Poem of the Week | September 04, 2012

This week we’re featuring a poem from our brand-new newspaper-man summer issue, 35.2. Dan O’Brien’s poetry and fiction have appeared in 32 Poems, Alaska Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, and elsewhere. His play about war reporter Paul Watson, The Body of an American, is the winner of the 2011 L. Arnold Weissberger Award and will premiere at Portland Center Stage in 2012. He holds a B.A. in English & Theatre from Middlebury College, and a Master of Fine Arts in Playwriting & Fiction from Brown University. Dan has served as a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, the inaugural Djerassi Fellow in Playwriting at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and twice as the Tennessee Williams Playwright-in-residence at Sewanee. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, writer and actor Jessica St. Clair.

Author’s Note:

These poems come from a collection called, not surprisingly, The War Reporter. Five years ago I began corresponding with Paul Watson, a journalist most well-known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a fallen American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu in 1993. When Paul took that picture he claims he heard the dead man speak to him: “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The purpose of my work with Paul has been to try to use poetry to bridge the distance between an “average” person like myself, and someone who has witnessed some of the signal atrocities of our era, in places as far-flung as Angola, Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan (the list goes on). The poems are derived from his memoir, Where War Lives, his journalism, recordings and transcripts he has shared with me, and most valuably our emails and conversations. Some of these poems take place in Ulukhaktok in the Canadian High Arctic, where I visited Paul there in the winter of 2010 while he was enjoying a brief respite from war reporting, covering the “Arctic and Aboriginal Beat” for the Toronto Star. He’s now based mainly in Kandahar. Our peculiar collaboration has also produced a play, The Body of an American, but after finishing the play I found I couldn’t let his story go. In a very personal way, his voice continues to haunt me.

The Poet and the War Reporter Paul Watson Go For a Sled Ride


Outside, the Inuit hunter’s beating
their muzzles with a stick. All tangled up
in frozen cord howling. A savage race
of idiot wolves. I sit like a raja
on a blue plastic tarp, my rubber boots
splayed above the ice above the sea with
the hunter’s mouth behind my ear barking,
Gee! Gee! Zaw! The war reporter’s clinging
to the skidoo driver’s sides, red tail lights
swerving in a whorl of snow. You feel it
in your spine, your neck, your skull, the grinding
of the rusted runners on ice crystals
like sand. Cresting invisible hillocks,
the dogs fan out to shit in streaks. We stop
where the ice runs out. The Arctic Ocean
like an undulating eternity
of inky slush a few feet off. Seal heads
popping the newborn crust, their spectral eyes
on us. My feet are numb. My tailbone is
bruised, Dan. Dan, put your weight on this anchor,
says the hunter. Wait here while I go drain
my dragon. While the war reporter shoots
the skidoo driver discussing global
warming as fat flakes hover and the dogs
are murderous. The steel anchor’s a claw
in the ice, tethered tautly to the cord
tethered to the craziest dog. One time
I was trying to put my oinikhiot
in the water? after I’d hunted me
a seal? And my foot slipped in the ocean.
It’s real dangerous, man. Real dangerous. The sled
is escaping backwards, I’m laughing like
I’m ashamed, dogs rejoicing as my boot
slips off the anchor as the anchor slips
out of the ice and suddenly I see
the world as if from above. Hey Dan—Dan
are you okay? Because the anchor’s wrapped
around my ankle and whipped me up off
my feet. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry
I almost got you killed. But Paul I was
rejoicing, rejoicing as the seals ducked
back under the new ice.