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Eternal War Requiem
By Bill Dougherty (reviewer)
Poetry Despite/Music Despite (Eternal War Requiem)
conceived & organized by Aaron Hughes
(2019, available at justseeds.org)
Eternal War Requiem is an ambitious undertaking consisting of cello music, contemporary poetry, and poetry from WWI. The work is a two-record set, woodcuts depicting war scenes, transcripts of contemporary poetry with English translations of poetry performed in Arabic.
The Requiem might have begun anytime, anywhere. It might have started in Greece after Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter, Iphigenia to appease the gods to obtain favorable winds. It might have started when the Trojan women were carried off to slavery. It might have started when Agamemnon was killed by his wife, Clytemnestra upon his return to Greece in revenge for his killing their daughter. It might have started when Aeneas fled Troy to found the Roman empire. It might have started during the American Civil war. It might have started when Wilfred Owen, 22, enlisted in the British army in 1915. It might have started when he was killed on November 4, 1918 seven days before the signing of the Armistice. It might have started any time anywhere in history.
It is a work in six acts. It consists of improvised cello music by Karim Wasfi, hip-hop poetry by the Serian Kings, contemporary poetry by Aaron Hughes, Carlos Sirah, Dunya Kikhail and Kevin Basan, WWI poetry by Wilfred Owens, and wood block prints by Aaron Hughes. The work was conceived by Aaron Hughes. The overarching theme is the futility and tragedy of war. The first material presented is from WWI to the current endless war, it is a Requiem for all casualties of all wars.
It was produced on two long playing records. If you wanted to listen, you needed a record player. It is also available digitally on the internet.
I came to review this with no training in music or poetry. I did bring my participation in the Vietnam War as a young marine and a working record player.
I listened to War Requiem on both vinyl and digitally. There are advantages and disadvantages of each medium. The poetry readings were clearer and more easily accessed digitally. The music had a greater depth and seemed more poignant on vinyl.
The work is internally consistent, and the material is troubling as it is meant to be. Music and poetry have always been a part of my life. I have a copy of Wilfred Owen's poem Dulce Et Decorum Est on my wall. Poetry and music can both elicit strong emotions. Describing these feelings and translating them to paper is difficult. The sum of the parts rarely adds evenly to the whole. Each listener would apply different weights to each part.
I have found cello music to be soothing and accessible. This did not hold true when listening to Karim Wasfi's improvised performances. He elicited uncomfortable feelings in response to the images and poetry. The images of the wood cuts seemed to come to life when viewed with the music. The wood cuts amplified the images and feelings associated with the poetry. When I read poetry, it must be quiet, or the noise distracts and disturbs. I listened to the performances but went to the printed form to better understand the poem and feel its impact. The digital medium allows easier access to the performances in isolation and to listen to the poems more clearly, but the written poems offered a more traditional way to understand the poem's meaning.
Listening to the authors read their work was moving. The Syrian King's work was remarkable. I understand no Arabic. Hip-hop and rap music have their roots in gospel music and the Blues, traditional African American forms. The adaptation in Arabic proved to be smooth. For me it worked better for the verses in Arabic than the ones translated into English even though I could not understand the former but felt the rhythm. I enjoyed the work of Dunya Mikhail. The simultaneous translation of Plastic Death was riveting. All the poetry was exceptional—easy to read and thought provoking.
I would have liked more of Owens' work to be read without accompaniment. His poetry uses classical forms and is meant to be read aloud. The feelings elicited and their meaning is clear. His death a week before the armistice was signed is particularly tragic. The war was over. The Germans were defeated. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was chosen for its symbolism and not because the outcome was yet to be determined. Owen and thousands of others were killed or wounded for symbolism. War robbed us of his future and of the future of all its victims.
Bill Dougherty grew up in NYC and enlisted in the USMC in 1964. He served one year in Vietnam. He went to college after the service and trained as a Psychologist.