Poetry Excerpts from New Life by Dan O’Brien

Dan O’Brien, the playwright of The Body of An American, is also a poet. He generously agreed to share a few of his poems about Paul Watson here on our blog.

The War Reporter Paul Watson Bids His Joy Farewell

Over FaceTime with his son complaining
about math, the cat’s diarrhea, those dire
choral concerts, Paul mentions he’ll be gone
a week or so. So what? ripostes his son
with a wit half his age. Knowing full well
no WiFi is murder. To Syria,
Paul persists. The betrayal. The Youngbloods
on his laptop, We are but a moment’s
sunlight fading in the grass. His joy asks,
Why do you have to? Stay home. Twisting off
-screen to strangle his tears in the window’s
vale of skiers. Paul’s hotel glass unveils
a surf at Bourj Hammoud the squalor of
the scotch in his tumbler. The near-future
will often bleed through. Like this nine-year-old
girl in a hospital because shrapnel
from a mortar bomb pierced the tent and speared
an aluminum vessel like a balloon
atop their space heater. The flaming oil
splashed over her cheek, her arm. Her mother
tried to smother the screaming but only
smeared the searing goo farther. In an ear
that seemed to disappear. Now like a stone
moldered over with the moss of silver
sulfadiazine cream, caked on to ward off
sepsis. Fracturing like plaster. The ungloved
nurses peel the gauze. Assad’s bombardment
reminds the city. The half-deaf girl’s sobs
chasten a crowded hallway. This moment
gets photographed tomorrow. I’ll return
soon, Paul promises. But in case I don’t
make it back, all you’ll need to do is go
up the mountainside and ask the forest
whether to ask out that girl. Ask the rain
how to finesse your mother. Ask the storm
if you can borrow His car. They’re laughing
between their screens. Can you promise? His son
gambles, Fuck off. The song on Paul’s laptop
switches to something less meaningful as
they disconnect.

The War Reporter Paul Watson and the Room across the Hall

It’s like they’re still in college. Mattresses
on the floor. Empty soda bottles filled
with water. Chicken bones and French fry stubs
in clamshell cardboard. Toilet rolls along
electric radiators. One laptop
like a fire in the cave mouth at night. Cords
suckling at working sockets. A tissue
box for unmentionables. Mugs and Moleskine
diaries. Backpacks, blankets. A feather
duster in a pressure cooker. Kevlar
vests and helmets, bullets, Kalashnikovs
and concussion grenades. I caught a glimpse
whenever they came or went. Jawboning
behind their door like they were debating
the death of God or Freud. And once I heard
English barked in a Brooklyn accent but
covered my ears for fear. Spat my toothpaste
into a kidney dish. Sank to my couch
cushion on the floor. In my solitary
room across the hall. Kevlar vest, camera
in my helmet. A pillar of sunrise
through Venetian blinds. While the muezzin
awoke Aleppo: Hurry to prayer,
hurry to success! They dragged a mattress
through my door, loaded with a newish corpse,
or so I thought at first. Black hair like moss
growing over a bullet scar. Breathing
miraculously. His midnight tracksuit
with Adidas stripes. Sharp cheeks, hennaed beard
sculpted handsomely by his friends. Bare feet
smelling of urine. While they were mopping
their room across the hall, the living corpse
watched me. As if smiling. As if sharing
his faith: Hurry to prayer, hurry to

The War Reporter and the Poet Share a Curse

Why do I write back to you? Why do you
write to me? Why not lay our weary heads
upon our arms and weep? How can you think
we’re the same? when everything’s been going
your way, relatively. When my family
turned their backs on me, Paul, they were asking,
Where have you gone? And with the spring the snow
gives up the trash of fall. Praise be the green
caulking up sidewalk cracks. Heap praise on dirt
for your unborn child’s sake, if no other
reason. But can’t you tell me the reason
you’re still here, Paul? I lie to everyone
save my wife and son. I shrink from the truth
now more than ever. A bottle of wine
on a Friday night, something I suspect
has become daily for you. To admit
I mourn them is to say I miss the hate
they engendered. Or should I say I mourn
a peace not yet achieved? Why do we write
still? You won’t let me go, and I believe
I don’t deserve to be.

These poems by Dan O’Brien about Pulitzer Prize-winning combat journalist Paul Watson are from New Life, poems of Syria and Hollywood, published in 2015 in London by CB Editions, and forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn. O’Brien’s earlier collection of poems about Watson entitled War Reporter (2013 US & UK)—described in the Guardian as “a masterpiece of truthfulness and feeling”—received the UK’s Fenton Aldeburgh Prize and was shortlisted for the Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection.

Performances for The Body of an American begin February 10 at the Cherry Lane Theatre. Visit our website  for more information and to purchase tickets.

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