Sitting in the sun on my patio I feel a slight breeze. I feel secure, safe, and the chirping birds induce a calming presence over the distant sounds of construction. Opening this book of poetry, Masham Means Evening, written by Ottawa poet Kanina Dawson, from the perspective of a female Canadian soldier, I am transported into the intense heat, dust, and destruction of the war in Afghanistan. Though I suspect that war defies cohesive description, Dawson uses nuanced, economical language to flesh out the experience.
Men, women, and children are maimed or killed, be they Afghan civilian, Taliban fighter, or coalition soldier. Afghan females, however, are struck or killed at the best of times, just for being female: a little girl is beaten by her uncle because Canadian soldiers wave at her, a female electoral candidate is murdered by her brothers. Acts of god factor in as well, as an earthquake kills a dozen schoolgirls. In her poem “Working for the Coalition,” Dawson writes, “it’s amazing the things you don’t stay amazed at. Afghan cooks / risk losing their heads [to the Taliban] to make rice with lamb and eggplant [for Canadian Troops], / something / none of us even like.” Straight and to the point, these jarring truths are presented in a powerful and honest way. The descriptions of the dead and wounded (and the persona anticipates that she could be next) are frank, immediate and suspenseful. My sense of safety is shaken. I no longer feel secure.
The effect of the book is cumulative. Dawson’s use of symbolism is so interconnected: for instance, the word “melon” is used in the first poem, “under that sun, my skin, / like a husk of melon, was sweet,” and then the same word is used later on, “one of our own got his head cleaved with an axe… someone slumped him into the darkness. / Made of him a melon, split, / halved…. Their district was famous for its melons,” and the word itself become charged, synonymous with brutal killing and gifts from duplicitous Taliban fighters. There are a number of symbolic events in this book, which make me want to read back and forth through it. The way that Dawson creates meaning, evoking the situation the persona finds herself in, is quite detailed and layered.
The title poem is last, providing circularity, satisfying the reader with its last line being a repeat of the title of the book, “Masham Means Evening.” There is no neat and tidy ending to the experience of war. There are, after all, the dead, the wounded, the memories, and there will always be fear. I can imagine that this was an incredibly difficult book to write, but Dawson’s writing seems believable, humble, and respectful to the experience. Masham Means Evening is an evocative, transporting, and tragic book, that I recommend to anyone who feels safe and secure.
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