reviewed by David Clarke
Josh Ekroy’s Ways to Build a Roadblock is an unusual debut collection in terms of its strong thematic focus. Whereas first books often see poets exploring a range of topics as they establish their voice, Ekroy’s almost exclusive concern is with the ‘war on terror’ and its consequences. Ekroy is not a former combatant, as several high-profile exponents of recent war poetry have been, but the majority of the poems here do not primarily seek to explore the experience of soldiers, or indeed of the civilians in the countries affected, but rather to examine the language by which those experiences are communicated to the non-military populations of the West, who are mostly bystanders in these conflicts.
Skilfully reproduces the languages of the military, journalism and politics, yet also re-mediates them into surreal contexts
Many of the poems refer back to newspaper reports and some contain found elements. However, their purpose is not simply documentary. Ekroy skilfully reproduces the languages of the military, journalism and politics, yet also uses the poems as a space in which that language can be re-mediated into new and often surreal contexts. Ekroy uses bizarre juxtapositions of these ideological languages with unexpected elements in order to estrange discourses which would otherwise seek to distance the reality of conflict from the media audience. So, for example, the post-invasion election campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq are satirised in two poems, ‘Vote Pine Tree’ and ‘Vote Horse’, the latter of which channels the vague promises and pomposity of the politicians seeking office through the self-aggrandising speech of the eponymous animal: ‘True men dream of owning me, so I count / on your thumbs to elect me President / of Afghanistan.’ In other poems, the language of the processes set up to throw light on the circumstances around the UK’s participation in the Iraq invasion of 2003, the Hutton Report and the Chilcott Inquiry, is made ridiculous by the conceit of pretending that the reports were actually about the death of Humpty-Dumpty and the Trojan War respectively. Greek myth serves a different purpose elsewhere, in poems such as ‘Achilles in Helmand’, pointing our continuities of barbarous violence from antiquity into the present. This attention to the qualities of dominant forms of discourse at times reveals more about the moral failures of the ‘war on terror’ than any direct indictment of those failures could achieve. For instance, in the poem ‘The Restroom’, Ekroy offers a sparse description of an equally sparse and uncared for room used by American torturers, decorated with a print of one of Van Gogh’s paintings of boots and a notice asking users to ‘please clean up after yourself’. Ekroy rightly feels no need to ram home the irony of such a request, showing us in a few words just how the banality of evil works in such institutional settings. This is equally the case in the following poem, ‘Medical Advances’, which employs quasi-scientific language to coolly and carefully describes a torture procedure involving pouring cold water onto a cloth held over the victim’s mouth, before going on to explain the useful data the medics have gleaned from this practise for treating sick patients in the US.
As will be clear from the above, Ekroy has the ability to address issues around warfare unflinchingly, yet his focus on the language which armies, politicians and others use to justify and normalise their actions has the benefit of moving the reader beyond (understandable) horror when faced with violence to a consideration of the reader’s own complicity. It is the public back home which is the audience for much of this evasive and duplicitous talk, and Ekroy does us all a great service in satirising that talk so effectively. ‘Rafah’, a found poem which uses the words of a government minister in the House of Commons making a statement on the killing of civilians, is particularly masterly in this respect. Simply by removing the many interjections which the minister has to counter from the transcript, the fundamental dishonesty of this exercise in victim-blaming is laid bare:
The incident was looked into – look – no, let me – the incident was looked into and there is no evidence – no evidence – no – let me – no, she knowingly entered the forbidden – She knowingly. With a satchel, for God’s sake. She knowingly and in full. Well obviously she was being used to lure soldiers […].
Despite this strong focus on the ‘war on terror’ throughout the collection, that preoccupation is by no means unrelenting, although some of the other topics addressed, such as various forms of totalitarian dictatorship, seek to establish connections with the book’s main theme rather than providing diversion from it. But there are also nature poems such as ‘Langtree, Spring’ and ‘First Woodpecker’ and poems about family. Here Ekroy demonstrates his ability to provide skewed perspectives on more everyday subjects, combining a conversational tone with a talent for surprising imagery and a taste for playful experimentation. For instance, in the poem ‘Goldfinches’, the often repeated name of the bird in question never actually seems to refer to the real bird at all, but rather to some strange, fictional version of it: ‘I had a goldfinch once which I bought from the butcher. / It turned a mouldy green. I knew then / that there were real goldfinches such as the ones / my family acquired in a principled way / and then there were fake which existed in the world.’ In such poems, Ekroy puts me in mind of a writer like C. J. Allen, whose work can be recommended to anyone who enjoys Ekroy’s book.
All in all, then, Ways to Build a Roadblock is a striking debut, which offers a witty and devastating critique of a corrupt and disastrous foreign policy by turning the language of its instigators and facilitators against their own purposes. The biting humour of Ekroy’s work saves the collection from any potentially claustrophobic gloominess. So, even when he is imagining the excavation of a defunct British civilisation by peoples from other parts of the world centuries hence, he does so with a macabre glee. It will be interesting to see which targets he sets his sights on in a second collection.David Clarke is a teacher, researcher and poet living in Gloucestershire. His first pamphlet, Gaud, was joint winner of the 2012 Flarestack Poets Pamphlet Prize and subsequently won the Michael Marks Award 2013. He blogs here.