“You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” —Alan Furst (quoted in Dirty Snow)
At last! A Canadian poet writes about this country’s involvement in the Afghan war, and does so with skill and keen insight. And cunningly timed for release during National Poetry Month. Wayman has always been a political poet, from his earliest days striving to reintegrate the presence of working people in poetry. Now he has set the national record straight, creating a poetic testament that will serve to refute the glossy official version of events that will likely be crafted for the history books.
Wayman might well have titled his 18th collection of poetry Bloody Snow but it takes little reading between the lines to make this point. To be fair, Calgary poet Richard Harrison wrote some scathing political poems on the war in Iraq in Worthy of His Fall (Wolsak & Wynn, 2005), including a brilliant remake of Shelley’s famous Ozymandias (titled Saddamandias). But Dirty Snow makes our complicity in the Afghan war its central thesis, contrasting the bombs and rocket-propelled grenades with the blissful ignorance of daily Canadian life at home. Better yet, it roots the domestic scene in our own Slocan Valley, where the poet has lived for many years. A more stark contrast could hardly have been achieved.
Wayman has seized upon the central dualism, the schism at the fractured heart of the age, the psychic split that allows us to go on pretending normalcy even as our involvement in a foreign war deepens. In Interest, the opening poem (prefaced with Furst’s quote), even though “You’re not interested in considering / the war… These dead / were interested enough in the war / once they arrived at it / to die there…” Our dysfunctional dualism is made even more apparent by alternating poems from the bloody scene in Afghanistan to the crisp, invigorating mountain landscape of the Slocan Valley, where “At Lebahdo Flats / cows graze in the morning fog / as the school bus passes.” It’s a subtle reminder: even if all Afghani children could go to school, riding a bus to get there would be fraught with lethal risk.
Not content to maintain the fiction that the suffering and dying of Afghanis and Canadian soldiers is ‘a world away,’ Wayman fuses the two in a single poem sequence, such as Mt. Gimli Pashtun. “A loss thrums in the soil here, / vibrates in the cold alpine wind. / Here the Pashtuns blown apart, or maimed / by bullets released in the name of this country / now dwell…” By transposing the carnage from Afghanistan to this snowy peak in our own backyard, the poet is reminding us that no matter how separate from the conflict we may think we are, there’s a spiritual cost we all pay for such duplicity. “Those who rule us have sent / men and women with our money / to kill to protect a corruption / struggling against another corruption…” We may think we can ignore it, disavow our complicity, but as the poem majestically concludes over the glittering snows of Mt. Gimli: “In the serenity / above treeline / a spreading stain bleaches half the sky. / To the south, amid dim cloud mounds, / are flashes of light: detonations / of an improvised / innocence.” This is pure brilliance—a masterful stroke of political art.
Though it may seem a tired comparison by now, the fact that the propaganda masters have so successfully swept the bloody spectre of Vietnam under the rug bears repeating. This Wayman does in The Ghost of Lyndon Baines Johnson Appears as Guest of Honour at a Ramp Ceremony for Three More Slain Canadian Soldiers. A funeral is an appropriate place for ghosts to haunt, especially for those brutally cut from life. Wayman sees not only the fabric of the present rent by a hypocritical war but the curtain separating us from the past. He reprises President Johnson’s words from 1965 that “we don’t want American boys to do the fighting that Asian boys should do,” but the poet is too complex a thinker to paint any of the combatants in righteous terms. Another voice appears out of the air at the funeral to warn that, “if you stop when Afghan police order stop, / they rob you. If you don’t halt, / they kill you.” And yet a third voice is heard piping across the veil that separates the dead from the living, a Pashtun fighter reciting the Muslim hard-liners’ view that “girls are not to be educated, uh that such an act / is contrary to the holy word…” The ultimate result of all this fundamentalist brainwashing, from whatever side, is that, along with the bodies of dead soldiers, Canada itself is pitched spiritually “into the yawning dark.”
The war metaphor carries on throughout Dirty Snow, appropriately. In the section My Wounds, Wayman writes elegies to loved ones and deceased members of the Slocan Valley community. Once again the poet introduces each poem with an epigraph that provides some insight into why he chose to include the piece. These take the place of a Foreword or Introduction, the writing of which seems to have been discouraged in poetry collections over the years. Yet Wayman’s epigraphs often provide fascinating details or perspectives that add to, rather than take away from, the poems. For example, prefacing the poem Snow Right to the Water, he notes: “Even in peacetime, death shadows our lives. One of the devastating events that happens to us all in the normal course of life is the loss of a parent, then the other. I remember reading the see-sawing statistics from Afghanistan on which side killed the most civilians in a given month: the enemy, or ourselves. I doubt it was a comfort to any individual to think that at least their mother or father was shot or blown up by the forces of truth, justice and light…”
By using these epigraphs to tie back into the Afghan war theme, Wayman never lets us off the hook, even when the poems veer into more personal or abstract concerns. It’s the exact opposite of what the corporate media does—fracturing our attention span precisely so that we DON’T call our leaders on the carpet for murdering in our name. In this, Wayman is connecting to an ancient tradition in poetry alluded to by the late Irving Layton, who called poets “prophets and the sons of prophets” (in his sometimes sexist way, forgetting of course the other half of that equation). Prophets not in the sense of foretelling the future but like the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, stinging the collective conscience, bearing witness that all is not as it should be in the Promised Land. It’s not easy, it’s not pretty, but someone has to do it. And if readers can’t take it, too bad. As Layton said, poets aren’t entertainers; if you want entertainment, turn on CNN or the Disney channel.
But if you pick up that remote you’ll be missing the sheer scope and grandeur that poetry brings to our lives, even when it forces us to confront our own shadow. And confronting our collective shadow may just prevent us from being swallowed up by it:
A shrill wail at these losses, this pain
—a sobbing from far within the earth
Tears ascend through soil
As they flood forth
they blaze into flame
and are buoyed away by air
like particulates of ash
among these mountains
(Wasps and the Fires, III)