The Unknown Civilian is a magic book. It has magic spread all through it. Antony Owen faces up to the atrocities of war and speaks on behalf of all who it sweeps away or has left behind. He questions the skewed morality war lets loose – as in anything goes, anything is allowed when at war – and demands that it this skewed morality is held to account. Like a very skilled lawyer he sets about questioning the culprits, bringing before us victim statements, accused statements, innocent statements – many posthumously of course – testament after testament – shocking image after shocking image – laying before us all the evidence.
The beauty of it all is Owen’s humanity and ability to get down killer line after killer line. He sums up so well often leaving you unsure of whether what you have just read is horrific or a bit of magic.
When you read this book you become a witness to all that has gone before. What you do with that is up to you. But you certainly won’t be looking at the images of war on the television and papers in future without thinking about this book.
There is a section in The Unknown Civilian called The Invisible which deals with PTSD, battle fatigue, shell shock and madness. It contains a quite stunning series of poems where Owen really shows his skill in being able to weave the effects of war into the contemporary fabric of society. In the poem The Suicide of John Doe we are in the aftermath of a Private soldier’s suicide, being taken through some of the moments that led up to that terrible event:
I wonder in those brief PayPal unions
of credit card wanks and smileys
if hotgirl97 misses you at all.
I wonder if Bob at Wickes saw the rope
as he scanned it through and thought
that ain’t pulling no tree down.
I wonder which random thing set you off,
was it Afzal in Texaco holding your tenner to the sun,
or a cherry short on a scratchcard?
This is where Owen really shines – for me he writes best when he’s writing about people – when he isolates a single person or a thing and then explores the effects that war has had on them – or them on the war. You could not choose a more heart-slaughtering, more poignant set of examples if you tried. It made me think for days afterwards as I went about my business whether there was any significance in some of the events I was a part of, or I had witnessed, that I was missing. Unfortunately, like for Private Doe, we often only get to find out the true significance when it’s too late, if ever at all.
Some of the other poems in this section, most notably Valentine’s Day for Invisible People and The Surprise Welcome Home Party, talk about the effects of post-traumatic stress, and you get this feeling that Owen knows well that not only the soldiers who are returning experience this but also that there is a kind of sympathetic PTSD that families and friends experience too – like in The Surprise Welcome Home Party where the writer is describing the potential pitfalls of throwing a party for a returning soldier:
Do not think a salmon with cucumber fins will save him…
An exhaust backfires and the haunted are returned to war…
There has to be noise and preferably a song he liked.
There has to be a window that opens.
And preferably, no fireworks.
This is again an example of what I mean by a people person. We all know that even in times of great stress and loss, humour is often the best weapon to use to defend yourself, and others, from the pain. When I say ‘we all know’, I mean people – proper people – they know – the stiff upper lipped, those who have gone through an emotional by-pass, a humour extraction, a dark-side removal – they haven’t got a clue how to behave in this sort of situation apart from remain stoic and taciturn building up an atmosphere that you couldn’t cut with a chainsaw. Owen is the complete opposite of that – he knows people.
In Valentine’s Day for Invisible People we get the following:
Sometimes you drift back there
when people pluck up the courage
to ask you what it was like out there.
And you think of job centre smiles
when they meant ‘out there’: war zones,
and you think of that party at Kev’s gaff,
when people fought over Miley Cyrus and if she’d gone too far.
I cannot express how much I like this poem. It uses the ‘killer line’ the ‘summing up’ at the end to impart what it is like to live in the foggy trauma many soldiers, and medicated civilians, live in – these thoughts, completely unconnected to what might be going on in front of them – they rise up, uncalled, out of the subconscious – as though they are there to help heal or put up a force field to protect against the painful dialogue taking place. A defence wall to stop you getting completely ripped apart.
There is a poem in Part 2 called A German Soldier in Russian Boots in which Owen shows just how much skill he has at creating a series of images built upon each other all heading towards an ultimate meaning. This poem takes you through the reflections of a German soldier after capturing; defrosting over a fire; slicing; eating and then stealing a Russian soldier’s boots before using them to try to ‘footstep’ it home:
Comrade, your thigh meat tasted like game and leather.
I needed your boots, so hung you over the fire to loosen them.
Your winters are so cold that my piss comes out like red fire…
Comrade, I defiled your body because I needed your boots.
I hacked into the ice with my blade like you were meat,
And you were meat, you were my footsteps home.
Maybe he got home, maybe he didn’t? – The images are haunting and so powerful that they stayed with me like a sore for days afterwards. In many of the poems Owen conjures up these images that sear themselves into your mind which, as I say, makes you as good as a witnesses to the events.
Sometimes I found the writing reminiscent of the great Native American chiefs when they sat down with the white man to explain how they feel about what the white man had done to their land and their people. As in the poem Rape Seed:
The bald crow was not itself.
Its mange maddened caw hushed cicadas.
The fingering wings afraid to touch the blue betraying sky…
The dead reek of fish hung like Alaskan salmon.
Zombies return to where their homes once stood.
How could they know this? Nothing is here…
Lucifer watches the rape of Mother Nature.
Man is unborn.
With a few nouns changed this could as easily be Red Cloud or Standing Bear or Roman Nose. I don’t think for one minute that Owen has set out intentionally to come across as a wise American Indian chief – I think it’s just that when war, or any big heavy subject is spoken or written about, it imbues the writer or speaker with a responsibility to respect the immensity of that subject and writing in this way – with weighty punches directed to take you down – feels like one of the most respectful ways to approach it. After all, isn’t it true that the subject matter can often direct and dictate the style and tone of the writing?
Martin Hayes was born in London and has lived around the Edgware Road area of it all of his life. He has worked in the courier industry for over 30 years and is the author of four books of poetry: Letting Loose The Hounds, (Redbeck Press, 2001). When We Were Almost Like Men, (Smokestack, 2015). The Things Our Hands Once Stood For, (Culture Matters, 2018) and Roar! (Smokestack, 2018).