REVIEW: “The Music of White Phosphorous”: Emily Carlson’s Symphony No 2


by Robin Clarke

“I felt like a number I couldn’t count to,” concludes one poem in Emily Carlson’s new prose poetry chapbook, “Symphony No 2” (Argos, 2015). “Symphony” sets out to document Israel’s 2006 air war on Lebanon from the point of view of a North American poet visiting Beirut during the bombing. In the tradition of Mahmoud Darwish, the book dramatizes how war disintegrates the most basic activities of everyday life. Carlson collapses the syntaxes of prose as the rituals of daily sustenance collapse around her:

WHILE SUPPER SHOOK to the floor from constant shelling potatoes and peas stuck to my spoon I sat it down in my reoccurring dream
and begged be good over a number of lines, you’re no more related
to me than birds who flock at the close of day some here some there corner is to hide and open plain to see what’s coming I held
my breath between seconds as if there’s anything but in between. (11)

The dinner that shakes to the floor indexes the force of a violence we don’t see. What else is shaking, collapsing? Carlson’s project is also to chart war’s psychological toll: who else is shaking, collapsing. Hence it is exactly on this phrase—“I sat it down in my reoccurring dream”—that the sentence loses it’s boundary; the real shell-shocked spoon migrates into the speaker’s dream, put down again, again in the way trauma is reiterative.

Describing Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Mahmoud Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982 features an extended fantasy about making a cup of coffee: the ritual of preparation, the human agency to begin a day in one’s own way, the sensory pleasures of a beverage that ultimately cannot be made because a sniper or bomb could strike at any moment. Through the disintegrating possibility of a cup of coffee, Darwish patiently and painfully documents the impossibility of remaining recognizable to oneself while under siege. In her opening poem, Carlson quotes Memory for Forgetfulness: “I measure the period between two shells. One second: shorter than the time between breathing in and breathing out, between two heartbeats.” Like Darwish, Carlson holds her breath between bombs in Beirut during an Israeli-sponsored bombing. Like Darwish, Carlson aims to show how human dignity is stripped away in the face of deadly air space. If not even a cup of coffee is possible, if not peas and potatoes, how writing? How love?

Carlson’s chapbook foregrounds the physical and psychological space where the capacity to bear witness has been compromised, “when a dusk to dawn curfew collects the faces of anyone moving” (16). As with the collected faces, the observer’s body is marked by danger: “Lasers crisscrossed my nightshirt” (10). Leaflets rain down terrorizing messages. Bombs that look absurdly like Frisbees appear in the air, everywhere. The poet as witness does not know herself: “WHO DID WE BECOME enduring words refused their referents FORCE YOU TO STAY HOME LIKE RATS (27). What happens to a human being upon whom war has been waged? And to what degree is that by design? To what degree are most wars actually a form of state-sponsored terrorism?

Carlson finds a surprising escape from the psychological terror of constant shelling—not by her eventual evacuation, but by those who refuse the terms of their bombardment:

Clubs lit in phosphorous glows radio, active local DJs play volumes we can’t hear, explosions, bass bass….did you hear Salam Pax a famous Iraqi blogger put it nicely in 2002, WHAT DO YOU EXPECT US TO DO, RUN INTO THE STREETS SHOUTING WAR IS HERE (21)

Carlson watches with awe as those around her cross uncrossable spaces of danger in order to refuse their psychological and spiritual deaths, all the while human pleasure is slammed against the crashing of bombs. Carlson’s supple syntax, as in the comma between “radio” and “active,” holds the absurdity of war like a dance partner with the miracle of resistance. She repeats this technique in another poem of resistance, using interrupted syntax—“air, force”—to signal and challenge the violence of the Israeli state:

We returned to the beach to say to the air, force you haven’t scared us for the future of our mis, to arrive at mistake, missile sent, here I did try, to walk through sound shadows (26)

The initial “mis” here always reads as “misery” for me, and, in the place where Saussure meets death-dealing aggression, can also easily be future missile or future mistake.

According to a simple Wikipedia paragraph about the 2006 invasion, the group Human Rights Watch stated that

‘the IDF struck a large number of private homes of civilian Hezbollah members during the war, as well as various civilian Hezbollah-run institutions such as schools, welfare agencies, banks, shops and political offices.’ Although Israel maintained that the civilian infrastructure was ‘hijacked’ by Hezbollah and used for military purposes, but Amnesty International identified the destruction of entire civilian neighbourhoods and villages by Israeli forces, attacks on bridges with no apparent strategic value, and attacks on infrastructure indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, and questioned whether the ‘military advantage anticipated from destroying” civilian infrastructure had been “measured against the likely effect on civilians.’ They also stated that the Israeli actions suggested a “policy of punishing both the Lebanese government and the civilian population. (sic)

Carlson’s poems seek to present “the likely effect on civilians” through a language unable to stop itself and unable to order itself properly. Like the broken measures of a scrambled song, these poems, which communicate some of this war’s psychological aftermath. To render trauma bearable, the mind may forget the worst. And yet, there is no real forgetting without a way “to feel the size of it,” to process and release the trauma. Without such work of feeling, the lived experience becomes both unacknowledged and destructive, which is one way of reading the problem in the book’s final poem: “I waved goodbye to what I couldn’t wave goodbye to.” And as with Carlson, this line is also stating a material fact: part of the land is now physically gone that was once there when she first arrived. Carlson’s book seeks to make this loss palpable.

Buy Symphony No 2 from Argos Books here

Robin Clarke divides her time between teaching, reading, writing and activism. She is the author of Lines the Quarry (Omnidawn, 2013), winner of the Omnidawn 2012 1st/2nd book prize for poetry, judged by Brenda Hillman. With Sten Carlson, she co-authored the chapbook Lives of the Czars (nonpolygon, 2011), which imagines what might happen if intelligent machines decided to write poetry. Her poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in Conduit,  CounterpunchCritical QuarterlyDenver QuarterlyFenceIn Posse ReviewA Joint Called Pauline, LABORLafoveaSentenceVerseThe VoltaWhiskey and Fox, and word for/word

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