Poem of the Week | January 19, 2015

This week we offer a poem by Dan O’Brien from our new winter issue 37.4. Dan O’Brien is a poet and playwright living in Los Angeles. His War Reporter (CB Editions, London; Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, 2013) won the Fenton Aldeburgh Prize for a first collection of poetry and was shortlisted for the Forward First Collection Prize; his second collection, Scarsdale, was published by CB Editions in 2014, and is forthcoming from Measure Press in the US. His play The Body of an American won the Horton Foote Prize and the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, and had its European premiere in London in 2014. For another poem in the ongoing War Reporter series he recently won the 2014 Troubabour International Poetry Competition.
Author’s note:

Dan O’Brien: A photograph inspired the poem, taken over a decade ago in Dai Chopan, a remote village in Zabol province in southeastern Afghanistan, by war reporter Paul Watson. I asked him a few days ago if he’d care to write something for Missouri Review—about his photograph, not my poem (see below). Paul, whom I consider a good friend, never reads what I write, and I’m grateful for that.
I knew some of the context when I wrote this poem, but I focused mostly on what Paul would call, in photographer’s terms, “the good shot,” the moment being captured, trying to inhabit it, to feel empathy and maybe something like the meaning of it. Despite our different approaches, I think Paul and I are on the same page here.
I’ve always written about cycles of abuse and violence, and by working with Paul I’ve been able to do so in less domestic, more political terms—though domestic and political are often difficult to distinguish, especially in this photo.
Paul Watson: I spent a night and the better part of the day in Dai Chopan, despite the risk of insurgents kidnapping or killing me, to investigate the claims that an Afghan militia supporting US troops looted and tortured at will.
It was clear to me that Afghan claims were true: US forces stood by while their Afghan “guides” committed war crimes.
It wouldn’t take much effort to show US troops had command and control responsibility for what their Afghan allies did in Dai Chopan, which means Americans could be prosecuted for complicity in those crimes.
I doubt that will ever happen. And I’m certain Dai Chopan was not an isolated incident.
So I’m as angry today at the memory as I was the day I photographed that terrified boy watching a tortured man slowly die after US forces pulled out of the village at dawn.
That was in 2003.
I wouldn’t be surprised if that boy has picked up a gun and joined the fight by now.
The cycle of war is self-perpetuating.
I hope people can see that truth in the image.

[Paul Watson, Canada’s only Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a multimedia foreign reporter who also covers the Arctic. Watson has also won four National Newspaper Awards and one Canadian Association of Journalists award with the Toronto Star.]

The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Son of the Tortured


She looks like a woman at first. A man
the next moment. A young father. Fetal
on the floral pallet, with another
floral bed beneath. Different flowers. Rug
seeded with ash. Head bound up and knotted
as if garlanded with ivy. To blot
out the memory, the wound. Throbbing upon
a turgid pillow, floral also. Spine
to a coral wall that reminds me of
the holy sepulcher. An empty bowl
in a niche, a plastic water bottle
half full of more swallows of tea. Could be
medicine. The torture victim’s mute. Closed
eyes on an open fist, his own, cradling
his slack cheek. Collapsing, reviving. Sheets
swallow what’s left of him, as if he’s lost
his body. He breathes, we breathe. A boy sits
with muddy Wellies crossed. Kandahari
cap, geometric, mirror flecks flashing
with his sneaking gaze, as he ascertains
not my camera but his father feigning
endless sleep. Flies tracing his sleeve. Our boy
decides. The doorway behind him plummets
deeper into evening.