Three poems by Dan O’Brien

The War Reporter Paul Watson Lost His Camera

Vacationing in Cape Town, longing to purge
yourself with Stellenbosch and lobster. Waves
lash the scapular limestone. Unshouldering
your camera on your molt of clothes you dip
into the bay while it sways till you might
let yourself get carried away. Onshore
a baboon. A dog’s trot. His ponytail
-like tail sweeping the coral wash. Fumbling
your camera with spidery paws, weighing
your self in his scales. Found wanting. Champing
canines into the salt-stained strap he climbs
into the thorny strandveld. Where a breeze
bothers his pelt as he squats like a thug
-gish Buddha. Jaundiced eyes and gun muzzle
-like muzzle daring you. To holler. Hurl
skipping stones from the sliding tide. He ducks
behind a tree. And here comes your camera
sailing the daylit half-moon, exploding
off the exposed, foam-flecked table, spewing
guts that had fixed the souls of so many
undone by man. Baring your fangs you howl
your thanks as much as your dread. But it’s just
a camera. Remember.

(From War Reporter, CB Editions (UK) & Hanging Loose Press (US); published in
Poetry Review, 102:3)


The War Reporter Paul Watson and the War on Drugs

Like a movie killer the drugs hunter
keeps snapshots like trophies. As if playing
a losing hand of cards. Pakul, kufi
skullcap. Crooked Afghan policemen cuffed
beside their grenades and guns. A half ton
of opium in a tanker, musk masked by
the sweet rot of canary melons. Not
a man in jail. Kunduz is half an hour
from Tajikistan, 24 hours from
Moscow, Milan, London. Pluffing pompoms
and brass bells jingling on ponies pulling
carts through dusk. The sergeant with iconic
eyes like Alexander wheezes closing
his basement window. The informant says,
Most families have a dozen barrels and
a pressing machine, cotton filters and
acetic anhydride for refining
paste to powder. Enough poppies have been
stashed in wells and rusted tanks to outlast
a lifetime of crackdowns. In the lobby
of the station Ziploc bags smeared with tar
-like opium gum. Hash blocks. Pouring the pure
heroin across tiles, granules finer
than sand. Like trying to clear the sand from
the desert, and we all laugh. Our government
is no government, they say. We hope and pray
for that day when our invader becomes
our boss. Bulgarian rose seedlings poke through
sulfurous soil that used to yield gladsome fields
of flashing blood and cash. Now when the wind
bruises new roses they’re rendered worthless
to French perfumiers. Farmers have only
a day to decapitate and express
their romantic oils. If this idea works,
one farmer tells me, then Afghanistan
will be famous for flowers like Paris
is famous for whores! His face a skull from
years of smoking the fecal, floral ball
grins in the sun. The smuggler in his cell
shrugs his shoulders at me. The more smugglers
in jail, the more others will make profit.
The professional businessmen will remain
because of connections. Whoever works
hardest in business will always endure.

(From War Reporter, CB Editions (UK) & Hanging Loose Press (US); published in The White Review, No. 6)


The War Reporter Paul Watson to the Readers from Aleppo

Humor’s as common as blood on the street
outside the restaurant Al-Quds. Arabic
for Jerusalem. Bat-like chickens roasting
in respiring flames. For broken spirits
without power. The shape in the doorway’s
bellowing, Every time reporters come
al-Assad bombs us! Forgive me! I cry
before noticing the shadows laughing
at me. This man also. While delivering
this bundle like a football through the door
wrapped in greasy newspaper. Bones sucked clean
of their measly meat around the corner
at a desolate clinic. When a snarling
boom shifts the room, my translator suggests
the cellar. I say we have a saying
in Canadian: Lightning never strikes twice
as the door explodes open and barking
men are delivering the lowing heap of
that joker who gave me chicken. Like Christ
salvaged from the crucifixion. Naked
feet micturating blood. Eyes in the gas
-generated fluorescent light don’t see
me, his double, focused between shoulders
on track suits, stonewashed denim. Blood that’s spat
onto linoleum tiles. Snailed ointment tubes,
husks of gauze wrappers. Crushed Bufren boxes,
saline bags depleted. Two-way radio
squawks the driver’s hand to life. Blood-brined cheeks
had been bobbing as if dozing. A gay
nurse in his pink-collared sweater swaddles
the chicken-man, heel to ankle. Stanches
a hemorrhaging mother. Whose firstborn pales
in its father’s arms while the grandmother
spots through her threadbare hijab. Dear readers,
I would remind myself to remind you
to pay attention. But I was the one
lusting for chicken. Which is why I missed
the point of a joke in the dark.

(From Warwick Review, Vol. 7 No. 3)

Dan O’Brien is a poet and playwright in Los Angeles. His debut poetry collection,
War Reporter, published by CB Editions in the UK and Hanging Loose Press in the US,
received the 2013 Fenton Aldeburgh Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2013 Forward Prize for Best First Collection. The Body of an American, his play about war reporter Paul Watson, received its European premiere at the Gate Theatre in London in 2014.
Website: / Twitter: @danobrienwriter