The Promise of Ghosts:
A Review of Dan O'Brien's War Reporter

by Ruben Quesada & Brian Kornell

I have been haunted and now so will you. Out of this threat of ghosts, Dan O’Brien creates a new mythology in War Reporter. In this collection of poems, he explores the experience of loss shared between fictionalized versions of himself and Paul Watson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer. As the reader observes their struggle through loss, she becomes a silent companion in their search for answers.

It’s clear from the opening poem, “The Poet Hears the Voice,” that the lives of O’Brien and Watson are intertwined. The poet hears Watson’s voice say, “This is you speaking though / it might as well be me.” It’s a statement that suggests the identities of these two men are sometimes not merely intertwined, but indistinct. The strength of their connection is the recognition of loss. Watson’s loss is attributed clearly to the war; O’Brien’s loss is more opaque. In the preface, O’Brien tells the reader, “Several years ago my birth family disintegrated for bewildering, mysterious reasons.” Despite the raw emotion and explicit imagery of the book, the reader never becomes privy to the circumstances of O’Brien’s loss. But his familial disintegration fuels his search for connection, in order to replace what has been lost. It’s at this point he discovers the war reporter.

O’Brien admires Watson, and in his poems, he elevates the war reporter’s voice and experiences even as he conflates them with his own. They’ve both suffered loss and have a need for solitude. Yet their primary, unspoken commonality is not simply loss, but hauntings. O’Brien wonders at one point in “The Poet Runs” if the same ghosts are following them: “Is the man running after me / the man who haunts you?” He obsesses over this mystery. Further, O’Brien uses war stories, as told by Watson, as a way to usher the reader into the underworld of his modern mythology. Watson is O’Brien’s Orpheus, just off a visit to a fresh, new hell. But mythologizing Watson’s life is undeniably also a means for the poet to distract himself from his own familial loss.

The story of a war seemingly removed from our own borders is made tangible through O’Brien’s use of imagination and detail. It brings to mind Wallace Stevens’ essay “Imagination as Value.” Stevens discusses how the poet uses imagination to convey an idea through images. He states, “It is as if one could say that the imagination lives as the mind lives … the world is no longer an extraneous object, full of other extraneous objects, but an image.” Images presented by the poet are associative links for the reader to access the poet’s imagination through language. The imagination in O’Brien’s poetry is palpable.

The imagination’s intersection with reality is crucial to the collection. At this intersection the reader encounters repeated mentions of ghosts, cemeteries, revenants, and other images that conjure the hereafter. This isn’t to say that the collection isn’t firmly rooted in the real world. In fact, it is because the lives of the poet and the war reporter are so vividly realized, so painfully real, that O’Brien is able to illuminate the horror of their world.

The book’s first poem, “The War Reporter Paul Watson Hears the Voice,” sets the reader up for the hellish imagery that permeates the collection. It reveals the first instance of a haunting. Watson encounters the body of a dead American soldier amid children: “some kid wearing / a chopper crewman’s goggles, face screwed up / in rapturous glee while giving the dead man / the finger.” For his role as a photographer, documenting the destruction of the lives of others, Watson apologizes to the dead: “… I’m sorry, I’m not trying to/ desecrate your memory.” In response, the soldier’s spirit says, “If you do this / I will own you forever.”

Despite the hauntings, Watson moves on. He describes a moment of horrific mob violence:

… Men holding the ropes that bind
the dead man’s wrists are stretching his arms out
over his head, rolling him back and forth
in the hammering morning light. I’m standing
outside myself. I’m watching someone else
take these pictures. Wondering, You poor man.
Who are you?

O’Brien ups the stakes for the reader, making her a witness, who has willingly followed the poet into this moment of death in the horror of an upended world.

In “The War Reporter Paul Watson on Suicide” Watson leads the reader into a refugee camp, to a pile of children’s bodies:

Some wrapped in reed mats. Looking
for help, crying. But nobody’s coming.
I say to myself, This is a beautiful picture
somehow. Raising my camera to my face
I step on a dead old woman’s arm: it
snaps like a stick.

The power of this collection comes from O’Brien’s ability to proffer these horrific details of Watson’s journey through this hellish landscape. With each poem, the war reporter’s ghosts not only establish the book’s horrific world, but also begin to haunt the reader, who has become complicit in the objective nature of war photography.

Near the close of the collection, in “The Poet Recognizes the War Reporter Paul Watson,” the poet recalls a childhood memory of his brother coming home: “Oh not this familiar ghost again. He’s my brother / slumped at the kitchen table. The morning / they brought him home from the hospital where / they’d taken away his shoelaces and / his belt.” Like Watson’s ghosts, O’Brien’s ghosts are never far away. This moment recalls  “The Poet Hears the Voice,” confirming a mutual understanding of loss. The poet asks Paul Watson to sit at his family’s table: “Are you hungry, / Paul? They’ve left some dinner on the table / for us.“ By inviting Watson to sit at the table, O’Brien attempts to replace a familial loss that haunts him from the start of the collection.

War as the provocation of poetry has inspired many notable collections, including Pound’s Cantos and Eliot’s Four Quartets, or more contemporary work like Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and Elyse Fenton’s Clamor. O’Brien’s War Reporter fits nicely in this tradition while expanding into its own territory, intertwining public and private loss through photographic images and personal experiences of death. His poems call the reader to follow these two men through their dark underworld to see the losses that haunt them, the people they fear they’ve wronged, and to find some solace in a connection with one another. But the hope of regaining connection to others comes at a price for the reader. By taking this journey, she risks hearing the spirit of the soldier whisper to her: If you read this, I will own you forever.

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