Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’

by Dean Julius

War Reporter
by Dan O’Brian
Hanging Loose Press, $18 paperback

Dan O’Brien’s first poetry collection, War Reporter, is unabashedly evocative and wholly candid about its subject matter. It is the winner of the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh prize awarded by The Poetry Trust and published by Hanging Loose Press. The collection is a poetic sequence based around correspondences between the poet and Paul Watson—a war reporter and photographer—“best known, perhaps, for his 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the body of an American soldier dragged from the wreck of a Black Hawk through the streets of Mogadishu,” as O’Brien says in his introduction to the book. But these poems do much more than relay correspondence and develop personae; they confront the very real, disturbing atrocities of modern war in ways that are brutal and haunting, but also tragic and beautiful. “I’ve been haunted / so now I will haunt you” reads the suicide note of fellow prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter, in the poem “The War Reporter Paul Watson on Winning the Pulitzer Prize.” These lingering ghosts are not only true of Paul Watson’s experience after taking his now famous photograph; they are also true of Carter’s and other war reporters experiences, and true of the reader’s experience having read O’Brien’s collection. The poet describes it best, I think, speaking of his book to The Poetry Trust, when he says he “[attempts] to look as clearly as I can at the horror we exact upon each other, to not turn away from that truth . . . to find solace, friendship, even art in the act of witnessing each other’s traumas.” The problem is learning how to cope with the aftermath of witnessing these traumas. The poems in this collection are, at times, gruesome, wounding, even morbidly comical and I do not mean this as a slight. There are things here that cannot be unseen—public castration, lynching, sodomy—and it is all “dirty business, but then war / always is.” These poems beg the reader to question, continuously and rightfully so, their role as viewer and voyeur, the role of the reporter and the poet, and they refuse to shy away from those atrocities that even the reporter does “not want the world / to see.” But for all of their disturbing subject matter, O’Brien’s poems find a hard lyricism of their own, a staccato rhythm that beat much like the gunfire and violence that pervade the collection’s landscapes. What emerges from the rubble, the aftermath, is a book not only powerfully affecting, heartbreaking and elegiac, but profoundly “beautiful. It’s Beautiful.”

DEAN JULIUS, a native of the Mississippi Delta, holds an MFA from the Creative Writing Program at UNC Greensboro and is former Poetry Editor of The Greensboro Review. He received his BA in English from the University of Mississippi and a Masters of Education in English from Delta State University. His poems, reviews, and other work have appeared or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Stream, storySouth, Confidante, and Gently Read Literature.