Pink Mist, Owen Sheers, £12.99, Faber
reviewed by Jim Murdoch
Excepting Sassoon, Brooke and Owen can you name one other war poet? Where are all the great WWII poets and the Vietnam War poets? Did the First World War poets have the last word on what’s wrong with war? Actually, no. But Owen’s verse in particular tempered a new, gritty realism—gone are the heroics that typified epics likes Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’—with a degree of romanticism which made the truth of his poetry palatable, memorable and hard to better.
A century on the mechanics and vocabulary of warfare may have changed but has its essence? No. ‘Dulce et Decorum est’ is as relevant as it was in 1917 but who takes Latin nowadays? Pink Mist says nothing essentially new but couches it in language the Facebook generation will get. Likely in another hundred years it’ll need updating again.
Where it differs from what’s gone before is that it concentrates on the aftermath, how war affects both soldiers and their families. The book focuses on “three friends who’d once linked arms at school/ …chanting like fools,/ Who wants to play war?” But when the opportunity presents itself they enlist for all the wrong reasons: there’re no decent jobs in Bristol and the ads are just too tempting. They do a lot of growing up in the six weeks tour in Afghanistan: Taff, “the army made him./ But then they broke him too”; Hads, cut “down from six foot two to four foot three” and Arthur who returned seemingly unscathed but wound up going back “to hurt someone,/ to satisfy that hunger/ before [he] missed his chance.” None of them “come home proper from the war:”
But I did come back. I did.
No you didn’t. Not Arthur anyhow.
Some other bloke, perhaps. But not my man.
As a verse-drama Pink Mist was written to be performed and has been on Radio 4. It utilises common language, some dialect and a few specialist terms that necessitate the inclusion of a glossary. The poetry fades into the background a little from time to time but not entirely as this extract shows:
Pink mist. That’s what they call it.
When one of your mates hasn’t just bought it,
but goes in a flash, from being there to not.
A direct hit. An IED. An RPG stuck in the gut.
However it happens you open your eyes
and that’s all they are.
A fine spray of pink, a delicate mist
as if some genie has granted a wish.
There, and then not.
A dirty trick you pray isn’t true.
White heat. Code red. Pink mist.
One of several powerful images that will stay with you. The language isn’t as catchy as Owen’s but I can imagine this being performed in English classes and holding the kids’ attentions plus the girls are certainly not left with nothing to say; they provide important counterpoint. I can certainly see this on the syllabus in a few years. Alongside Owen, a suitable complement.