Water is the element in Jenny Lewis’s latest collection, Taking Mesopotamia. From the locus of Mesopotamia (meaning the land “between two rivers”), the poems encompass the waters of childbirth (“Mine”), the flooded irrigation ditches in Iraq (“April 1916”), the grey rain of the Rhondda (“Blaenclydach”) and the flood myths of Gilgamesh and Noah.
The opening poem, “Swimmer”, establishes this primacy:
Trust water and it will carry you: after all,
it was our first element: our aqueous cells
cry out to be reunited, go tapping along
inside our skin like blind prisoners, finding
ways back to fluidity.
The reach of this collection is impressive. Ostensibly a search for her lost father, and using diary extracts, interviews, witness statements, poems and photographs to create poetic reportage, Lewis has moved beyond the personal. Through this multi-layered narrative she entwines her father’s experience in the Mesopotamian campaign of World War 1, the recent wars in Iraq and the Epic of Gilgamesh to reflect on the futility of war, and the moral bankruptcy of Empire.
The “diary poems”, alongside others inspired by interviews and news reports of the recent conflicts, embody “interpolated” voices, redolent and authentic. The voice of the young Thomas Charles Lewis (her father) is the strongest as he struggles with the conditions in southern Iraq: floods, grass fires, cholera and dysentery:
Two deaths from cholera, two from dysentery; fever
Is rampant; the horses and mules suffer, like us, from
The curse of flies that swarm in our eyes and mouths (June 1916).
Other voices feature, such as Sarah who speaks of her son’s death in Iraq:
They call him a Welsh warrior, say that
he died with glory, laid down his life so that others
could be saved: it was cold when he died, they said –
a stray bullet just as they were packing up to leave. (“December 2006”)
And Hannah speaking of the loss of her leg in an Iraqi mortar attack:
I couldn’t even bath my daughter,
my husband has got me through,
Now I can wear Manolo Blahniks. (“Learning to love my high heel leg”)
The power of these pieces comes in part from the use of “found” writing that acquires an ironic sharpness from the perspective of the present. In a series of poems “Hints for the new recruit”, Lewis relays advice from a 1914 MOD pamphlet, arranging it to startling effect:
When under canvas, life is much the same except
at dawn you’ll hear the songs of robin and chaffinch
and see the mist rising over distant hills. Now is the time
to practise folding and unfolding your army blanket. (“Hints for the new recruit 2”)
The link between fields of battle and bird song to illustrate the pity and futility of war invokes other voices such as Sassoon and Owen, to whom she dedicates “The Call-up”.
Lewis’s concern for the “staging” of these poems is evident. The poem “Father” is placed alongside the photo of a very young T. C. Lewis in the middle of the collection. This poem voices both the young fatherless girl “your long dead smile / watched us from walls, sideboards”, and also the grateful adult recognising the good luck of the injury that saved him, ensuring her own existence:
Father, those splinters of bone
were your salvation, hard shards
from which I sprang with shared
ancestry, looking for you.
The potency of this collection lies in its combined effects. Starting from a very personal “recovery” of her father, Lewis demands our engagement with loss, love, and the power of myth:
We built a bridge of boats
To reach the so-called Garden of Eden – lanes were
Littered with rubbish; in between derelict reed hovels
And dirty gutters we found the Tree of Knowledge –
It was leaning through a shell-pocked roof (“March 1916”).