The Unknown Civilian – Antony Owen
Poetry has the power to speak volumes and at its most poignant is has the ability to change that we perceive the world around us. In recent years there seems to have been something of a resurgence in the poetry scene, but for the most part this seems to be finding its feet in the online forums through various video outlets. Slam poetry is certainly ‘of the moment’ as it were, yet I often find myself longing for some ‘real’ poetry which looks beyond the experience of self and digs much deeper into our collective unconscious. Antony Owen’s new collection The Unknown Civilian is potentially one of the most poignant reads I can recall in recent memory.
From the off it’s clear that this is a collection which pulls no punches and Owen’s unflinching reflections of a war-torn world is both bold and brave. The inspiration of Wilfred Owen, one of the most prolific war poets and an incredible poet in his own right, hangs in the bottom corner of the cover page to Part I: The End & the Beginning and sets out a crucial idea which runs through the whole book – most of the poetry of war, as we tend to see it, was written on the frontlines and read after the war had ended. It gave insight into something we would hopefully never experience for ourselves. In stark contrast to this, The Unknown Civilianrecognizes that we are all surrounded by war in our modern times. While some of us may have greater distance between the events and our day-to-day lives, we are all observers to the slaughter and tragedy.
Owen adopts a huge range of speakers as he traverses the globe to shed light on the plight of those touched by the trauma of conflict and the constant shifts from first to second to third person along with the employment of omniscient narration carries the reader instantaneously from place to place. Sad, sombre and often sickening in the simplicity of its subject manner, I found the collection to be quite harrowing and often uncomfortable in the almost nonchalant nature with which the speakers present their experiences. Often, a throwaway line gives rise to endless questions that add depth and complexity to his words and allows them to dig into your thoughts long after you have moved on to another poem or taken a break from reading. In The Projectionist’s Lullaby we see an indication that we often have to just keep calm and carry on, as it were, even when we struggle to see light in the world and those around us are falling apart. More often than not, I found myself re-reading a poem to fully appreciate the caustic beauty of the words and in this particular piece I kept coming back to the line:
‘cigar smoke hangs, like poor Clive’
Throughout each of the separate parts of the book we move through time and space fluidly and spot glimpses of recognition to the things we read about in school, or hear on the news, yet each piece gives a new level of understanding of what it means to be entangled in a world which fights endlessly in the hope of establishing peace. Soldiers, civilians, children, animals and nature itself are often destroyed in a moment with nobody left to tell their stories, so a book like this is hugely significant in the fact that it forces us to consider how fortunate we may be to have never experienced this first-hand, yet it also poses near-infinite questions about how little we feel we can do to prevent these tragedies from repeating themselves over and over.
The near-endless images of death, torture, execution, maiming and all manner of other atrocities is not easy to stomach, yet somehow it never becomes gross or malicious. Whether we are standing next to a woman as she watches something fall from the sky over Hiroshima, watching a woman bury her children, or hearing of a soldier who couldn’t live with the memories of his time on the frontline, Owen’s language carefully carries us through the smoke and flames and sits us gently on the other side. To see a conflict on a TV screen is akin to hearing a fairy tale at times, but to see how each incident impacts on real people as they try to move forward is something far more grim.
It’s clear that Owen’s poetry is purposeful in its inception and his desire to draw attention to the madness of mankind is intelligently woven together. Whilst there is much to be said about the brutality of his imagery, it is only because of the subject matter that these poems exist. My heart bleeds for the people in these poems and it is a testament to his skill as a poet that he is able to have such a significant impact on us page after page. This is a chance for us to step into the shoes of another and walk with them through the chaos and while it may not always be an easy journey, it is an incredibly important one.
Published by Knives, Forks & Spoon Press
Buy your copy here
Images – Royalty free – Adobe Stock