War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic”

Brian Turner's "A Soldier's Arabic," as adapted by Giulia Alvarez

Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic,” adapted by Giulia Alvarez. Click to enlarge!

“A Soldier’s Arabic”

This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.  –Ernest Hemingway

The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.

Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.

Speak the word for death, maut,
and you will hear the cursives of the wind
driven into the veil of the unknown.

This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.

The great artwork by Giulia Alvarez at the top of the page illustrates the first poem in Brian Turner’s 2005 volume Here, Bullet.  Nine years after publication, not all might remember the force with which Here, Bullet shook the poetry world and inaugurated our contemporary war literature tradition.  No one in either the war or the lit business saw Turner coming–a poet with such skill, imagination, and empathy married with front-line experience, so devoid of amateurish stylistic flourishes or naïve or polemical thinking.  Even now, it’s hard to point to another war poet who comes close to the mark established by Turner in Here, Bullet and his subsequent 2010 volume Phantom Noise.  He practically defined the range of concerns and characteristic attitudes that almost all war lit writers would later echo, and in most cases he did so with more interesting imagery and emotional nuance than those that followed him.

Turner was also onto from the beginning subjects that others have overlooked or haven’t been prepared to deal with.  For example, the last line of “A Soldier’s Arabic”—“To be spoken, it must be earned”—seems to imply something about veteran-authors hoarding the right to speak with authority about war.  This sentiment remains strong today, but I don’t think it’s what Turner really feels, or what the poem is really about.  To me the line and the poem reach beyond the poet’s bond with fellow soldiers to embrace the Arab-Islamic world into which he and other Operation Iraqi Freedom participants were plunged.  Turner, more so than most American authors, has determinedly and persistently tried to measure the war in terms of the language, culture, and history of those on whose land it was fought.  Even a simple thing like learning the Arabic words for “love” and “death” is telling.  Not to underestimate anyone, but I’d be willing to bet less than 1% of Americans deployed to Iraq learned these most basic of words.  “Why would we?” they might ask, pragmatically enough from their perspectives, but short-sighted in its implications.

In this New York Times essay titled “After War, A Failure of the Imagination,” Marine vet Phil Klay asserts the power of fiction to make accessible foreign (in every sense of the word) experiences.  He pleads for readers who have not served or fought to sympathetically embrace the imagined worlds of war authors as acts that blend courage and curiosity.  Klay speaks mainly of efforts to bridge the divide between American civilian and military cultures, but pace Turner, I would extend Klay’s argument to the poetry and fiction written by Iraqis and Afghans. Turner as always leads the way.  In the current issue of Prairie Schooner, Turner as guest editor includes work by Iraqi, Afghan, Iranian, Pakistani, and Sudanese authors in near-equal numbers alongside American and European writers on war and conflict.  I look forward to opportunities to write about these authors and in the spirit of Turner offer notice of the following works of fiction authored by Iraqi writers:

Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, recently published by Penguin.  I have written about Blasim here and will write more about him soon.

Abdel Khaliq al-Rikabi’s The Sad Night of Ali Baba.  Not yet translated into English, a short description is here and an interview with al-Rikabi is here.

Ahmed Saadwi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad.  Also not yet translated into English, but an intriguing review is here.

Thanks to Sean Case for alerting me to the Arabic Literature (in English) website.  Big thanks to Giulia Alvarez and all the other students in Rebecca Bahr’s War and Literature class at Horace Mann School in the Bronx, New York City.

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2 Comments on “War Poetry: Brian Turner’s “A Soldier’s Arabic””

  1. Rebecca Bahr Says:

    Hi there Peter – I just saw this today and am so thrilled! I forwarded the email to Giulia. Hooray for Brian Turner – beautifully written and a reminder of his poetic power. Thanks, Becca

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Thanks, Becca, and thanks Giulia! It took Giulia’s artwork to remind me of what a great poem is “A Soldier’s Arabic.” Loved my visit to Horace Mann, and hopefully Brian Turner can get there someday, too.


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