Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards. Michael Brett. Bombaykala Books, 2017.
In a quiet, quirky, and often quotable collection of poems spanning the late 1970s to present day, poet Michael Brett spins tales of bombs, bodies, and bureaucracies, echoing and updating European traditions of 20th century war poetry. He does so with a wonderfully plainspoken and honest tone of a mid-level political functionary or well-informed citizen—someone engaged in immediately observing conflict, but also intellectually apart from it. Published by a Bombaykala Books in 2017, Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards is a 167-page collection printed in a cargo-pocket-friendly 5x8-inch format, and comprising some 86 poems. It is accessible in both form and content, yet invites and rewards multiple readings.
While a poem can be defined as any language-object in which the instructions on how it is to be read are embedded, it is also true there are more ways to read poems than there are to write them. Given its scope in both time and place, Brett’s work provides good terrain on which to test a few. Poetry can—and should—be enjoyed in terms of aesthetics: the creation of original metaphor, the curation of unique perspectives, and the clever uses of sound and line, are each, for example, criteria by which to appreciate and discuss a poem.
A poem can also be viewed in terms of its creator’s biography. Certainly, in considering words about war and conflict, readers often gravitate toward the poet’s life story, as if knowing whether or not a writer ever knew the bite of a bullet or the weight of a uniform could unlock untold insights hidden within their words. In the case of Brett’s collection, the book’s enigmatic cover—that by which an inner life should never be judged, remember—is deceptively black-and-white, and the title is presented as redacted text, suggesting a practice of censorship that would presumably run counter to the poet’s cited history as a professional communicator. On the front and spine. the silhouette of an M-16 rifle is also featured, suggesting that some of the poems therein may be written from a soldier’s perspective.
Whether or not these visual cues inform Tomorrow It Will All Run Backwards, however, remains for the reader to decide, for the book’s text is mostly devoid of explicit biography. According to notes published online by the author, Brett’s father served in World War II as a Royal Engineers officer who built bridges and diffused bombs, and his grandfather died of wounds suffered in World War I. Whether or not Brett served in the military himself, however, is unclear. The query exposes the limitations of biography as a tool for poetic analysis, for, in his depiction of soldiers and other stuff of war, Brett’s language achieves a more-than-sufficient degree of verisimilitude. One need not have participated in the making of war in order to write about it.
Later a financial journalist and then an educator of English, in the early 1990s Brett notably served in the press section of the London-based Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was from this perspective that he observed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia into civil war and genocide. The multi-faceted conflict among Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian factions saw more than 100,000 civilians and soldiers killed, and required deployment of 80,000 NATO troops to bring armed hostilities to an end in 1995.
Brett’s poems are presented in three sections, labeled:
- Easdale Island by Oban, Argyll, Scotland, 1974-1980
- The Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina, London, 1990-1995
- London, 2000-2015
A third way in which poetry can be interpreted is to expand beyond a poet’s personal history, and to place the work in context of larger historical events. In this way, poetry can be a lens through which to magnify the news of the day, including the perspectives, narratives, and even strategies embedded in a given time or place.
Now 62 years old, the poet’s earliest work evokes the hulks and husks of history, seeing ghosts in the everyday walks of life. His visions include torpedoed ships below the cliffs of Mull; an ancient longship used to bury a Viking warrior near Ardnamurchan, Scotland; and the statue of Lord Wellington, made of bronze cannon captured from his Napoleon campaigns, located outside the Royal Exchange, London. In “Stonehenge Artillery Range,” he memorably connects a modern military training area to the well-known ancient monument. In observing the physical adjacency, his imagery is strong and heroic:
[...] So it is with us: our cars, our lights.
These are no less mysterious than their gods and garlands.
And our peace sleeps too in the shadow of swords.
The white bandages of bombs and shells that unwind.
On nights as black as teak.
Carved like Chinese screens with moving soldiers
And a night sky burning on one edge; all
On the throbbing forehead of the range behind the stones.
Even as he’s starting out, however, the youthful Brett seems to gravitate as much toward the practical as the purple. Other poems demonstrate a plain-spun panache. Consider, for example, “People Shouting in Your Face,” in which he writes:
The one really useful thing I learned from the Army
Is how to say nothing when people shout in your face.
(In London, people who do this can sometimes be mad
Or carrying weapons.)
At school, we’d go to training camps where a man
Would shout in your face if you missed a drill move
Or your rifle wasn’t straight.
Justice, fairness seemed to be fugitives in the wet surrounding woods
And saying anything just made things worse.
You just had to stand there and take it.
In films, gunfire has noble qualities, like bugle fanfares
And the flapping of flags at sunset
But they are all just machines that shout in your face,
Or try to kill you. [...]
Also, peppered throughout his poems, Brett delivers bullets of pithy wisdom and metaphor—lines so quick they ricochet off the walls, and into potential conversation. As quotable ammunition, consider this quick volley:
- From “Twenty One”: “Soldiers are the cards in this casino, war.”
- From “Artillery Barrage”: “An artillery barrage is a drunken juggler.”
- From “Barbed Wire”: “Barbed wire is the Esperanto of repulsion [...]”
Finally, in wider focus, Brett also demonstrates an appreciation for the absurd and the darkly comic. In “Every Dead Baby is a Baby Croatian,” he opens with the type of war story that seems akin to the black humor of Catch-22 or the movie M*A*S*H. The work was shortlisted by the 2014 Wilfred Owen Association poetry competition:
‘It isn’t a tank, it’s an ambulance’
In the Information Centre of Bosnia-Herzegovina in London, we know
We are losing the war as we have no heavy weapons and no tanks. [...]
Tom, calm as a sniper, has a plan to buy a tank for Bosnia in Kalingrad,
Paint it white, remove its guns and say it is an ambulance. [...]
Believe it or not, Tom almost gets away with it. In a similar vein, consider the gimlet-eyed jargon of Brett’s “A Kalashnikov beats five aces. Come and look.”:
[...] In DIY War / You don’t need training or even armies. It’s like a sports club. You just ring up.”
Tell an Intelligence Officer anything and he always says “We know that.”
For ignorance itself is a type of secret, a Greenwich Mean, the Industry Standard, DIY War Time
Whatever his personal or professional history, then, Brett is a keen observer of the military mindset and the nature/character dialectic of war. In youth, he made clever historical connections. In the 1990s, he kept both his wits and his words sharp, as countries fractured. In his later work, readers are treated to all of the above, with poetry that expertly captures the terrible imagination—or perhaps the terrible lack of imagination—of our times. Even if the character of war is ever-changing, Brett’s plaintive witness to the nature of it is a shrine that fellow travelers should not miss.
As a final example, in “Oil Heart (Second Gulf War),” the poet writes:
Off camera and up close, this sea of war trembles like broken glass.
Its waves are shards, nose cones and bayonets.
Its faces are not calm as statues, but as anxious as turtles
Creaking and splashing in tides they cannot control.
The middle-aged cannot do this alone.
The young are told that they are beautiful in uniform.
Films are made, flattering them, deluging them
With stars. [...]
[...] So now I am a news exile. I watch only cartoon shows
And go to bed early. I only glance at the papers.
Muddy, I flail in war. Before its weighty armoured lies,
Its perverse and roaring beauty, I splash helplessly
Like someone drowning in oil.
Randy Brown is a journalist and author of the poetry collection Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire. As “Charlie Sherpa” he writes about citizen-soldier culture at Red Bull Rising, and about military writing at The Aiming Circle. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild.
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Header Image: A Spanish UN peacekeeper stands in the ruins of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Flickr)