Summary: “Offering truth, knowing it won’t be believed,” – Cassandra, by Patrick Howse
Seamus Heaney once observed that a line of writing could be like a piece of wool, or a piece of wire.
Shadow Cast by Mountains, a book by the Irish (and British) journalist Patrick Howse, is a work of poetry constructed of lines like the barbed wire from the conflicts and battlefields that he reported for years.
There is a chronological structure to the book, echoing Howse’s life before and after Iraq. So alongside his reflections on the horror of violence, there are the more hopeful, fearful moments of his partner’s pregnancy and the birth of a daughter. Within all of that expanse of ordinary and extraordinary life, Howse reflects upon history, particularly the legacy of the First and Second World Wars and the curse of war-nostaligia wholly divorced from its visceral, piteous realities.
Again and again Howse presents the readers with arresting thoughts and images: reflecting on a young First World War combatant he notes, ”Soon he was nothing more/ Than just another/ Claggy lump of Belgium.” Or on a visit to a Parisian museum of that same war, “Once poets crouched in trenches/ Winced at shell-bursts, and/ watched men’s faces/ As they died in agony. … Now they watch television…”
The making of television was, of course, Howse job: “Hour after hour I find/ New ways to say/ The soldier’s head/ Was hacked off.”
Like all of the finest war poetry Howse can be shocking in his stark depictions of the pity of war. His poem, Responsibility, for example, I found particularly unsettling:
Imagine directing a cameraman in the pools of
Blood and urine left by a suicide bomber…
Think of telling him later that there
Just weren’t enough dead
To interest the teatime news
And listening as he describes
A baby smeared over a pavement
And splashed on a wall…
Later, in an echo of this poem, Howse visits the Jewish Museum in Munich: “A girl asks/ ‘Even the children?’”
This line rather sums up the reality of war that “the red-cross wrapped” future cannon-fodder of Brexitism simply do not understand. Instead they worship an imperial past that they have learned only from old movies, forever ignorant, as Howse notes, that, “England is a German word”, its very being forever bound up with the rest of Europe.
Shadow Cast by Mountains is a fine work of poetry, some of it exceptional. It is an important riposte to the tendency of those who have never seen the face of war to glorify it. And, with its reflections on love and family life, it is a reminder that these most mundane of joys are the most important cause of hope for our common European homeland.