“Poetry is news…” &c.

Two decades back, in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, when the United States and its allies were rattling their sabres mobilizing to invade Afghanistan, many were critical of such an ill-advised adventure, including myself. I cast around for a way to articulate this critical unease, happening, finally, on a column from The Globe and Mail (as described below) that provided the material and impetus to compose a work of verbal art (a “poem” or, in this case, more properly, a “text”) that answered my need.

As I wrote in way of preface at the time:

Saturday 22 September 2001 The Globe and Mail published an essay article by John Barber ‘Wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains’ (F4). Despite its critical stance toward the then impending invasion, the terms of its discourse were so pedestrian my frustrated and bored eye wandered across its six columns. The article read thus, against the grain, oracularly clear, and the experience of that reading what I want to communicate. The sense it made to me leaves its trace in minor editorialisations (where the text has been stepped on). This vision into the essence of our imagination of Afghanistan is as forbidding as the country itself: a land of glacierous and desert mountains and sandstorms and tire-melting heat that swallows whole armies. “Cut the word lines and the future leaks through.” Here, English speaks this vision: in dead or obscure words, new compounds and coinages. Syntactically, at root (or so Norman O. Brown told John Cage) the arrangement of Alexander’s soldiers in a phalanx (the Great, too, stopped in Afghanistan), the language has been demilitarized.

Some stanzas of the resulting poem, Seventh Column, were published in The Capilano Review, in an issue devoted to poetic responses to 9/11. The entire poem was issued in a very limited edition, hand-stitched chapbook, long since sold out. On the occasion of the withdrawal of western forces from Afghanistan, the time seemed ripe to share the poem in its entirety, readable in the PDF, below.

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