Peacekeeper, Doire Press, p80, ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9, €12
Whelan’s story would make for riveting reading in any book: a UN peacekeeper serving tours of duty in the nineties as part of the Irish Defence Forces (Óglaigh na hÉireann), in Lebanon and Kosovo. The role of UN military personnel is multitudinous, involving personnel being called upon to protect civilians and UN personnel; monitor a disputed border; monitor and observe peace processes in post-conflict areas; provide security across a conflict zone; assist ex-combatants in implementing the peace agreements, and other daunting, possible life-or-death tasks.
What’s immediately striking in Peacekeeper is how life and day-to-day existence is absolutely defined by violence. Its presence and possibility is seen and felt everywhere, whether in a convoy, in the South Lebanese hills, a marketplace, a family home, a beach. Nothing is considered outside of the context of conflict. And whereas this might be suffocating to the point of overkill, Whelan takes great care to also recognise the history and beauty of the places and cultures he encounters. We get quotes from the Qur’an and Kahlil Gibran, allusions to Gilgamesh and ancient battles, words in Arabic, given glimpses of people clutching on to normality, and vivid descriptions of outside unlike anything within Ireland.
Alongside this, in capturing the sheer horror and inhumanity of war, Peacekeeper delivers some truly breathtaking moments. In Deliverance, we see the civilian terror through the eyes of a child:
In the orphanage a child
cowers from cursing men outside.
She wants to climb back into
her dead mother’s womb
and hide inside its warm, soft,
where no explanation is needed
Similarly, we are told of a crying soldier emerging from rubble, clutching a newborn baby “that looks like a headless doll”; a fellow peacekeeper “blown to bits”, his friends “gathering all the parts of him, | zipping them into a dozen body bags”. Whelan is sharp enough to realise that there is no need to sensationalise or over-dramatise the scenes he encounters, but to simply let the cold, hard facts speak for themselves. There are passages and lines that wouldn’t be out of place in a news bulletin, with Whelan wavering on the line between straight-forward journalism and emotion-filled eyewitness accounts. It is a great reward to the reader that Whelan is capable of both, always knowing just how much of his own feelings to invest, and when to keep them in check, a task we imagine a peacekeeper must struggle with daily.
They burned our homes,
with our people inside,
and there by the stream,
see there is Mendi and Teki,
my cousins with the others
forming a hill of corpses
and in the old marketplace
you will see the broken cobbles
filled with blood.
(Search and Destroy)
The first half of the collection – set in Lebanon – is slightly more effective than the second half from Kosovo, but perhaps this is merely because by the time the reader is halfway through, a form of desensitisation has settled in. This is not to say that the poems lack lustre, rather a testament to how well Whelan has presented his story so far. There is a heightened nervousness to the Kosovo poems: “You’re not really afraid”; “a darkness drawing you in”; “my heart says ‘no’”. The experiences are more drawn out in places, less the neat brevity of distillation seen in Lebanon. Although few dates are given, we get the impression of a younger, less battle-hardened peacekeeper; or it could be the thoughts of one who has easily seen far too much, verging on PTSD. We also seen a few cliches creeping in, as f these poems were the searching ground for the language and images required.
Throughout, we’re constantly reminded of just how effective the instruments of war are. The clinical description of a peacekeeper’s Steyr assault rifle in Through the Steyr AUG (Army Universal Gun) 1.5X Optical Sights is frightening, a reminder that death can swing both ways. And yet the poem’s unspoken hint of undiscovered mass war graves firmly tips the balance: “The ground knows well of their passing | and will never tell their whereabouts.” In Roadside Bomb, the title alone promising horrific images, the peacekeepers hearing the details of a bus full of mourners on their way to pay respect to their loved ones in a cemetery:
Torn into shreds, metal fused to flesh and flesh
to metal borne, veins and skin dripping,
unwrapping from bones,
legs hanging from roof windows,
arms stretched out as if shaking hands with their
murderer or waving
Perhaps more perturbing is Whelan’s immediate reflection in the next stanza: “We had felt the tremor but took no notice, | you get used to that after a while.” It sounds barbaric, but in the context of constant danger, it’s understandable and fascinating to witness now the mind protects itself from trauma in little quips such as this. It’s a theme that runs throughout the book, the idea of coping, sometimes the centre-point of poems, sometimes captured in a thought as small but efficient as “What right have I to feel despair?” or “It was hard | some of us had kids at home”. It is the repeated image of the war-torn child that seems to haunt here, and the suppressed thought that some “were better dead”.
Peacekeeper is an amazing record of Whelan’s tours of duty, as moving as anything by renown war poets such as Wilfred Owen. Whereas Owen sought to strip away the faux-grandeur and romanticism of war, Whelan has started from a point where everything is an open and exposed as a torn limb. It is rare that poetry will make you feel nauseated and impressed at the same time, and yet Peacekeeper’s writing manages to do so with an ease than it is stark contrast to its knowledge gained through trial and bloodshed. It is easy to see why the collection is considered a cornerstone of Doire Press’s back catalogue, and one looks forward to see how Whelan turns his pen to poems of other matters.