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Michael J. Whelan. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

 

HAUNTING FLIGHT

(Irish U.N. post coming under attack,

South Lebanon, c. 1990s)

 

 

Vibrating rings expand to edge of cup,

if I close my eyes it will be gone.

The one o fives and one five fives are curving through the night,

my ears pick out the distant crump, crump, crump.

 

A tank-round bursts the silence,

transforming blast-walls in a multitude of sparkles,

lit up by a million flechettes puncturing concrete slabs.

The dancing shrapnel illuminates our billets to the violent night,

the echoes search, as red flares pop into haunting flight.

 

Then our radios whine up, their fans belch out a constant drone

of shoot reps and a firing close in response to RPGs,

panicked non-human voices fill the sweating room,

the carnival is back again but much too soon.

 

My chest rotates in anxious sickening trip,

it’s nights like this I feel that I could quit

the arc of noise and traffic through my sleep.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

 

RPG = Rocket Propelled Grenade

Flechette = Isreali anti-personnel shell filled with long shards of metal

One o fives and one five fives = Artillery shells

Published by Mark Ulyseas in L.E. Poetry Magazine, January 2018 issue under the sequence title TRUTH

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Irish Peacekeeper - Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan

Irish Peacekeeper – Lebanon 1990s. Photo: (c)Michael J. Whelan

 

BATTLE SIGHTS

 

(Rifleman John Curley, U.N. Observation Post 6-40 – Haddathah,

 Irish Area of Operations, South Lebanon – 1989)

 

 

Everyone was shooting before anyone was killed.

Sometimes you have to defend yourself.

Your body was tense, selecting through your battle sights

the one trying to kill you, his bullets

kicking up dirt on their way to your head,

you never took the shot.

Being a Peacekeeper in a warzone

and being prepared to use your weapon

was a lesson you learned very early.

 

Later, when you smashed their Russian

made machine-gun to bits on a rock,

you were only venting your rage at the carnage.

Two AMAL dead and five Irish injured

after a stand-off at a U.N. checkpoint

over who was to keep possession of the thing.

Flesh has no resistance to bullets

aimed by dead freedom fighters

squeezing triggers as they fall.

You still see it all.

 

After the fire-fight blood filled your vision.

It poured from the floor of an APC,

where two of your friends lay wounded,

their bodies punctured.

 

You worked on them as they screamed,

rolling the most serious onto his side to drain his lungs,

while he pleaded with you to keep him alive

to see his daughter.

 

When you destroyed the machine-gun that day,

with blood on your face and on your hands,

everyone remembered how a human skull

is disintegrated by a rifle switched to automatic

and no one dared stop you.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

AMAL – Lebanese Resistance

APC – Armoured Personnel Carrier

 

Published in A NEW ULSTER Magazine, issue 60, Sept’ 2017

see https://issuu.com/amosgreig/docs/anu60

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Massive thank you to Kevin Higgins for this fantastic review and to Kernan Andrews and team at the Galway Advertiser, where it was published on Thursday, Jun 23, 2016

‘IT IS fashionable for reviewers, of the perpetually disappointed variety, to lodge Basil Fawlty style complaints against a poet’s first published collection.

The poet in question, we are typically told, has the occasional nice turn of phrase, but does not have anything to write about because s/he has little of experience of life, a subject on which the disappointed reviewer is unfortunately something of an expert.

There are over indulged newbie poets who, as of yet, amount to not much more than a stunning haircut and professionally taken publicity photo. Generally, though, such complaints tend to be grapes of the vinegary variety. It will be interesting to see what reaction Michael J Whelan’s debut book of poems, Peacekeeper, published by Doire Press, gets from said literary gatekeepers.

Whelan may be a new poet but, having joined the Irish Defence Forces in 1990 and served as a peacekeeper in Lebanon and Kosovo, he is not exactly young. He has had life experiences from which most poetry reviewers would run screaming. Crucially these experiences are the often bloody meat of this quite exceptional debut. Whelan is no dabbler, but a war poet in the tradition of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Keith Douglas.

The poems here are products of direct experience – part one covering his time in South Lebanon, part two his stint with the Peace-Enforcement mission in Kosovo. There are some breathtaking lines, as in ‘The Rain Has Come’: “The rain has come/to wash away the footprints of the killers.” The poem finishes with the image of “a rusting bullet casing/exposed like a white bone on the deepening red mud.”

The blood which has reddened the mud is, as is hardly ever the case in poems these days, more real than metaphorical. From the first poem ‘Blue Helmets’, Whelan approaches his subject in the unromantic way soldier poets nearly always do: “We were issued our blue helmets/and flak-jackets there, mine were/in really bad shape, like they had been/through the wars.”

His tribute to his fellow Irish soldiers who died on service in Lebanon – “where the cedar grows forever/and remembers everything” – is a poem of stunning beauty. A number of his poems bring home the way that, even when the war is over, and the papers of record around the world trumpet the advent of peace, it is often not really over at all. One poem opens: “The war is long over but it is not ended.” Another, ‘Inshalla’, tells us “The war is over in the South, again.”

Whelan is a poet of experience rather than innocence. Many have experiences. Very few have the talent he does for finding exactly the words to force the reader to imagine him/herself struggling across those bloodstained landscapes in Whelan’s own war-weary boots.’

Michael J. Whelan  - Kosovo 2001

Michael J. Whelan – Kosovo 2001

 

Michael Whelan will read at the Over The Edge Writers’ Gathering at The Kitchen, Galway City Museum, on Thursday June 30 at 8pm. The other readers are Niamh Boyce, Paul Duffy, Susan Millar DuMars, and William Wall. Admission is free.

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