Poem of the Week | August 27, 2013

This week we are delighted to feature “The War Reporter Paul Watson Gives the Poet Some Advice” by Dan O’Brien. This poem appears in our current issue TMR 36.2. O’Brien’s debut collection of poetry War Reporter is forthcoming in September from Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn and CB Editions in London. His play about Watson entitled The Body of an American is the recipient of the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History, and premiered at Portland Center Stage in 2012. His opera Theotokia / The War Reporter premiered at Stanford University in April. Originally from New York, O’Brien lives in Los Angeles.

Author’s note:

Paul Watson has been a war reporter for over two decades. He is best known, perhaps, for his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreck of a Blackhawk through the streets of Mogadishu. Over the last several years Paul has generously shared his work with me—audio and video recordings, transcripts of interviews, and of course his journalism—as I’ve written a play, an opera, and this collection of poems, War Reporter.

In 2006 my birth family disintegrated for bewildering, mysterious reasons, around the same time that I discovered Paul’s work. The discovery didn’t feel like a coincidence. Paul once emailed me something I’ll paraphrase: “Do you know that quote of Camus’ where he says he’s solved the mystery of where war lives? It lives in each of us. In the loneliness and humiliation we all feel. If we can solve that conflict within ourselves then maybe we’ll be able to rid the world of war.” Paul’s writing, and mine in response, are as much about the constantly roving holocaust of modern warfare as the ‘small,’ private, internal wars all of us fight every day.

‘If you want to explore what it really means to be human,’ Paul emailed me just last night from Toronto, after several weeks in Syria, ‘war is the place to do it. Existence is reduced to its most basic. Life and death. Love and hate. Laughter is more liberating, hatreds more extreme. You’re never so alive as when you go to the edge of death and step back—just in time. That’s why combat journalists who linger too long in war realize it’s the only place they belong.’ In a small way I now understand the attraction, or perhaps the responsibility, of war, as it’s been so difficult for me to leave the psychic war zone of these poems behind.


The War Reporter Paul Watson Gives the Poet Some Advice

Hey, that thing you said about your family
locking the door behind you. Your father
howling, There are things you do not know! Cue
the slapstick of their retriever retching
on your shoes. Into the spongiform lawn.
Your brothers sped to their dreams. The stabbing
finger summoning poor old Lowell tumbling
his father through their heirloom clock. I knocked
you down. Or could’ve, anyway. Bowing
to the imaginary coronary. And how
you look just like his brother—I can’t stop
thinking about all that! I remember
listening on the stairs. Grandma’s depression
is sunlight in the voile. Mother’s pleading
with God in the rafters. I know the man
isn’t Him. Is he me? My uncle’s face
bearded in the morning is a blessing
from a schizophrenic draft-dodger to
an unknown minor poet. He gives me
a children’s Bible. No, he’s giving you
something else. What’s he given us before
he opens that locked door? Why don’t you start
asking some questions, Dan? That’s what I’d do
if I were you.