Jenny Lewis: Taking Mesopotamia (Oxford Poets/ Carcanet, March 2014)
Review by Eddy Bonte
Taking Mesopotamia is one of the most elaborate and yet one of the most accessible books of poetry I’ve come across and it radiates a clear, humanist message from beginning to end. The question that dominates it is ‘how to express the horror and disbelief we feel as the wars and conflicts go on and on, a century after the war that was supposed to end all wars?’ The answer, for Jenny Lewis, was Taking Mesopotamia, a collection of poems and other texts that needed different types of speech and voices to tackle the complex subject matter and to remove all doubt regarding its objectives. To understand the book fully one must remember that Mesopotamia is now called Iraq and that British troops fought there on two major occasions: the Mesopotamian campaign of 1914-1918 and the 2003-2011 invasion of Iraq as led by the USA. The day after war was declared in 1914, British and Indian troops landed in Mesopotamia to protect the oil pipeline. This conflict is highly relevant to the poet, since her father, T.C. Lewis, participated in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War I as a Second Lieutenant of the 4th Battalion of the South Wales Borderers. In fact, this book started with the author’s quest for her father and the family’s Welsh roots; she was only a few months old when her father died in 1944 and has always felt the loss of not knowing him. The invasion of Iraq is equally significant to the writer. Three years ago, she started a literary partnership that continues till the present day with Adnan Al-Sayegh, a poet from Iraq who fled his country and now lives in exile in the UK. With one war relating to a lost father who left his home to fight in Mesopotamia and another war involving a new friend who fled Iraq to find peace in the poet’s and her father’s homeland, the theme of this book almost imposed itself, together with all its parallels, contradictions and cross-references.
Let us have a closer look at the various types of speech and voices. The book opens and closes with free verse poems by Jenny Lewis, which is less obvious than it sounds. The opening poem, ‘Swimmer’, is dedicated to Adnan Al-Sayegh and, of course, refers to his exile. Lewis unexpectedly smuggles her father’s Welsh workingman’s background into the last few lines. The following poem, ‘Mine’, is an eye-opener: it describes the slavery of the Welsh coal-miners while their sons are being killed and wounded a in far-off land that produces a new type energy – oil – that will eventually destroy their livelihoods (and their habitats) in the decades to come. By mixing early twentieth century Wales and early twenty-first century Iraq, all themes and all participants are present from the onset. In contrast, the last few poems speak of despair and fate. The repetition of ‘always’ in ‘Now as Then’ (p. 78) indicates that the suffering and injustice continue. Yet, in the last poem, there is a meagre hope as the simple ‘sounds of life’ seem to have survived and can be heard again: crickets, shepherd’s pipes and goat bells. More than that, these basic ‘sounds of life’, will be heard again ‘as long as water continues to flow’ (‘Epilogue’, p. 79). The second type of speech is represented by twelve pairs of prose poems – a more factual approach which gives a voice to those who suffered from the war directly – as if to say that pure poetry and lyrical verse wouldn’t suit their situation. Twelve of these prose poems are based on war diaries found in the archives of the South Wales Borderers. Although these diaries are written by officers they also exhibit the suffering of the common soldier (described as Other Ranks or ‘O.R.) who participated in ‘one of the most ill-fated, underfunded campaigns in British military history’. This type of speech allows the poet to imagine her father’s voice, since Second Lieutenant T.C. Lewis didn’t keep a diary, preferring to take pictures instead. Some of these pictures are published here for the first time, but they are not used to illustrate texts, nor do any texts accompany the pictures. Twelve matching texts of this genre are based on the recent Iraq war and hand the microphone to refugees and ex-soldiers, Muslims and Christians, women and children. These texts face each other across the page, making the parallels even more obvious. Thus, ‘May 1916’ based on Lieutenant Colonel Kitchen’s diary, faces the plain witness statement by former British army mechanic Georgia Watts in ‘May 2010’ (pp. 32-3) – both treating the subject of mechanics. Similarly, ‘April 1916’ and ‘April 2010’, are about the marshes, floods and the wetlands – shelter and a living for some, death and threat for others (pp. 26-7).Let there be no misunderstanding about the ‘voices’ concerned: both soldiers and civilians are victims of war. The very idea of using the word ‘regatta’ to describe hungry and exhausted soldiers in bellums (small river boats) with only short reeds for cover against enemy fire is appalling and shows how inept leaders such as General Townshend quite callously used their troops as cannon fodder.
It seems that the writer considered the diary entries and statements to be too literary, to close to beauty and thus too far removed from the naked truth to be able to convey the core of the message: war is horrifying. She decided to use the language of the warriors themselves and to introduce the most down-to-earth type of speech available: the technical language of Administration and Bureaucracy as expressed in manuals, rules and regulations – including an MOD pamphlet published in 1914. When I attended a reading by the poet for an audience of pacifists, these ‘Hints for the new recruit’ met with laughter. When facts are beyond belief, laughter is a plausible way out. When I read these ‘hints’ by myself afterwards, I found them revolting because the authors are serious. These ‘authentic materials’ as they are called in the world of teaching and pedagogy, explain the utter madness of the military system, unveiling its alternative with no extra effort.
Another strand running through the book is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Jenny Lewis has long been fascinated by this great world text and using it here is a most original idea. The poet seems to have two good reasons to do so. Firstly, ‘Gilgamesh’ is not only supposed to be the oldest piece of literature in the world, it is part of the ‘great civilizations of the Ancient Near East (…) the first to develop agriculture and the first to develop writing’. It stems from Mesopotamia – Iraq, the tragic stage of this book. Secondly, ‘Gilgamesh’ is an epic of hubris, power and domination, but also of friendship. Basically, it is about la condition humaine, stressing Man’s futility. All empires, victories, knowledge and achievements considered, what humans do is merely ‘a puff of wind’. Although this parallel indicates how little the world has changed and that vanitas vanitatum rules the globe, the author does not despair. The excerpts from Gilgamesh bring sheer literary joy to this book, but also wisdom that knows no age or location. It is the author’s ultimate effort to get her message through without any personal involvement or effort, except for having chosen this text to inspire new poems, poems that counterbalance, augment and supersede all other speeches and voices in her book.
This classification is mine alone and can be discussed. When I defined the ‘Voice’ of the Gilgamesh passages as ‘Man’, it was after much pondering. After all, the gods have their say in this story too. One or two texts do not fit the classification, like the ironic ‘Non-military Statements’ – that would make a great pacifist poster (p. 44). A few, I feel, could have ended up in a different section. ‘Hospital Barge On the Tigris’ (p. 25) and ‘The Fall of Kut 1916’ (p. 37) are probably inspired by the diaries of the South Wales Borderers. As it is, the suffering of the soldiers is now caught in two beautiful poems, rather than in prose. More voices could be added, since the writer is not only a daughter, but also mother who during the process of writing realised that ‘in another era, the young man killed and wounded could have included her own two sons’ (p. 11).
As said, the very last lines of this book are about ‘the sounds of life’ that will last as long as water flows. Forever. The poet has taken a fierce stand against abuse, violence, aggression, oppression and, very simply, against War, because at heart she is a believer. A believer in man and humanity, that’s to say a humanist. To quote Adnan al-Sayegh’s statement here: ‘Freedom is always more beautiful’. Jenny Lewis tears down many walls, but only to build new houses of liberty, equality and brotherhood, houses where joy, beauty and happiness can be shared. Being ‘a puff in the wind’, should not stop Man from living his life, far from it, he must, therefore, live it to the full. Jenny Lewis also seeks truth and clarity. In ‘Non-military Statements’ (p. 44), she cleverly and humorously exposes how the military rape language. For a writer, the abuse of language may be considered a crime. Only if we live in truth, can we look through our vanitas and be a happy puff in a wondrous wind.