Brian Turner

In previous posts I have discussed three poets — Walter E. Piatt, Paul Wasserman, and Elyse Fenton — who explore how the contemporary wars have wrought alterations of perspective and emotion on those who fight them and those who have been affected by them. Below I offer a few comments on Brian Turner, by far the most well-known and important of contemporary war poets.

The author of two volumes of verse, Here, Bullet (2005) and Phantom Noise (2010), Turner combines an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon with seven years of service as an enlisted infantryman, to include a tour in Iraq with the 2nd Infantry Division. As such, he sits astride the domains of both the academic poetry establishment and the hundreds and thousands of veterans who have used verse to articulate their war experiences.  Neither entirely in one camp nor the other, he complicates assumptions and expectations of each by being at once sensational and subtle, raw and refined, accessible and complex.  A good example is the title poem of his first volume:

       "Here, Bullet"

       If a body is what you want,
       then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
       Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
       the aorta's opened valves, the leap
       thought makes at the synaptic gap.
       Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
       that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
       into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
       what you've started. Because here, Bullet,
       here is where I complete the word you bring
       hissing through the air, here is where I moan
       the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering
       my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have
       inside of me, each twist of the round
       spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
       here is where the world ends, every time.

Interesting about the poem is the marriage of modern war imagery and emotion with the classical verse form of the apostrophe (a direct address to a non-human thing), all informed by a poetic smartness about half-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, and other literary effects. Thematically, the poem presents an original take on bravery. The poem is half-taunt and half-cry of pain, the challenge to the onrushing bullet a futile effort to both resist and understand war’s deadliness. The blur of emotions is matched by the interpenetration of the imagery, where the rifle and bullet are given human qualities and the soldier-speaker’s body parts are weaponized, as in “the barrel’s cold esophagus” and “my tongue’s explosives.”

The metaphysical musing of “Here, Bullet” is typical of many Turner’s poems, which only sometimes stop to consider events in which he personally participated. Occasionally though he works in a biographical vein. A great example is “Night in Blue,” from Here, Bullet. Several readers have told me it is their favorite Turner poem:

    
       "Night in Blue"

       At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
       blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
       a year of my life disappears at midnight,
       the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
       small as match heads burned down to embers.

       Has this year made me a better lover?
       Will I understand something of hardship,
       of loss, will a lover sense this
       in my kiss or touch? What do I know
       of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
       to say of the dead -- that it was worth it,
       that any of it made sense?
       I have no words to speak of war.
       I never dug the graves of Talafar.
       I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
       I never lifted my friend's body
       when they carried him home.

       I have only the shadows under the leaves
       to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
       the low fog of Balad,
       orange groves with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
       I have a woman crying in my ear
       late at night when the stars go dim,
       moonlight and sand as a resonance
       of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

When Turner isn’t considering his own emotions or the cosmological significance of war, his dominant mode is empathy for those with whom and against whom he fights. Two examples will suffice, one recording a birth in Iraq and one a death:

    
       "Helping Her Breathe"

       Subtract each sound. Subtract it all.
       Lower the contrailed decibels of fighter jets
       below the threshold of human hearing.
       Lower the skylining helicopters down
       to the subconscious and let them hover
       like spiders over a film of water.

       Silence the rifle reports. The hissing
       bullets wandering like strays
       through the old neighborhoods.
       Let the dogs rest their muzzles
       as the voices on telephone lines
       pause to listen, as bats hanging
       from their roosts pause to listen,
       as all of Baghdad listens.

       Dip the rag in the pail of water
       and let it soak full. It cools exhaustion
       when pressed lightly to her forehead.
       In the slow beads of water sliding
       down the skin of her temples --
       the hush we have been waiting for.

       She is giving birth in the middle of war --
       the soft dome of a skull begins to crown
       into our candlelit mystery. And when
       the infant rises through quickening muscle
       in a guided shudder, slick in the gore
       of birth, vast distances are joined,
       the brain's landscape equal to the stars.
    

       "Eulogy"

       It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M.,
       as tower guards eat sandwiches
       and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
       Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
       though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
       The sound reverberates down concertina coils
       the way piano wire thrums when given slack.
       And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
       when Private Miller pulls the trigger
       to take brass and fire into his mouth:
       the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
       a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
       and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
       blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
       crackle over the radio in static confusion,
       because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
       and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
       down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.

       PFC B. Miller
       (1980-March 22, 2004)

Turner poems record such facts of modern war experience as IEDs, women in uniform, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and PTSD, but the characteristic most worth mentioning in conclusion is his deep interest in history. Turner’s not particularly interested in politics and his sense of the war’s ethical dimensions is expressed obliquely. He is, however, ever conscious that the Iraq soil on which he fought had a long, richly-recorded existence before America turned it into a 21st century battleground. This pre-history of Operation Iraqi Freedom wells up in Turner’s poetry in the form of references to ancient texts, images of ghosts, evocations of ancestors, and readiness to consider contemporary events in a temporal context extending deep into the past and into the future.

    
       "To Sand"

       To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
       To sand the green smoke goes.
       Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
       Each star cluster, bursting above.
       To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year.
       To sand go reticles of the brain,
       the minarets and steeple bells, brackish
       sludge from the open sewers, trashfires,
       the silent cowbirds resting
       on the shoulders of a yak. To sand
       each head of cabbage unravels its leaves
       the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.

Turner, the first or near-first Iraq veteran to turn his war experience into verse, has established an impressive standard of both poetic craft and thematic depth for the poets who have followed him. I highly encourage everyone to read Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise cover-to-cover to fully experience Turner’s stunningly imagined representation of how the war in Iraq was fought and how it was felt.

This post previously appeared in altered form on Thomas Ricks’ Foreign Policy blog The Best Defense.

Here, Bullet was published in 2005 by Alice James Books.

Here-Bullet

Phantom Noise was published in 2010 by Alice James Books.

Phantom Noise

Permission to quote Brian Turner’s poetry has been granted by Alice James Books:  www.alicejamesbooks.org

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