant to be a travel in war poetry, this reunion of thoughts successfully caught the attention of the audience by mentioning contemporary and modern issues and by involving them in a friendly, accessible musical environment.
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