Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Contriving To Be Alive: Brave Little Sternums - Poems From Rojava By Matt Broomfield

The revolution of women presently unfolding in Iran, against male oppression bolstered by strict application of the tenets of Islamic fundamentalism, marginalizes still further the interests of the much-abused Kurdish peoples, at least in terms of the deflection of public attention. The stateless Kurds, whose numbers total near 40 millions, have been pushed around, tyrannized and displaced ever since the western powers re-wrote the colonial map in the early part of the twentieth century.

And Matt Broomfield’s harrowing first-hand account of the plight of an abandoned ‘nation’, not least that of its women, serves as a corrective to injustice, and to give parity to a forgotten cause. Journalist and writer Broomfield has lived and worked at the cutting-edge of Kurdish affairs since the beginning of the most recent incursion, by the Turks, into their makeshift homelands. A witness to the systematic depravities of occupation and exodus, of brutal control and refuge, the sincerity of Broomfield’s mandate is unrehearsed, unmediated. And in Brave little sternums, he finds the most direct and distilled vehicle for the exploration of pain, deracination and hope. Prefaced by an informative and necessarily lengthy examination of the historical conditions that have led to the current impasse, Broomfield’s collection of poems is both partisan and persuasive, insinuating the raw viscera of observation, and personal emotion, into an open wound of conflict.

Relentless, like Kalashnikov fire, the poet’s delivery is impressionistic, rough-edged, as though the servile application of form would be an unnecessary constraint in a context of relentless immediacy. We find something of this urgency in Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s poetic retelling of her photographic journey across Ukraine in One Language, and it is an eminently pragmatic approach given that scraps of ideas for poems are often collated in moments of danger. Broomfield’s poems were conceived not in peaceful hindsight but in a zone of conflict, and the gravitas of the heated military exchanges is conveyed in abundance, yielding no ground to lyrical prevarication beyond that which is exercised in rare moments of quietude.

Which is not to deny the rare and bespoke beauty of Broomfield’s eloquent stream of language ...
And, of course, the deep-rooted moments of intense introspection which, here, are handmaidens to enforced stasis in a poem about prison hunger-striking. Adopting the persona of a woman inmate in the book’s first poem, Broomfield’s narrator becomes a party to a narrative of incarceration and subjection, acquiring, like Pat Barker’s Briseis, the only mechanisms of endurance – stoicism and time-biding:

‘we were calm as you took one in ten of us
we were calm as we nine were taken too
in those days we learned the crime
of looking very hard at what we saw’. (for the hunger strikers, Amed prison)

The repetition is pointed: counting the hours, the prisoner is acquiring the forensic wisdom of redress, the means by which to one day turn the tables. This is a fitting opener to a collection that is not really a collection, but rather a threaded narrative of suffering, at one moment sardonic and at others, profoundly affecting. It becomes rapidly clear, as clear as a noisily conspicuous failure of negotiation, or the silence before ordnance detonates, that formal considerations carry little water in a narrative of daily survival: as well expect Solzhenitsyn to dress the depredations of a Soviet gulag in baroque polysyllables.

That there is, if not ebullience, then robustness amongst the shadowy figures whose sotto voce voices animate Broomfield’s narrative...
Which is not to deny the rare and bespoke beauty of Broomfield’s eloquent stream of language - sometimes occupying a liminal space between prose and poetry, and elsewhere settling into an explosion of powerful poetic lines that are well served by the irony of studied helplessness. And so it is that in crowd simulation, the coded modelling of stress and pressure on crowds in threatening scenarios (GAS) used by the West as a cool metric of analysis, is systematically undermined at Syria's Ground Zero by the searing actuality of bombs in marketplaces, lest we should forget that Western technocrats are the progeny of the architects of borders and divisions. Broomfield’s cross-hatching of regional and international detail, of the global reach of capitalism and of body parts, in one effluent outpouring is what inflames his mantra with anger:

‘the beginning is game theory and the rest soon follows,
taking on its own life, exceeding the coders’ wildest
dreams. strange forms emerging at random from the
neolithic code in its inchoate dawn. Hafez al-Assad
raising mosques from the smoke of slaughter. the
ophthalmologist crowned butcher. when the threat or
stressor is identified or realized, the body enters the first stage
of the GAS model: alarm
. if a bloodless coup should turn
bloody, no matter. the coder’s steady hand will run the
simulation back, recalibrate the parameters, and press
play once again’.

The tone here is polemical, choking the listener in a tide of uncapitalised clausal accumulation, as though to reify the relentless ironies of the barbarity of Assad’s maelstrom. For the fate of the Syrians is another face of the Kurdish coin. Broomfield’s concerns are given greater dynamism by the peripatetic nature of his vision. And that vision is mobile; the armoured personnel carrier of his imagination is fuelled by a velocitous metre that carries all in its wake, from landscape detail to facial expression, from bombs in playgrounds to the heartbreak of the Heval, the comrades, who smile as they grieve. But mostly endurance, rendered in the sardonic language of the people, whose terrain-familiarity and weariness is the measure of their sang-froid, and Broomfield’s recreation of it.

The poet’s great skill is to splice the grandiose with the detail, political mapping with its consequences, and noble intention with the boot in the sand. The stark binary of ideals and actual experiences is used to overwhelming effect right across Brave little sternums, and in the sustained polemic of Qamishlo, we find the titanic symbols of dogma and power displacing, but not quite subsuming, the quotidian instinct for survival:

‘not here, the Geneva Process
but toddler dogfights in the foothills
of great grey mountains of gay sorrow
shrieking blissful sigh at supper-time

here where everything is crescented
and light-beams shuffle shifty
in direct glare of kings, where
it takes twelve muscles to smile
and only one to touch the trigger
and whole towns to save the barley
from garlanded IEDs’

The apparent capriciousness of such tectonic fracturing might seem merciless to the bystander, had he or she time for philosophical reflection whilst observing the simple human instinct to survive the garlanding of IEDs.

That there is, if not ebullience, then robustness amongst the shadowy figures whose sotto voce voices animate Broomfield’s narrative, it is because the longevity of their endurance has welded them to their existences, inured them to ongoing pain (‘everything can be hotwired’): ‘do you understand that certain / postures / are scorched in flesh? that some muscles do not cramp /but grow stronger when the stress position is enforced?’ (when elephants dance).

And in Brave little sternums, he finds the most direct and distilled vehicle for the dissemination of pain, deracination and hope...
You read the bitterness of experience, of fatigue, in Broomfield’s own photographic record of the conflict(s) which accompany his poems. Starkly defined in ashen, dusty greys, the images give gravitas and corroborative authenticity to the mind’s eye of the text. As, in another sense, does the fulsome appendix of terms and locators that qualify the poet’s research, positioning his narrative, very visibly, in the Middle East of the present day.

And if we are to find integrity in Broomfield’s unique skill of realisation, it lies in the juxtaposition of the general with the specific, and the refusal to compromise truth for convenience. The inherence of inconsistency to the dystopia of conflict zones demands no less than a direct rendering of paradox:

‘the people pelt
the Americans with stones
not wanting them to leave

the situation is:

we have to hope the F-16s will strike
the front-lines tonight
to prove the ceasefire has failed’ (balance sheet)

Brave little sternums: is published by Fly On The Wall Press

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