This collaboration between a haunted war photographer and a poet is a masterpiece of truthfulness and feeling
This book, which has just been awarded the Fenton Aldeburgh prize for best first collection, is the result of a collaboration between Canadian war reporter Paul Watson, who won the Pulitzer prize in 1993 for his photograph of a dead US airman being dragged, mutilated, through the streets of Mogadishu, and American poet and playwright Dan O'Brien. Its origins lie in a play O'Brien wrote called The Body of an American, in which two characters, Paul Watson and Dan O'Brien, explore Watson's haunting by the airman he has photographed. That haunting is the theme of this book, too, and stands for all the hauntings of war. In the first poem, "The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice", we are taken brutally and yet with a powerful interiority to the centre of the dilemma:
And I hear a voice
both in my head and out. If you do this,
I will own you forever. I'm sorry
but I have to. If you do this, I will
own you. I'm sorry, I'm not trying to
desecrate your memory. If you do this
I will own you forever. I took his
picture. While they were beating his body
The shift from being owned to owning is done so starkly that we almost fail to notice the subtlety of the pivot on which the book turns: a one-man dialogue that is also a two-man monologue. What is remarkable about the way O'Brien (and Watson, whose notes and journals O'Brien uses) handles the material is the immediacy and viscerality of it all, even though the book is also about the various removes at which war is experienced: the soldier, the reporter, the image, the reality, the witness and the actor.
War Reporter is written throughout in these short lines and staccato sentences, the humour as well as the seriousness deadpan, with the majority of poem titles beginning "The War Reporter Paul Watson …". There's a relentlessness that masterfully navigates between numbness and pain, and a disturbing correlation between the click of the shutter and the pull of the trigger. The great second world war poet Keith Douglas comes to mind – "Now in my dial of glass appears the soldier who is going to die" ("How to Kill"). The technology of warfare, with aerial bombings, drones and missiles, is never less murderous for being conducted at a distance, and the reporter and poet, too, are caught between objectivity (the French for camera lens is objectif) and involvement. As in Douglas, there is pity, but it is weathered and brutalised and riven with guilt; Watson, through O'Brien, understands the dangerous pull, but also perhaps the necessity, of desensitisation. In "The War Reporter Paul Watson Imagines His Father", the photographer recalls holding his father's gun and imagining "I was the man who pulled the trigger like/ I take my pictures now".
In one of the most disturbing poems, "The War Reporter Paul Watson's Cold Open", a party of reporters and photographers – Watson, a "sexy photographer" and a French "war junkie" – are attacked in Afghanistan. A grenade lands at the feet of the Frenchman:
Fumbling the door open
wide he's scissoring his boots like a danseur
in a sidelong entrechat, till the blast
severs both legs at mid-thigh.
The westerners are evacuated, but the Afghan driver (his body burned and his arm "an unearthed bone") is not: "The cherubic / commander protests he's not allowed to / bring Afghans home. So our heroes leave him / smoldering in the smoldering cab as shadows / approach like men". "That night", we read, "the reporter and the photographer / fuck like rabbits. Stoned on hash, drunk on death / choosing them." The hard factuality of the reportage dissimulates the depth of its insight: the jolt of "drunk on death" becomes the subtler and more ambiguous "drunk on death choosing them".
The final poem, "The Reporter Paul Watson is Forgiven", is written as a dialogue between Watson and the dead airman's brother:
this won't upset you too much but one thing
that still haunts me is that I heard a voice
when I took that picture, and your brother
warned me, If you do this I will own you
forever. Well how do you know David
meant something bad? He said I will own you
forever – Maybe he meant you owe him
something now. Like what?
There are no italics to designate who speaks, so it's possible that this is an internal monologue. The "haunting" may or may not be laid to rest, but the poem movingly describes both the photographer's guilt and the bravery of the bereaved, with their lives both ongoing and holed. It is an affecting conclusion, not least because, perhaps as a sort of laying to rest, it is also the first time the dead airman is named.
This is a book of doubles too: poet and photographer, photographer and airman, soldier and civilian, gunsight and lens. It is a masterpiece of truthfulness and feeling, and a completely sui generis addition not just to writing about war but to contemporary poetry. It is published by the equally sui generis CB Editions, who in their six years of existence have already contributed immeasurably to the quality and variety of poetry publishing today.
• Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is published by Seren.