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Michael J. Whelan - poet, Tibnine Castle, South Lebanon 1994

 South Lebanon 1990s. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

 

BLOOD SUN

 

They say ‘peacekeeping

is not a job for soldiers

 

but, only a soldier can do it.’

And tonight as the blood

 

sun goes down, spilling out

onto a hundred black horizons,

 

they steel themselves

rebuilding bunkers,

 

fixing strong defences

and pushing barbed-wire obstacles

 

across roads, preparing

for the reckoning.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Published by Mark Ulyseas in a sequence of poems titled ‘A Hundred Black Horizons’ in L.E. Poetry Magazine, February 2017

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Tibnine Village, South Lebanon 1990s. Photo Michael J. Whelan

Tibnine Village, South Lebanon 1990s. Photo Michael J. Whelan

 

ROCKETS RIFLE THE NIGHT

 

Frightened villagers count the shells

that peacekeepers cannot see.

They pray on worry beads

while rockets rifle the night,

impacting near,

bracketing the fright

of worried souls

under sandbagged ground.

 

Michael J. Whelan

 

Published by Mark Ulyseas in a sequence of poems titled ‘A Hundred Black Horizons’ in L.E. Poetry Magazine, February 2017

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UN Gear

Personal issue UN Gear – south Lebanon 1990s. Photo – Michael J. Whelan

SPINE

 

You think you hear them,

cursing through the air, searching,

bracketing where you are,

feel the impacts creeping closer in your brain

and your spine plays that game again

exaggerating your predicament.

Your mind’s a constant train

as you lay in your bunk

deciding at which point you should run.

 

Michael J. Whelan

(Incoming artillery, mortar & tank shells – Lebanon)

Published by Mark Ulyseas in a sequence of poems titled ‘A Hundred Black Horizons’ in L.E. Poetry Magazine, February 2017

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Part of the Irish Battalion area from Camp Shamrock with Hill 880 - 1990s (c)Michael J. Whelan

Part of the Irish Battalion area of operations viewed from Camp Shamrock with section of ‘Hill 880’ – 1990s (c)Michael J. Whelan

 

BATTLEFIELD

(Observations in Irish UN Operations area S. Lebanon – 1990s)

 

Early morning.

A steely mist waited

through the night

to storm the hilltop hiding

the warriors approach

in resistance and stealthy guile.

They paused at pre-ranged paces,

unleashed hate from guns,

then retreated

to whence they came

before the mist released

a battlefield, and enemies

were seen.

 

Michael J. Whelan

Part of a sequence of poems titled ‘Holding The Road’ which was published by Mark Ulyseas in Live Encounters Poetry Feast December 2016 see link below

http://liveencounters.net/live-encounters-poetry-2016/12-december-poetry-2016/3-michael-j-whelan-holding-the-road/

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Dusk Patrol South Lebanon 1990s (c) Michael J. Whelan

Dusk Patrol South Lebanon 1990s (c) Michael J. Whelan

 

 

FROM A DEAD PEACEKEEPER

 

If a target is what you seek, a mere body

to your greatness, in token meek,

or warm blood and flesh made sudden still,

gestured through the venom of your gun,

then here is a good heart, stout in breasted honour,

held by soul and courage.

 

If vengeance is what you want, for wrongs

done to your homeland, take me,

for I come in peace to stifle the hatred

of lost generations. I promise there will be

no purchase. Take this body, for I am

the peacekeeper and here is where

the world is saved every time.

 

(c)Michael J. Whelan

 

Part of a sequence of poems titles ‘Holding The Road’ which was published by Mark Ulyseas in Live Encounters Poetry Feast December 2016 see link below

http://liveencounters.net/live-encounters-poetry-2016/12-december-poetry-2016/3-michael-j-whelan-holding-the-road/

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This review of PEACEKEEPER was published on Saturday 06th August 2016 on ‘Tintean’ (Australian/Irish website). The link to the article as it appears on ‘Tintean’ is included at the bottom.

A Poetry Review by Edward Reillystacks-image-1644852

Michael J. Whelan, 2016, Peacekeeper, Doíre Press, Casla, Co. na Gaillimhe.

ISBN: 978-1-907682-46-9.

These poems are firsthand reports from the newest episode in a continuing war. In 638 Jerusalem fell to the Arabs, and the Levant was lost. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. Vienna was finally relieved in 1683, and it took 250 more bitter years of struggle to expel the invaders from all but a small pocket of Europe. Yet their legacy remains; the Balkans are littered with mosques, pockets of Turks and Muslimized populations, havens for the new, and ambitious Islamists. And today, Jerusalem is only half-free, whilst Europe, in its widest sense, is under attack once again.

At first, Whelan seems to play the rôle of an honest soldier, a wide-eyed innocent of sorts, merely recording reactions to the situation in Lebanon: ‘The journey from Beirut … was long and hot’, a battle becomes ‘a circus / of tracer and flash’, whilst his contingent is ‘always caught in the middle’ between ‘Hezbollah’ and ‘Israeli backed militia’. Yes, but this is the modern soldier’s lot, and in being thrown into a hot war, like my uncles coming up against the Japanese, a man can only hope to survive against ‘booby traps’, ‘bullets’ that connect to an ‘unlucky peacekeeper’ caught in crossfire. All the romance of tourist brochures is eventually swept away with the realisation that Lebanon ‘is the land of giants, where Gilgamesh / raped the mountains of cedars’, and the vocabulary grows battle-hardened.

Progressing beyond a travelogue, Whelan begins to use his schooling to shape thoughtful and engrossing poems. In the finely wrought ‘Paradox of the Peacekeeper in the Holy Land’ (p. 39), he comprehends the nature of the sacred land, seeking ‘redemption’, from what we’re not told, calling to mind the long processions of Syrians, Romans, ‘Jewish zealots’, St. Helen of the Cross, Crusaders and so on. But also sees beauty in ‘red anemone, wild tulip and poppy / and young girls [who] might seek the damask rose’ amidst the carnage, wherein ‘we must watch our step’. Certainty is a fleeting quality in this blood-soaked land.

By the end of this section one must ask what, if anything, was achieved by successive UN interventions in the Lebanon, noting that the current UNFIL mandate expires at the end of this August. Will Hezbollah resume its blindly merciless attacks on Christian communities in Lebanon, or even seek to resume full-scale war against Israel? Will the loss of 47 Irish soldiers, ‘martyrs’ he nominates them, all be in vain?

By the second section Whelan’s vision has grown even darker, for if Lebanon was dangerous ground, giving rise to dreams of redemption and martyrdom, then Kosovo was Hell. While Tito’s Jugoslavija fell apart at the seams, the vultures moved in. Serbians wanted to regain Kosovo, a tangled ‘field of blackbirds’, that had been lost during the Turkish occupation to the largely-Muslim Albanians, the new Islamicists seeing an opportunity. It was as if the Four Horsemen were going into rehearsal for the next big one.

In the midst of this brutal war, Whelan is an acute observer, noting how the village children can be welcoming, indifferent or even threatening. He sees how ‘The rain has come / to wash away the footprints of the killers’, where the victims are reduced to fragments of ‘white bone on the deepening red mud’. It’s worse than in Lebanon, now it’s ‘always’ raining, and ‘the fear comes when no adult comes to greet you’, where the survivors may be alive but ‘not happy’.

Another finely observed, deeply moving poem is ‘Broken Spade’ (p. 60), wherein he contemplates a farmer, slain in the act of tending his fields, his ‘harvest, un-reaped and yet reaped upon you’. Not even in the days of sacred observance were people safe. In ‘Roadside Bomb’ (p. 61) he records the effect of a massacre, ‘legs hanging from roof windows’, ‘others swimming in boiling / blood’, ‘broken conversations’. A group of Serbians had been under NATO escort as they were going to visit their local cemetery in preparation for the annual Day of the Dead, their bus ripped apart by a ‘perfectly’ timed bomb. All were killed, so callously. Whelan noting, ‘we heard / the details later’. This is about as close as the book comes to an open expression of anger. But the ire boils and nags at him in the last half dozen or so short poems, as NATO cluster bombs ‘accidently’ smash friendly villages, the poet realising ‘the merchants never cared’, finally lapsing into despair, as ‘there is no end to old stories’.

One puts the book down, numb beyond weeping, for it goes well beyond the romance of being a soldier-poet ‘in the tradition of Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon’ and others, as one reviewer, K. Higgins, would have it, as the conflicts in Lebanon and Kosovo did not have the same moral clarity as the invasion of Belgium. If any soldier-poets can be invoked it would be the battle-weary and despairing Solženycin of Prussian Nights, or Grass as author of The Tin Drum. And if Whelan comes close to a fit of Celtic despair in the final pages, we as readers must withdraw somewhat, re-reading these poems as a record of the continuing interaction between an enlightened Good and a persistent Evil, both of which change in ‘form’ according to time and situation, an essentially moral, problem Whelan asks us to consider.

Edward Reilly

Edward Reilly has published poetry & criticism in journals such as James Joyce QuarterlyPoetry Ireland ReviewPoetry Salzburg ReviewTinteán et al. He is the founding editor of Azuria, a small literary journal published by Geelong Writers.

Beyond the Romance of the Soldier-Poet

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Bunker S. Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

Bunker S. Lebanon, 1994. Photo: Michael J. Whelan

TANK

 (Civilians move to shelter in U.N. bomb shelters)

 

Thick black smoke

splutters out above the compound,

the beast is moving, ready to fire,

we hear it cough before seeing it

and the clanking of a metal monster on tracks,

exhaust clouds follow along the hill’s horizon

poisoning the sky behind the perimeter wire.

We know where it is – what it’s thinking

long before its deafening report

screams back across the valley,

sending the shaken to the underground.

 

 Michael J. Whelan

Published in A NEW ULSTER magazine, issue 34, July 2015, edited by Amos Grieg

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