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Seeds of BulletsThe poetry of  anti-war resistance – from Wilfred Owen to Adnan al-Sayegh

Review by Peter Arkell

Adnan al-Sayegh, a leading Iraqi poet living in exile in London, was surprised when he came across a thesis on the Internet, comparing him to Wilfred Owen whose poetry about the horrors of the First World War had done so much to bring the agony of the soldiers and the futility of that war to the public.

Al-Sayegh had long identified with the British anti-war poet — they had both fought, after all, in wars that were similar in many respects. Both the First World War and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, required the soldiers to live in trenches constantly in danger from artillery, sniper fire and gas, and repeatedly being ordered to mount futile attacks over the top.

The thesis, originally written as part of her master’s degree at Baghdad University, in English, by Sura Hussein Mohammed Ali,  has now been developed and published as a book, Seeds of Bullet:  A psychological study of war poems by Wilfred Owen and Adnan al-Sayegh.

Adnan al-Sayegh Wilfred Owen
Adnan al-Sayegh and Wilfred Owen in their uniforms

The comparison of the two poets is apt and entirely appropriate. Both poets were infantrymen in wars they came to see as utterly immoral and pointless. They both became the most famous anti-war poets of their respective countries, and as the book makes clear, they both turned to the writing of poetry as the only way to survive and transcend the grisly realities of the war front.

They both felt they had a duty to call out the unbelievable misery and fear of the ordinary soldiers and the lasting psychological damage they endured. This was their mission, their life’s purpose, and through this, both found the strength to continue. And as Sura points out they both rejected “almost all concepts of heroism, glory and honour”.

Extracts of poems by Adnan al-Sayegh
From A Bullet

Swaying, the nightingale is busy singing tunefully,
A shot
A corpse...
The branch stands still...trembling,
For a moment,
Then falls motionless.
All the nightingales
Are put to silence in the forest.

From Ghosts
I always heard their strange voices,
Jargonise my name.
Then I heard their iron feet
Going upstairs;
Then, with their fists,
They knock on the door.
Then their guns` muzzles
Were targeted at my temple.
I, then, saw my own corpse
Behind the roar of their cars` engines.
Then I heard the clamour
Of those who huddle around me,
“Where do they come from?”
But they did not come
They left the scene open
As wide as the deferred bullet.

From A Preliminary Prologue
A Helmet fell down...
Then another...
Then another...
Then another...
I  looked at my postponed death..
Coldly staring at me
It took off its helmet...
And slept.

For al-Sayegh the coercive backdrop that required all artists in Iraq to toe the patriotic line, praise the great leader Saddam Hussein and glorify the 1980-88 war against Iran presented huge problems. Up to two million people were killled in a conflict fought with the old-fashioned barbarity of the First World War 65 years earlier. 

But to describe the truth about the war, as experienced by the ordinary soldier, meant putting your life on the line. Many poets and writers in Iraq at the time, however unhappily, supported the propaganda line of the regime, but the few who consciously opposed the war refused to place their work at the disposal of the authorities. Their poems aimed at rejecting “all war tragedies”. They condemned the meaningless of war and refused to praise the architects of it, or the generals or the war profiteers.

“The mental terror and suppression exercised by the regime stimulated them to discover more effective ways of resisting and criticising the mechanisms of war,” Sura writes. From this necessity, they developed new forms of “covert anti-war or resistance poetry, using elliptical phrases, irony, satire, parody and other forms of disguise.

 “Most Iraqi intellectuals were threatened with execution because of what they had written,” Sura later said in an interview. “Some were lucky enough to survive and flee, others were not. Some of those who stayed behind paid for their words with their own life. Freedom of expression was forbidden to the extent of losing one’s life.”

Al-Sayegh spent seven years at the front after being conscripted. At one point, he was charged with possessing banned literature and locked up in a stable for two years, where he found it almost impossible to write. After the war he sought exile, first in Jordan, then in Beirut, but he felt still threatened by the agents of the Iraqi state. He was finally given asylum in Sweden and then in London.

The author writes:  “In a fine commentary that threw light on the challenges war poets faced, Adnan al-Sayegh wondered: `How can freedom be snatched from the claws of the dictator? How can you go on in your life if your creativity is under threat amid minefields, barbed wire, guards and contrabands?’”

Even after the  war, Sura writes, “nothing changed except the nature of fear which became more pervasive and more ruthless. Though far away from the actual and metaphorical minefields in time and space, the nightmares of war and oppression continued to haunt al-Sayegh.”

Al-Sayegh himself described this never-ending fear thus: “Though far away in time, this gruesome grip of fear still robs me of sleep. Its shadow loomed large on most of my life. I always imagine that THEY are there, lurking behind every window, curtain, and comma, watching every step in the process of writing poetry or walking in the sidewalks of life.”

He compared war to a thief:  

“Had already stolen ten years of my life-time; from my bedroom of dreams, war had stolen my bed, my library, my kids’ loud laughter, my little radio and my friends’ letters. The war left me like a ruined city on a distorted map … with poetry we heal the wounds and wipe the tears. Like music and painting, poetry makes our suffering more valuable, our life more meaningful and our tears more flavoured.“

This fear is evident in his poetry with the constant juxtaposition of images of beauty, peace and love alongside jarring images of war and death, a technique to shock that he shared with Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est
(It is sweet and right to die for your country)
by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares, we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time:
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
And flound`ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face.
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin:
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old lie; Dulce at Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

As for Owen there were no such constraints. He could write freely. It was the strength of his ever-growing hatred of the war that turned him into the most powerful anti-war poet of his generation. He was invalided out of the front lines with shell shock in 1917, but volunteered to return after treatment in July 1918. His fellow anti-war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, had been shot and wounded in the head. They were both treated at the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh where new methods of treating the psychological traumas of war were pioneered.

The two poets became friends. “Under Sassoon’s influence,” Sura writes, “Owen began to write war poetry that revealed the true viciousness of the battlefield … he now made a transition from a disturbed soldier into a coherent poetic voice.” He learned to bring his repressed feelings of horror to the surface and write about them.  Owen’s incomparable talent as a poet had found its subject.

Owen felt that someone had to give a voice to the insupportable suffering of the soldiers. Sassoon was not well enough to be released from treatment, so Owen made the decision to return to the front against  the strong advice of Sassoon and others. “I do so because I have my duty to perform towards War,” he stated.  He was shot and killed a few days before the end of the war in November 1918 while crossing a canal. Much of his most famous poetry was written in those last few months of his life.

Bringing together these two soldier-poets from different times, countries and wars has resulted in a fascinating study not only of the psychological traumas that were common to both (which they shared with millions of other ordinary soldiers), but of the way in which both poets felt that writing poetry was the only way they could survive the war. They both made it their primary purpose, to tell the world of the brutality of war and the pity of it from the point of view of the soldiers who had to do the fighting.

Adnan al-Sayegh’s reputation in the Arab world continues to grow steadily. Eleven books of his poetry have so far been published and his work has been translated into eleven languages. “Unlike some exiles who dwell on the past,” Corinna Lotz writes in an introduction to the book, “Adnan al-Sayegh projects a vision of democracy, peace and contemporary Iraqi culture. He champions the rights of women and denounces every form of dictatorship, especially those waged in the name of religion ... he has become an indefatigable ambassador for Iraqi culture and for a resurgent Iraq.”

18 October 2016

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