Dan O’Brien’s New Life
A Review by Joshua Jones
I’m no stranger to lamenting the failures of sequels. There’s a deep schadenfreude in calling out an author or director clumsily cashing in on a previous success, and with only so many Michael Bays in the world of poetry, when a poet writes a sequel, it’s hard to resist the opportunity to skewer it. But Dan O’Brien’s new book of poems, released this fall, both aptly and ironically named New Life, has deprived me of a good book roast.
Continuing the work of War Reporter, New Life documents the relationship between O’Brien and the war reporter Paul Watson, most famous for his photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The book begins with a poem that recalls what Watson says he heard the voice of that dead soldier tell him: “If you do this I will own you forever.” The book struggles with this notion of the dependence of the artist, who can hardly be distinguished from the reporter, on his subject, but it by no means proposes hard and fast conclusions. O’Brien tries to work through the tangled duties to human dignity like a man trying to separate a bundle of cables in his attic. For example, many of the poems tell the story of the poet and the war reporter’s unsuccessful attempts at selling their story, spiced up with “combat sex” and explosions, to Hollywood. Both feel obligated to bear witness to the violence that Watson has covered, but they worry that they succumb to the kind of war voyeurism described in “The War Reporter Paul Watson and the War Tourists” that leads a lonely divorcee to post pictures of combat zones on his Facebook. O’Brien forces us to consider our own morbid fascinations with violence and death as well as our need to remember the silenced.
Often incorporating material from emails and conversations between the poet and the war reporter, the book stands firmly in the territory of reportage while engaging the lyrical and dramatic. It challenges our ideas of what literature can do, ranging across the globe and showing us horrors and spectacles alike with photorealistic clarity. The clear images he gives us of people like the “Dictator’s Wife” who, despite her powerlessness in the face of her monster-husband, “will still be here/ tomorrow,” or Qaddafi, “self-anointed King of Kings/… raped with his own golden gun,” explore the absurdities of human power and powerlessness in ways neither poetry or journalism could on their own.
Part of the success of this book flows from the way it copes with a returning reader’s surprise when he sees a book that visually, even in the table of contents, resembles its predecessor. The first poem, “The War Reporter Paul Watson Recalls the Night Stalker” ends, “Forgive me, just understand/ I don’t want to do this. No. We have to/ do this. Yes. We have to do this until/ we don’t,” acknowledging both his own Sisyphean task of writing and Paul Watson’s “insurmountable” task of war reporting. He frames New Life with Camus’s assertion that “The realization that life is absurd cannot be an end, but only a beginning,” again reasserting poetry as a means of preserving life against the temptations of suicide and violence. The war reporter talks about the “way of letting editors know/ a story’s done: no space all caps three times/ ENDIT ENDIT ENDIT” as a way to force closure. But New Life will not allow us the false finish of newsprint, because the news keeps happening and life keeps rolling on; if we stop telling the story, we have let the absurdity of life and death defeat us.
New Life really is a worthy follow up to War Reporter, feeling in many ways like the second part of a trilogy. Readers of O’Brien’s other books will recognize the acerbic wit of lines like, “You’ve got to follow the way/ the distracted mind works. Okay. I hear/ like this circular saw in your driveway/ gnawing.” He understands the humorlessness of war as well as the nervous pressure to laugh at it; while in another poet’s work, one might see a “Ha ha ha” as a ham-fisted attempt at representing a laugh, in poems like “The War Reporter Paul Watson Knows,” it traps the reader in that awkward moment of unsure laughter. In the same way, he redeploys his characteristic short lines at the ends of several of his poems, breaking the dominantly ten-syllable lines at the end to undercut his speaker’s point. You could say O’Brien’s characteristic move is to leave a speaker trailing off, providing a constant anticipation of more needing to be said, and then saying it.
This book deserves more praise than I have room—for its courage, for its innovation, for its empathy—and other critics have and will say more. But as for me, New Life left me wanting to read more from Dan O’Brien rather than more about his book. His is the type of poetry we cannot afford to neglect or neglect to return to. The voice of that soldier claimed to own Paul Watson; in the same way these poems lay claim to O’Brien. The reader can only hope—however sadistic that hope may be—that they will never let him go.
Joshua Jones is in the last semester of his MFA at UMass Boston. His poems have appeared in The Sow's Ear Poetry Review, The Broad River Review, and Poemeleon. He and his wife Lesleigh hope to be heading south for more gradschool soon.