Sewn By Chance
It seemed impossible to escape the First World War in 2014. From public art installations through services of remembrance to countless university symposia, the centenary of World War I was marked and remembered throughout the year on an enormous scale, sometimes with imposing ceremony, and sometimes with quiet reflection. Poetry has had a unique relationship with the War, which galvanized a radically experimental literary modernism that would burn brightly and fast, and which brought us the poems of Wilfred Owen, T.E. Hulme, and Siegfried Sassoon, at the same time that it stopped many of the brightest creative careers in their tracks.
Jenny Lewis’s Taking Mesopotamia is a timely collection. The poems were inspired by her family’s history—Lewis’s father served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 4th Battalion, the South Wales Borderers in Mesopotamia-Iraq in the First World War. The book is punctuated with photographs taken in Mesopotamia by Lewis’s father. Not only does the poet search for her father throughout the collection, she also examines and dissects the origins of contemporary conflict in the Middle East, and shows how the 2003 American and British invasion of Iraq had its roots in the Mesopotamia campaign in the First World War. Taking Mesopotamia at once comes to terms with the legacy of the British First World War poets and harks back to an ancient poetic tradition: it was inspired by the Epic of Gilgamesh, which dates from 2100 BC, and this ancient inheritance is woven throughout the collection.
One of Lewis’s strengths is her formal range and dexterity, as the collection flits between vividly sensuous language (“they crushed mint and lavender / between forefinger and thumb to release the scent”) and first-hand accounts of the Iraq War, often taken from interviews. It is an impressively diverse series of poems, both in their formal dexterity and their historical range. As the collection moves between the ancient world and contemporary geopolitics, it brings different poetic modes into conversation, as carefully wrought stanzas sit alongside prose poems, lists, and typographic experiments. At the end of the book, several poems from the collection are translated into Arabic, which makes a fitting conclusion to the poem’s dialogue between British military campaigns and the lived experience of the Iraqi people.
Another of its strengths is its ability to move between vastly different modes and regions with ease and elegance. If its source material is intensely personal and local, its scope and ambition are global and world-historical. One poem, entitled “June 1916″ and subtitled “Tom”, for Lewis’s father, describes the conditions of the war—fire, fever, cholera—where “life seems arbitrary and cheap.” The next poem, “June 2010″, is taken from an interview with Adnan al-Sayegh, an Arabic poet from Iraq living in exile in London, whom Lewis interviewed in 2010. The jump is sudden and the disjunction is puzzling, and it forces us to make connections between the two, to mull over what 1916 and 2010 might have to do with one another, and to ask whether anything has really changed between then and now.
We might feel that the spate of tributes and ceremonial events over the past year has exhausted our capacity for grief, remembrance, and solemnity. But we should make space for Lewis’s new collection, which reminds us that the effects of the First World War are far from over, and that its influence can still be felt in the military campaigns that continue to this day. Lewis’s book reminds us, finally, that literature, history, and lived experience are umbilically tied, as Taking Mesopotamiashows us “how writing and life play together, sewn by chance.”
Kristin Grogan is a first year DPhil candidate in English literature at Exeter College, Oxford. Her dissertation, on the relationship of labor and poetry in modernist poetry and poetics, is supported by the Clarendon Fund.