Book review: Poems of experience and war

Peacekeeper by Michael J Whelan (Doire Press)

Michael J Whelan serving in Kosovo in 2001 with the Irish Defence Forces.

Michael J Whelan serving in Kosovo in 2001 with the Irish Defence Forces.

IT IS fashionable for reviewers, of the perpetually disappointed variety, to lodge Basil Fawlty style complaints against a poet’s first published collection.

The poet in question, we are typically told, has the occasional nice turn of phrase, but does not have anything to write about because s/he has little of experience of life, a subject on which the disappointed reviewer is unfortunately something of an expert.

There are over indulged newbie poets who, as of yet, amount to not much more than a stunning haircut and professionally taken publicity photo. Generally, though, such complaints tend to be grapes of the vinegary variety. It will be interesting to see what reaction Michael J Whelan’s debut book of poems, Peacekeeper, published by Doire Press, gets from said literary gatekeepers.

Whelan may be a new poet but, having joined the Irish Defence Forces in 1990 and served as a peacekeeper in Lebanon and Kosovo, he is not exactly young. He has had life experiences from which most poetry reviewers would run screaming. Crucially these experiences are the often bloody meat of this quite exceptional debut. Whelan is no dabbler, but a war poet in the tradition of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Keith Douglas.

The poems here are products of direct experience – part one covering his time in South Lebanon, part two his stint with the Peace-Enforcement mission in Kosovo. There are some breathtaking lines, as in ‘The Rain Has Come’: “The rain has come/to wash away the footprints of the killers.” The poem finishes with the image of “a rusting bullet casing/exposed like a white bone on the deepening red mud.”

The blood which has reddened the mud is, as is hardly ever the case in poems these days, more real than metaphorical. From the first poem ‘Blue Helmets’, Whelan approaches his subject in the unromantic way soldier poets nearly always do: “We were issued our blue helmets/and flak-jackets there, mine were/in really bad shape, like they had been/through the wars.”

His tribute to his fellow Irish soldiers who died on service in Lebanon – “where the cedar grows forever/and remembers everything” – is a poem of stunning beauty. A number of his poems bring home the way that, even when the war is over, and the papers of record around the world trumpet the advent of peace, it is often not really over at all. One poem opens: “The war is long over but it is not ended." Another, ‘Inshalla’, tells us “The war is over in the South, again.”

Whelan is a poet of experience rather than innocence. Many have experiences. Very few have the talent he does for finding exactly the words to force the reader to imagine him/herself struggling across those bloodstained landscapes in Whelan’s own war-weary boots.

Kevin Whelan will read at the Over The Edge Writers’ Gathering at The Kitchen, Galway City Museum, on Thursday June 30 at 8pm. The other readers are Niamh Boyce, Paul Duffy, Susan Millar DuMars, and William Wall. Admission is free.

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