For some time, whilst reading other books as well, I have been working my way through the “Collected Poems 1941-1994” of Michael Hamburger. I was bought the volume when I was 40 years ordained, not that Michael Hamburger wrote religious verse, but he did provoke thought and was able to say in a few lines of poetry what it would have been nearly impossible to adequately put in prose. Take for example one such poem from the 1960s entitled, “An Error”. The event in question was the bombing of a Vietnamese village by the US Marines, “accidentally”. Many of the men were away from the village, at the time of the bombing, serving in militia forces allied to the Americans.
Hamburger with heavy use of irony, but never quite stepping over into caricature, spins a web of unacceptably superior attitude, purporting to be compassionate care, whilst in fact being dismissive, inappropriate and careless. The good fortune that many were out of the village is what kept the death toll low, “a hundred and sixteen thatch and wattle homes were destroyed - yet “only thirty-five people died.” This ‘good fortune’ of the villagers is further celebrated by the payouts to the bereaved families - thirty-four dollars each and lesser amounts for the injured, depending upon the extent of those injuries.
“Bomb us again, they beg,
Our protectors, our liberators,
We still have people to spare
But not enough rice to feed them,
Now that the fields are churned up.”
The extent of the dismissal of unprotected communities in the face of sophisticated warfare waged by others, is felt from Sudan to Yemen, from Afghanistan to the Ukraine, from Syria across the Middle East, along the flashpoint of Kashmir for India and Pakistan, and still the persecution of minorities, the breaking up of families and the cool acceptance of death by those with overwhelming power to destroy, as well as to build, makes Michael Hamburger’s poems under the section on Observations, Ironies and Unpleasantries a compelling read, but one to be taken in small and thoughtful sections, bringing their insights into the world today - and offering their reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.