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Write On Ottawa: Turning a soldier’s experience in Afghanistan into moving poetry

By Rob Thomas on December 21, 2013

Ottawa author Kanina Dawson’s poetry collection Masham Means Evening, which is based on her experiences as a master corporal with the Canadian military in Afghanistan, doesn’t invite a tepid response.

“Dawson grabs the reader full frontal and screams – here it is, the face of war, have a bite.”  That’s how poet Michael Dennis describes it.  Tepid?  Not so much.

Published by Coteau Books, Masham Means Evening is a cycle of 67 poems based on Dawson’s 10-month tour in 2005 and 2006.  It is her first book.

The poems are lyric, free verse with a consistent, first-person narrator.  She uses direct narration, plain language and arresting imagery based on raw experience.  Nothing fancy. Exactly what one expects from war poems.

But this conventional style heightens the tension of poems that tend to turn upon contrasts such as home vs. away, danger/threat vs. actual death, or assumptions vs. understanding.

The mode is simple but the work is not.  Dawson neatly captures the lives of soldiers, their growth, vulnerabilities, camaraderie and alienation.  In Kingston, January 2007, for example, Dawson writes:

I remember what it was
to feel alive in that place,
to do what mattered.
How under that sun, my skin,
like a husk of melon, was sweet.

The collection has a beautiful narrative arc that recalls Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.  The narrator begins in Canada and crosses into a foreign realm, Afghanistan, in the poems Flights In, Landing in Kabul and The Road to Bagram.

In this foreign realm, the narrator acquires special knowledge.  She discovers the plight of women after the Taliban, for example, in Kabul UniversitySelf Immolation and Electoral Candidate:

Even her brothers say she’ll only bring shame.
Together they decide
her fate for her instead –
to hold her down by the ears, to slit
her stomach until it grins.

She also faces death and undergoes a transformation and learns a soldier’s ironic powerlessness. (Casting the Net: “I ache to discern/ something definitive that I can use/ to turn the tide of this thing.”)  Death is also rendered routine:

 …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 –
uninterested in the lost jaw bone of some Russian
whose parents no one can name.

The twist comes when the narrator does not return to Canada.  Canada appears in only three poems:  The retrospective Kingston, January 2007 (which opens the collection), Repatriation and Rainstorm and Dangerous Men about Afghans they had taken for friends:

Back in Canada we figure it out – what duplicity means –
when we hear that one of our own got his head cleaved with an axe.

It is as if the narrator cannot escape the war.  She returns home but the knowledge she has acquired doesn’t translate.  There is no tidy resolution to her quest.

Instead the collection ends with the title poem, Masham Means Evening, which describes a land of smoke, where the sun sets in ash and a one-eyed dog prowls a cemetery.  All that remains is the poems and their many images.  It is not a pretty picture.

It is, however, just as Michael Dennis describes: a book that “grabs the reader full frontal and screams.”  It is also a remarkable debut.