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The war poetry of Chas Lotter: a short review


M.E. Hagemann B.A.(Hons), M.A.


Chas Lotter's war poems are not flashy, gift wrapped packages of contrived emotion or situation. The poems were born in the blast of war, thus his verse is gritty, sometimes stained, but always authentic as a voice of the period. Chas makes no effort to speak as a "Zimbabwean" voice. His words are Rhodesian, through and through. This might sit uncomfortably with some, yet even those who hold no truck for Rhodesia or its cause, will not remain unmoved after reading Lotter's work.

A first reading of Lotter's work turns up pleasant surprises. There are no drab patches of propaganda masquerading as verse. Far from it. Lotter ranges far and wide in an effort to record the intimate details of life in a country at war, with a people under arms. In After the First Pass, there is the wry bemusement of the territorial soldier who finds the transition from civilian to army life impacting heavily on his creature comforts:

I enter the clatter
Of the dining hall
Receive my dollop of stodgy food
Of the rare roast beef
I had gorged myself on

Lotter does not shy away from the savage or the painful either. In Raid into Mozambique, his soldier stops in the crazy pace of battle to unfathom the savagery of a war that has tipped his box of memories upside down:

I desperately search for landmarks
To hang my fading memories on
My Barragem is gone
Weaponry, fox holes and craters
But where was the neat, white church
I knew before ?
The building I laid my kit in
Was acned by small arms

Death lurks in Chas' poems. The dark angels of swift, sudden death have left their mark in places; but Lotter is able to transcend naked violence on occasions, so that death becomes a strangely shy figure who hovers, semi-respectfully, in the background. We see this in Verdict of Battle:

I have seen your patient figure, many times
Waiting for your cue
But I do not hate you, Death
For the enemy too,
Feel your touch when the rifles shout your toll

All through his poetry, Lotter searches for moments worth recording. The chilling central metaphor of Battlefield; the bitter introspection of This War; the quiet humour that permeates Russian Aid - these are but samples of the multitudinous experiences of war life, and it is the quality and intimate detail of this life, that Lotter seeks to deliver in his poetry.

It is no easy task selecting the one poem which might fire up an audience. Ashes to Dust is heart-rendingly beautiful. It sings its own sad song. Yet there is another poem to which we can look to close this review. My choice is Rhodesia - The End. Here is an excerpt which will stir the hearts of many:

We were a strange, quarrelsome folk
We were many. We were all the peoples
Of this troubled land of many names
We believed in destiny, and when ignited
Even by leaders themselves misguided
We moved, we strove, we wrought
We drossed our metal in the fire of war

(graphic by Nick Skipworth-Michell)

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