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Regime Change -- Andrew Motion

Guest poem sent in by Reed C Bowman

Here's Andrew Motion's latest take, as UK poet laureate, on the
destruction of Iraq (from
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts/2912557.stm):
(Poem #1215) Regime Change
 Advancing down the road from Nineveh
 Death paused a while and said 'Now listen here.

 You see the names of places roundabout?
 They're mine now, and I've turned them inside out.

 Take Eden, further south: At dawn today
 I ordered up my troops to tear away

 Its walls and gates so everyone can see
 That gorgeous fruit which dangles from its tree.

 You want it, don't you? Go and eat it then,
 And lick your lips, and pick the same again.

 Take Tigris and Euphrates; once they ran
 Through childhood-coloured slats of sand and sun.

 Not any more they don't; I've filled them up
 With countless different kinds of human crap.

 Take Babylon, the palace sprouting flowers
 Which sweetened empires in their peaceful hours -

 I've found a different way to scent the air:
 Already it's a by-word for despair.

 Which leaves Baghdad - the star-tipped minarets,
 The marble courts and halls, the mirage-heat.

 These places, and the ancient things you know,
 You won't know soon. I'm working on it now.'
-- Andrew Motion
Calling it 'Regime Change', presumably the change from life's to death's realm,
from standing monuments of history to fading memory, is bleakly ironic
commentary on the political beginnings and propaganda of this war.

The comment 'You see the names of places round about?' reflects the
extra awe and horror of modern warfare's havoc wreaked on places
hallowed by millennia of history. (I'm reminded of James Fenton's
"Jerusalem" - I forget if you've run that yet - though there it is the
history itself that is the bone of contention. Here it is merely the
recipient of attention from that infamous hobgoblin, collateral damage.)

I am sure that due attention is in fact being paid by bomber commands
not to destroy ancient monuments if it can be helped, as they always
insist, but I dread the Friday when at time of prayer some ancient
faience-decked and thronging mosque will fall to a bomb made to look
like a cruise missile blast, because what better way would there be for
a desperate, ruthless and irreligious regime to at least call down
vengeance for its own passing on the enemy which is hunting it down?

Even if someone's hand balks at that deed, we'll see Monte Cassinos
fall, the more in Iraq because their equivalents are more densely
strewn, in any city the ground war takes by storm. If we protested the
war before it started, this poem is, in a way mourning the passing of
monuments which have not yet been destroyed. But beyond that, it laments the
stain of death now being brought to the hallows, even if the mosques or temples
or palaces or ruins are not battered down.

Reed

[Martin adds]

I like today's poem a lot more than I did Motion's previous antiwar piece,
Causa Belli [Poem #1143]. Motion addresses the common concern about priceless
historical sites being obliterated in a moment of wanton destruction, and sets
that against the background of a Middle East enriched by the passing millennia,
the cradle of civilisations, empires and legends.

'Regime Change' doesn't really do justice to the richly evocative, almost
legendary nature of the region's history (I wonder, for instance, what Flecker
would have made of the same material), but then, that isn't its focus. Instead,
its tone captures the indifference-masquerading-as-pragmatism that seems to be
vying with patriotic glory as a justification for some of modern warfare's
indiscriminate excesses. The understated, almost offhand "I'm working on it
now" hits just the right note.

martin

p.s. Quote of the day:
  "Andrew Motion said his 22 lines of verse were intended to be explicitly
anti-war."
    -- [broken link] http://dsdsdemo2.ap.org/aptopicsdemo/stories/184_ds_1764009.html

54 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Highland David said...

Curious, when I read this poem before reading any of the comments, I saw it
as relating to the ugly changes in this part of the world due to the act of
Saddam's regime, not the changes taking place during the current attempt at
regime change. I saw the title playing off of George W's 'regime change' by
suggesting that regime changes have occurred before, with negative results
(as pointed out in this poem by 'Death') appearing gradually over time.

david

Brian Probert said...

I feel he has rather wasted what could have been a brilliant poem about
the eternal violent nature of man to make a partisan statement about
what, in historical terms is just a transient affair. Perhaps too he
missed the opportunity to link in with the tradition that Death
originated in Eden in the first place ..
" . the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death
unto the World and all our woe" (Milton)
Brian

Brian Probert said...

I feel he has rather wasted what could have been a brilliant poem about
the eternal violent nature of man on a partisan statement about what, in
historical terms is a transient affair. Perhaps too he missed the
opportunity to link with the tradition that Death originated in Eden in
the first place ..
" . the fruit of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste brought death
unto the World and all our woe" (Milton)
What's happening now is just a continuation of original sin.
Brian Probert

Savvas Pavlou said...

It's a perfect poem. I translated it into greek. I will send the translation with an other email
Savvas Pavlou

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Anonymous said...

I am inclined to agree more with the interpretation given by David (above). Coalition forces passed through Niniveh (Mosul). But the line about the Tigris and the Euphrates is particularly problematic for the interpretation you have given as it was coalition forces that reflooded southeast Iraq for the marsh arabs, which Saddam dammed off. The taste/smell of despair is a trope that harks back to some of the reporting on the first gulf war, in Kuwait and Kurdistan especially. The most favourable reading of the poem I can give is not even a very broad historical one but a failure of Iraq or anywhere for that matter to ever live up to paradise and the dangers of utopian thinking. Not his best and I don't think history will be kind to it. Your comparison begs the question: Why is James Fenton not our poet laureate? Ms. Duffy my shoe.
Jim

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