Masham Means Evening is unique among poetry books published in Canada this year, not because Kanina Dawson’s style is especially engrossing but because she documents her time in the Canadian forces during her tour of Afghanistan. Structured chronologically, from her landing in Kabul to her return to civilian life, this poetic diary largely deals with her resistance to psychic numbing in the face of unrelenting horror. Early pieces showcase how violence has been entrenched in Afghan society for so long, from before the Soviet invasion in 1979 to the present day, that it has become the norm, as well as her Canadian shock that people can live for generations in such a state. On “The Road to Bagram” she realizes that
War came too many years ago
scattered too many teeth among the rocks
where the goats now graze
and where the guard goes to take a shit.
And at “Kabul University” that a female student can “still lose her nose, her face / her life, if she’s not careful,” referring to acid attacks from Taliban fanatics. As much as Dawson tries to maintain respect for the harsh terrain and its unfortunate people, signs of disconnect inevitably appear: she shrugs off deaths from a nearby earthquake—“We felt bad, but we’d already been there awhile.” This detachment probably accounts for the book’s most curious feature: her fellow soldiers are called by given name throughout, but Afghanis, whether friend or foe, are named only by occupation. She confronts this directly in “The Wrong Crowd,” where she addresses a slain teenage Taliban foot soldier, giving him back his personhood in death but also articulating the process by which he lost his humanity, which led to his death in the first place: “Once you had a soccer ball / And a name.” As a female soldier, she is in a particular bind in that any show of compassion to either the enemy or the local populace (often indistinguishable) marks her as ‘soft’ in the eyes of her mostly male comrades; when a female soldier looks for a kitten, ‘Todd’ tells her not to forget her purse. Caught in the crux of trying to understand her enemy, yet knowing that her enemy means her death, provides Dawson with her most dramatic moments. In “Taliban” she speaks from the point of view of a brutish hypocritical Muslim thug who funds his piety with opium and indulges in homosexual acts with young boys but still believes that “our future will be rewarded” in martyrdom. I was glad to see this poem for it is the most contentious yet honest one in the book. For a soldier, understanding can only go so far when death is the ultimate consequence for compassion. As Canada’s mission in Afghanistan terminates, we will see more books, articles, blogs devoted to putting this war in perspective. While Dawson’s poetry may be somewhat linguistically flat—mostly in narrative free verse—I am glad that a poet, especially a soldier poet, must be considered among those necessary voices.
Christopher Doda is the author of two poetry collections, Among Ruins and Aesthetics Lesson. He is currently working on a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.
This review also appeared in print in Arc 73.
READ ARC: CANADA’S CRITICAL CRITICAL POETRY JOURNAL.