Kanina Dawson spent 10 months in Afghanistan in 2007, serving as a soldier in the Canadian military. That experience serves as the raw material for her first collection of poetry.
The book follows a loose chronology, beginning with the author shipping out and leaving behind her young daughter in Kingston, Ontario. The displacement she feels upon arrival in Afghanistan is palpable, though there are echoing similarities with her native country. These are narrative poems that speak of Dawson’s military experiences, and the people and situations she encountered. The poems move forward with a quiet insistence, never shrinking from how brutal life can be or the vicious humour soldiers employ to deflect the horror of war.
Most of the Canadian soldiers are given proper names, but the Afghan people the poet meets often are not, described instead as cooks, policemen, suicide bombers, or potential Taliban insurgents. It’s especially illuminating to note how women are depicted in these poems. A principal at Kabul University wears heels and makes noise – things she couldn’t have done a decade earlier. Yet, in the streets, the posters of a female politician have the eyes gouged out, while women face acid attacks, rape, and threats of death. Attitudes are not so different among Dawson’s fellow soldiers. When the author displays compassion, she’s mocked relentlessly; when her opinion differs from that of a male colleague, she’s dismissed and insulted.
There are several striking poems here, such as “Optics” and “Working for the Coalition,” but others suffer from clunky metaphors that don’t quite work, or fall too hard on the final line. Even so, this is a captivating first collection, offering a unique glimpse into the lives of soldiers and the difficulties they face.