War and its losses are never far from the surface in Brian Johnstone and Chrys Salt’s mixed media performance The Fields of War. Breaking through in powerful human expressions of anguish and outrage, the poets assume voices from across a century of fighting – the soldier returning in peacetime, the bomber pilot surveying his target, the mother surveying the belongings of those found dead:
I place a plate on a table surrounded by empty chairs.
Each speaks to me in the voice of a husband, a son.
Those found dead are a handful. I sweep away the crumbs.
The human price paid, from The Blitz to Bosnia, from Flanders to Iraq, is here commemorated in a stirring combination of original poetry, diary and memoir extracts, film, and music.
The result is a reflective and often intense outpouring of experience, told through visits to the theatres of conflict that are sometimes personal, and sometimes imagined. Ruminating on the images of war – as stashed away in World War II kit bags, or disseminated by the modern mass media – Johnstone traces the impact of army life upon his father, and Salt upon her son. Rhetoric is exploded, with parallels drawn between the Allies’ VE Day and Munich’s Odeonsplatz, and the Iraq war and the terror it purported to oppose. Johnstone reads a salvaged history, giving voices to the silenced deserter or executed prisoner of war, whilst Salt gives an immediate, human reflection on the futile expenditure of life.
Johnstone’s delivery is distinctly wistful; he seems to ponder every word, mustering the fullest meaning from each of them. Salt educes a rawness of emotion, questioning the very foundations of a language rendered unintelligible by war. Counterpointed by extracts from letters written by her newly-mobilised son in 2003, her observations are particularly unsettling. We are returned to her son’s experiences of the early days of the Iraq invasion, and then further into his youth. There we are reminded that life is not the only cost of war; innocence must be sacrificed too.
Set to music, and accompanied by archival footage and art respectively, the performance includes two “Poetry Films”. The first, “How Well It Burns”, assumes the perspective of a German pilot on a bombing mission over the Clyde. “How well it burns”, the “sugar […] river like molasses” below, “full of families you must banish from your mind” muses Johnstone, against discomfortingly serene visuals – carnage in pastel hues – and sparse cello accompaniment by Rebecca Rowe. The second, “Baghdad 2003”, is a collaboration between Salt and Katherine Gillham, in which the poet’s work is orchestrated for tenor voice, harp, and string quartet. The accompanying artwork is not here used to identify one historical moment. Rather, its fleeting, distorted glimpses of combat merge into a chaotic, fiercely vibrant melange.
We won the Second World War. We liberated Iraq and Afghanistan. Such groupings have no place in Johnstone and Salt’s performance. They construct their category. Its people are those betrayed by “duty”, its places the deserter’s hideout or bomb-blasted house. In these are found individual conflicts of emotions, and collective tensions between family, community, and nation. The Fields of War comprise a site for their expression. Whether long-buried, raw, or mediated by experience, Johnstone and Salt deliver these emotions alive.