Within this poem is a mind, a body, and a world beyond repair.
There is a patina of respectability; there is a semblance of order in these four tightly-held stanzas, each identical in length. Scratch the surface, and the horror that lies beneath unfurls, spilling out across the page and into the margins of the subconscious. It seeps and it stains, and it marks the darkest corners of the mind.
The trauma in these lines is so very stark, yet so very elusive, that just as we locate a point, it slips away and we’re left with the residue of something that we couldn’t ever define. It’s tempting to slip into the mechanical, pedestrian approach to War Photographer – it looks straightforward and it feel accessible. But in opting for the path of least resistance, we avoid confronting the inner demons of this traumatic piece.
War Photographer gets us up-close-and-personal with the trembling hands, the blackened cityscape of the darkroom apparatus, and the panorama of the view from the plane. We are given the internal landscape of the war photographer – tattered and exhausted –reflecting the political landscape of the era. The portrait of the man, unflappable in the field, is a shadow of himself in the darkroom, and a shadow as he frames each shot, lurking at the back as he steels himself to do what many could not. Placing the photographer at the centre of the poem, where he naturally falls, we see a man who is simultaneously everything and nothing; we look on in awe at someone who needs to be invisible, yet has depths which we cannot ever imagine.
The contrasts for the character, then, are clear: man in the field/man back home; internal pain/external hell/external calm; shadow in the field/shadow at home; unflappable in a war zone/shaking at home. There is the broader juxtaposition of the character as both an artist and journalist too. He’s creating something beautiful – and before you allow your mind to jump in with the argument that it’s simply morbid fascination holding your gaze, allow yourself to consider the war photographs that you remember. They’re beautifully framed; they capture moments of horror with the lightness and elegance of a dancer – effortlessly bringing the world to our ‘Sunday supplements’.
The noise that encroached on his inner peace when at war evidently doesn’t stop when he reaches home; we’re given the sense of a man for whom there is no escape from the intrusion – until he is ‘finally alone’. Even then, the implicit relief of the stillness of the darkroom is simply a case of transference from an aural assault to a visual one; the ‘spools of suffering’ spill out before him. Of course, they’re in ‘ordered rows’ but this is simply a description of the physical world – order, truth, reality. The spools are tiny parcels of hell, and the ‘priest preparing to intone a mass’ stands over them, once again steeling himself for the inevitable. The alliteration here does nothing for our students, and nor should it. The beauty and the terror are held in the deep contrasts of both language and imagery.
The ephemerality of man is made explicit with
All flesh is grass.
The crucial element here is to not just give a nod to the bible, but to consider the contrasts in the poem from the close-up to the panorama, for the message here is that we are nothing and God is everything. Faith is not a prerequisite of appreciating this; it’s a case of understanding our small and insignificant place in the world. The subsequent verse, Isaiah 40:7, is enlightening:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
Isaiah, 40:7 KJV
There’s an intensifying of the metaphor[i] here; the grass becomes a flower – more delicate, fragile, beautiful – and we learn that it is God’s breath that withers the grass and fades the flower. Perhaps this phrase seen in context prises open the significance of this at the end of the list:
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.
The list – punctuated to emphasise brutal, blurted out war zones – gives a sense of helpless resignation. This is bigger than any of us. We are not in control.
Move to stanza three – note how, despite the trauma, these stanzas are not enjambed – and we see the ‘half formed ghost’ twisting before his eyes. And while this ghost is a ghost because our witness photographed his cruel demise, perhaps the mirror is held to him here. This photographer, unable to recover his former self, realises that life is a process of dying – right there in the darkroom. Then, with the caesura, we’re snapped back to the reality of the image, and the impossibly traumatic recollection of the unspoken communication for ‘approval without words to do what someone must’. We’re also jarred into a realisation of the burden of responsibility on this photographer – someone must.
As we move towards the end, through yet more contrast of the cruel with the clinical – ‘A hundred agonies in black and white’ – and then, as we see elsewhere in the poem, the crude separation of his life with ours. The editor picks out ‘five or six/for Sunday’s supplement’ and suddenly – just on the other side of that full stop, we are peering in on another reader, who cries at the ‘agonies in black and white.’ We judge the tears; we judge the fragility of this pathetic, affluent reader, who cries before moving on to enjoy his life without the terror of war.
Then, as he ‘stares impassively’, we come to understand that nothing is impassive about this man. He’s ready to crack: a brittle, aged soul, looking down on these ignorant, shielded readers – half-formed ghosts, the lot of them. And we come to understand that he is staring at us.
[i] Alter, R., ‘The Art of Biblical Poetry’ (Basic Books, 2011) p. 240
Image – Priest Standing on a Podium During Mass – Pexel – Labelled for reuse on Google Images
Thanks to my friend, Adam Boxer.
What a walk through (or rather a tip-toe through the minefield) of this poem.
A useful film resource is Mccullin. In it there are key events and images which have found themselves in the poem and you get to see how well Duffy has captured the complexity her friend.
What I find really interesting is that they have the same demeanour and come from similar backgrounds.
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