Poems, Bombs, and the Road to Baghdad By Matthew Doherty is Poetry Magazine‘s December Prose Feature and boy is it well worth a read.
Doherty leads us through his time as a convoy driver in Iraq and his search for the poetry of the moment, for understanding of what is happening and what he is doing there and for his epiphany of what danger means to his work:
But my mind is often free to roam, and one of the subjects of these explorations is poetry—Iraqi poetry; my own; how poetry informs my reading of Iraq, and how Iraq affects my conceptions of what poetry can do.
Sometimes defensive about why he would be doing such a job:
I got here in March. I brought Walden with me. My project here is Thoreauvian, in its way, even though Thoreau, with his well-wrought disgust for war, would probably kill me for saying so. But surely he would concede that it’s an end run around the snares of convention, and that life’s essential facts are rather easily fronted here. Thoreau traveled around the world in his cabin, in books and notebooks and imagination; I took the easy way and got on a plane, and used books to transport me back home or to help illuminate the world that I have put in front of me. There’s work to do here, and it has its demands, its drawbacks. But even Thoreau had to work odd jobs to get the money for his cabin. My truck cost me nothing. Now this is my odd job, and my cabin at the same time.
Doherty is also nothing short of honest in his approach to making his observations into poetry:
But I couldn’t do anything with these things. I could not make anything “well finished” out of them. They were all new. I couldn’t move them from their places. That moonlit water couldn’t be churning behind a ferry; it had to stay where it was (or go where it was going). And a poem about the exact circumstances of the poem’s material would be impossible, or at least boring. Something would have to change in the process, and it seemed to me that to poeticize this actual world would be a reckless thing to do while I’m still here. Poems transform, they control the world in a way, give the poet dominion over everything. I think that part of Rilke’s advice—to love the world’s terrors (if the world has any) because they are our terrors—is the implication that they are ours, poets’ especially, to transform and use. To invoke that privilege now, in this place, is to risk hearing Iraq say, in any of a million ways, “Transform this, motherfucker.”
Ultimately, though, Doherty seeks to justify, perhaps to himself, why he would take such a risk for poetry (or for the money so that he could have more time to write?):
Maybe this is what Rilke was getting at, about works of art springing from danger—that the risks of writing lose some of their power to disable. I hope he’s right, about the decency that experience can generate. And I hope one doesn’t need to go “to the very end of an experience” to get some of it. We don’t go all that far in our trucks. And I’ve gone about as far as I care to go.
found the link to this essay on Arts & Letters Daily