Two respected academic journals feature big time talents as guest editors of recent issues given over to war literature. Prairie Schoonerinvited Brian Turner to assemble an all-star collection of writers on contemporary war for its winter 2013 issue, and Turner has delivered the goods. Elyse Fenton, Siobhan Fallon, Roy Scranton, Benjamin Busch, and Colby Buzzell are familiar names who have contributed stories, poems, and essays to the issue. Turner, always alert to non-American perspectives, also includes entries by foreign authors and writers on wars other than the Iraq and Afghanistan ones. A complete version is not available on-line, and I don’t have a paper copy yet, but a roster of authors and titles can be found here.
I am honored to participate in a Prairie Schooner roundtable electronic discussion titled “On War Writing.” Other participants include Donald Anderson, Doug Anderson, Matt Gallagher, and Marilyn Nelson, whose work I have read, and Sam Hamill and Stacey Peebles, who are unknown to me but whose work I am looking forward to getting to know.
Benjamin Busch has selected and introduced a collection of Iraq and Afghanistan war poems for the winter 2013 issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review. In “From the Desert Wars: Introduction,” Busch writes, “…these are words chipped out of the dirt by survivors exploring themselves and their war, all of them leading you to the monster. It as though each poet carefully laid out his field notes, searched them for connections to the immensity of human conflict, and found the least amount of language possible to send us messages. This is what is left, just these words, each poet sifting the battlefield for evidence to compose a truth.”
I am not familiar with the poets, all veterans, Busch has chosen to publish but will honor their names—Bruce Lack, Hugh Martin, Clint Garner, Patrick Whalen—and look for ways to talk about their poems in more detail in later posts. Busch contributes two poems of his own. One, titled “Girls,” wonders what female Iraqi or Afghan children must make of the American soldiers in their midst. Two lines:
We pass because we must, slow and reptilian, unable to pretend we mean no harm.
I’ll quote another, titled “Subtext,” in its entirety:
“This is not about that” It is too obvious to write about, an occurrence long with disappointment. But it is over. Uneven mud brick walls, burnt plastic wind, diesel exhaust, dust in the sky, children running, the curiosity of goats and men with sticks. Body heavy with bullets, soil thick with bone and bleeding, face rough with salt. The war occurs in everything now, and this is about that.
Busch is also in electronic print in The Daily Beast with this review of Lone Survivor. I haven’t seen Lone Survivor yet, but will soon and look forward to writing about it, too.
Many contemporary war authors, artists, and thinkers have turned to classical Greece for subjects, themes, and inspiration. A quick catalog might begin with Sparta, the recent novel by Roxana Robinson. The protagonist of Robinson’s novel is a Marine, and I’ve heard Robinson speak about how pervasively awareness of Spartan culture and ethos runs in the Marines. “The History of the Peloponnesian Wars is practically required reading at Quantico,” she reports. Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch recasts Sophocles’ Antigone by placing it in war-torn Kandahar. It begins with an Afghan woman’s entreaty to American soldiers on a combat outpost to release the body of her brother–an interesting storyline very much like Antigone‘s own. A fine collection of poems, Stateside by Jehanne Dubrow, draws on Homer’s Odyssey to explore the plight of the poetic speaker, a modern-day Penelope awaiting the return of her Odysseus. It’s hard not to imagine almost any of Siobhan Fallon’s tales of fraught return-from-deployment marriages in much the same light. But Sophocles’ Ajax might be the best Greek work in regard to the homecoming. Where The Odyssey portrays Penelope’s long nine-year wait for her man to return from war, Ajax portrays the even more tortured period AFTER the heroic Ajax returns from war to his war-trophy wife Tecmessa. Where Penelope barely gets to say a word in The Odyssey, Tecmessa’s anguished voice resounds throughout Ajax, as she wonders what the hell has happened to her husband. After Ajax slaughters a herd of sheep in a delusional rampage, Tecmessa screams:
During the night our wonderful Ajax Was hit with madness and went beserk You will see the proof of it in the tent: Holocausts dripping with gore by his hand
Ajax serves as the dramatic centerpiece for Theater of War, an acclaimed troupe who stage readings of the play to elicit discussion and activism on behalf of struggling veterans. If you have a chance to see a Theater of War performance, by all means do so. They also perform readings of another Sophocles play, Philoctetes, which like Ajax portrays the aftermath of war on a soldier wounded physically and emotionally by his experiences. Philosopher Nancy Sherman uses Philoctetes as the literary lens through which she explores issues of moral injury and repair in her recent work The Untold War.
I’m fine with all this Greek love, but it does make me appreciate all the more Brian Turner’s persistent effort to seed his poetry with references to Iraqi, Arabic, and Mesopotamian classic literature, folklore, and history. For my part, I turned first to ancient Rome when crafting the following short tale called “Cy and Ali.” It’s based on “Ceyx and Alceone,”a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection that itself draws on Greek antecedents for subjects, themes, and inspiration. Read on if you care to.
Cy busied himself with the by–now routine activities of a combat patrol: gathering his personal gear and stowing it in the truck, drawing the big .50 caliber machine gun and mounting it in the gun turret, setting the frequencies and security codes on the radio, helping out the other crew members and being helped by them in turn. As he waited for the mission commander to give the patrol brief, he thought about his wife for a few moments. Ali had not wanted him to go on this deployment; he had had options that would have kept him in the States, at least for a while longer, and she could not understand why he had been so eager to return to Afghanistan.
“I think you are crazy,” she had told him. Left unstated was the suspicion that he liked the idea of going to war more than he liked the idea of being with her. She loved him dearly, and though he professed his love for her, too, she couldn’t help but feel that he didn’t value their relationship as much as she did. Cy also wasn’t sure what to think, either then or now while he waited for the patrol brief to begin. Returning to Afghanistan had been very important to him, but beyond his claims about needing to be with his unit and doing his duty, he sensed that there was a cold hard nugget of selfishness about his willingness to jeopardize his marriage—not to mention his life—for the sake of the deployment.
Rather than give Ali an excuse or an explanation, he had offered a compensation. “When I get back, I promise I’ll make it up to you,” he had said, “I’ll go back to school, or find some job where I won’t have to deploy again anytime soon.”
The offer seemed lame, even to Cy, like he had thought about it for two seconds, but Ali acceded to it anyway. She loved Cy in part because he was a soldier, but some things about being a military wife were really bad. Now she busied herself with her own classes, her part-time job, and her friends and family. But she worried a lot, and had a premonition that things might not end well.
The day’s mission was nothing special: accompany an Afghan army unit while they resupplied three of their outlying outposts. The mission commander explained that the Americans’ role was to inspect the readiness of the Afghan outposts, and to provide artillery and medical support in case anything happened along the way. Cy’s job was gunner on the mission commander’s truck, which was to be third in the order of march behind two Afghan trucks. From the truck’s exposed turret he was to man the .50 cal while keeping an eye out for suicide bombers, IEDs, and ambushes. But nothing was expected to happen; “There has been no enemy activity on the planned route in the last 48 hours,” the mission commander informed them. They had traveled the day’s route many times before with nothing more serious occurring than a vehicle breakdown. Sure they planned well and rehearsed diligently, but that was all the more reason the actual mission was probably going to be not much.
Which is why what happened, at least at first, had an unreal feel. Three miles out, on Route Missouri, Cy saw the two lead Afghan trucks come to abrupt halts and their occupants pile out. The Afghan soldiers took up firing positions on the right side of the road and pointed their weapons back to the left side. Because he had headphones on and was chattering with the other truck occupants, Cy was unable to immediately distinguish the sound of gunshots, and it took him a moment to comprehend that the Afghans had stumbled into an ambush. Other Americans also soon gleaned what was going on and suddenly the intercom crackled with questions, reports, and commands.
“Action front…. Scan your sectors….. Anyone have positive ID?…. There they are…. 11:00 200 meters. Engage, engage!”
Cy identified three turbaned gunmen firing at the Afghan army trucks from behind a low wall. He charged his machine gun and began to shoot. He had fired the .50 cal dozens of times in training and thus was surprised by how far off target were his first two bursts. But very quickly he found the range, and was rewarded by seeing the big .50 caliber rounds chew up the wall behind which the insurgents were hiding. Dust and debris filled the air; Cy couldn’t tell if he had hit anyone, but surely the fire was effectively suppressing the enemy. By now, the other American trucks had identified the gunmen and were firing, too. Still, it was so hard to figure out exactly what was happening. That the three insurgents behind the wall were capable of resisting the torrent of fire unleashed on them by the American and Afghan soldiers seemed impossible, but no one could tell if there were other enemy shooting at them from somewhere else.
Soon, however, the sound of explosions began to fill the air. Again, it was not immediately clear that the Afghan army soldiers and the insurgents were now firing Rocket Propelled Grenades at each other. “What’s going on up there?” Cy heard the mission commander ask him through the intercom. Loud booms resounded everywhere from the impact of the rocket-fired grenades. Cy next heard “RPG! RPG!” echo through the intercom as the Americans understood that they too were now under attack. A round exploded against the truck to his left and Cy felt the blast wave wash over him. How could the enemy engage them so accurately?
As the battle unfolded, Cy realized the situation was serious, no joke. The rest of the crew was protected inside the armored truck, but he was partially exposed in the machine gun turret. He continued to fire the .50 cal, doing his best to punish the insurgents who were trying to kill them. The noise was deafening, but in the midst of the roar of his own weapon and the other American guns, as well as the cacophony of human voices on the intercom, he discerned that enemy fire was pinging around him and sizzling overhead. Though he was not scared, he thought about his wife.
Ali had felt uneasy throughout the day. She had not been able to communicate with Cy, which in itself was not so unusual. She understood that sometimes missions made it impossible for him to call or write. Still, she sent him emails and texts and the lack of a response for some reason felt ominous. That night, she had had a terrible dream. Cy appeared, looming over her, silent and reproachful, and Ali had awoken with a start. Nothing like this had ever happened before, not even close. She didn’t know what to do, so she watched TV for a while and then began surfing the Internet. She thought about calling her husband’s unit rear-detachment commander, but decided not to. There was no one she could talk to who wouldn’t think she was overreacting, so she didn’t do anything except continue to worry.
The next morning two officers appeared at Ali’s door. “The Secretary of Defense regrets to inform you that your husband has died as a result of enemy fire in eastern Afghanistan,” one of them intoned. It was all too true, but for Ali the reality of the situation dissolved in a swirl of chaotic thoughts and physical sickness.
Ali waited on the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base with Cy’s parents. An honor guard was also present, as well as a contingent from her husband’s unit, and a general whom she had never seen before and whose name she didn’t catch. Everyone was very nice to her, but Ali was confused. She didn’t know if she was supposed to be strong and dignified or to collapse in a pool of tears. She also didn’t know if she was angry with her husband, angry toward the Army, or just some strange combination of sad and proud. As her husband’s casket emerged from the plane, Ali felt herself drawn toward it. First she was taking small tentative steps, as if she were nervous about breaking some kind of rule or protocol. Then she was running, moving quickly toward the casket while the others in attendance waited behind. She was barely aware of what she was doing, but her feet seemed to no longer be touching the ground. It was as if she were floating or flying, and her arms were beating like wings of a giant bird. “O, Cy, is this the homecoming you promised me?” she thought, or maybe said aloud. Then she remembered throwing her arms around the casket, but at the same time she also felt herself rising into the air, in unison with her husband, who now was alive again and also seemed a magnificent, noble bird. Together, Cy and Ali soared upward, and the plane and the honor guard and the onlookers whirled beneath them as they circled in the sky.
Note: Below is a repost from Veteran’s Day 2013, with a few additions. Brian Turner’s great poem “Wading Out” speaks of a semi-private reunion of veterans long after the battle that united them in spirit forever. As I think about the flury of events that characterize Veterans’ Day this year, at least in my neck of the woods the New York City area, I actually sense a different mood afoot. The spirit of today’s veterans is communal, committed, and proactive. What is very cool about the New York City scene, and I hope it’s happening everywhere, is that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are taking the national commemoration of military service in their own hands. This last week I’ve been privy to a number of vet art and author events that have a distinctly “do-it-yourself” feel, as if to say, “We, the ones who served most recently, will organize events by which we present ourselves to the nation for consideration. And as we do, we will never ever forget our kinship and debt to those who served before.” An example is the event I will be part of on Veterans Day. A group of us–men and women, Army and Marines–will be reading selections from our favorite World War I authors at the Old Stone House historical site in Brooklyn. Join us if you can.
I’ve carried this poem around in my mind since the first time I read it. It’s from Brian Turner’s 2010 collection Phantom Noise.
We’re crossing an open field, sweating in December’s heat,
with First Squad covering from the brush to our left;
and I could be shot dead by a sniper, easily, this
could be the ground where I bleed out in ninety seconds,
but it won’t be. There’s a patch of still water
I’m about to walk into as I always do,
with too much adrenaline and momentum in my stride,
as my boots sink ankle deep and still I slog forward,
M4 held up over my head, though Fiorillo
sinks up to his knees off to my right—he backs up,
makes it out of the septic runoff I’m up to my thighs in,
the stench filling my nostrils now, and it’s funny enough
to laugh at once the mission’s over, Turner running in to swim,
but no one’s laughing anymore and the months are turning
into years gone by and still I’m down there slogging
deeper into the shit, shoulder deep, my old platoon
with another year of bullets and mortars and missions
dragging them further in, my lieutenant so far down
I can’t reach him anymore, my squad leader hunting
for the souls that would mark him and drag him under
completely, better than any bottle of whiskey,
and I keep telling myself that if I walk far enough
or long enough someday I’ll walk out on the other side.
But will Jax and Bosch and my lieutenant make it out, too?
If one day we find ourselves poolside in California,
the day as bright as this one, how will we hose ourselves off
to remove the stench, standing around a barbecue
talking football—how will we do that?
after Bruce Weigl
Most of the time, veterans carefully negotiate the terms by which they talk about war, with whom they talk about their experiences, and how they talk about what they have seen and done. On Veterans Day, they, and the country, let their guard down a little. If the public celebrations veer toward an excess of patriotism and gratitude on the side of the citizenry, and of privilege and indulgence on the side of the vets, that’s OK. It’s way better than doing nothing, wouldn’t you agree, at least for a day?
Bruce Weigl, if you don’t know, is a Vietnam vet and poet whose work is well worth checking out. Turner’s Phantom Noise was published by Alice James Books.
Matt Gallagher’s latest post on the New York Times At War webpage explains the structural fault lines that divide the veterans writing community. Gallagher notes that veterans writing workshops are a growth industry, key components of the veterans programs now established in many colleges and cities. He notes that within the veteran writing community motivations differ. Some see writing as a matter of self-expression or healing. Others see it as a means by which they might turn themselves into big-time, well-regarded artists. Some think their stories need ultra-precise realistic rendering of their personal experiences and are unable to see the need for artistic re-imagining at all. Some veteran writers overvalue the degree to which their war experience makes them uniquely qualified to write about war. They scoff at the pretensions of someone who hasn’t “been there and done that” to write meaningfully and movingly about war.
These are all subjects that interest me. I’m familiar with veterans programs sponsored by colleges as diverse as Farmingdale State and Vassar, to say nothing of my occasional interaction with the veteran population at West Point. It occurs to me that the New GI Bill, which basically funds four years of college for anyone who has recently served overseas, is as worthy a program as the storied GI Bill of the post-World War II days, and that if we as a nation (or at least our government) are serious about our commitment to veterans, generous allotments for education are second only to effective medical care as a material, no-BS way of saying thanks. College is just the right place for many vets—they can simmer down after their service while preparing for their future–and it makes sense that classes that allow them to explore their war experience are part of the curriculum.
The question of whether a writer who hasn’t been to war can write well about war also intrigues me. Gallagher cites Ben Fountain as the example par excellence of an author who never served in the military, let alone saw combat, but who can still convey what it is like to be a soldier. I love Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too, but have noted that Fountain evades extended description of battle. Is that a place he just didn’t feel comfortable going? Brian Van Reet, a decorated vet, portrays two horribly mangled veterans in comic-grotesque terms in “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” Would a civilian feel as comfortable doing so? Is there something wrong with someone who isn’t disabled portraying characters who are? Both these cases reflect the issues of credibility and authority that permeate discussions of war writing.
We actually already have lots of fiction and non-fiction that describes what it is like to fight, and what it is like to live after fighting. Most of them are rendered largely through the perspective of one protagonist. I’m eager for a story that expresses the totality of an Iraq or Afghanistan deployment. A cast of characters, not just one main one. A vivid depiction of social milieu, from the squad up to the brigade, as they progress from home station to theater, spend a year on a FOB doing missions while interacting with local nationals, and then redeploy and get on with their post-war lives. A plot that takes a novel to properly set up and unfold. Where is that book? Fobbit, by David Abrams, comes close, but I want more. I’m now starting Sparta, by Roxana Robinson. Robinson’s not a vet, but maybe her book will take me there.
In the meantime, we might consider how a scene might be portrayed through poetry, through fiction, through personal experience. Here is how Brian Turner conveys his thoughts on the plane ride back from Iraq:
“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.
And from early in Sparta, here is how Robinson depicts a similar scene:
The plane was full of sprawling, loose-lipped Marines, lost, gone, dead to the world.
Conrad liked seeing them like this: sleep was like salary, his men were owed. They were infantry grunts, and they’d been seven months on duty without a single day off. They deserved to sleep for months, years, decades. They deserved this long, roaring limbo, this deep absence from the world, from themselves. This plane ride was the floating bridge between where they’d been and where they were going—deployment and the rest of their lives. They deserved these hours of unconsciousness, this gorgeous black free fall.
My rendition of the same experience stems from a flight back from Afghanistan on mid-tour leave. I was the senior officer on a charter plane from Kuwait to Ireland. As such I sat up front and conversed with the senior flight attendant. She was maybe 30, with that half-pasty, half-refined look that comes from trying to maintain professional polish while living on hotel room service. She was very nice, and we traded stories while the rest of the plane dozed. Our flight was peaceful, and yet she told me of horrible flights out of Iraq in the bad days of 2006 and 2007, when soldiers would wake screaming out of nightmares born of bad memories and ravaged psyches. Seven hour flights would be filled with noise and bustle as fellow soldiers subdued distraught friends wacked out–or not wacked out enough–on Ambien. As we talked on she told me that she had gone to college at Indiana, as did I. That was cool, so I asked her where she hung out in Bloomington. To my surprise she mentioned the local punk rock club. Judging from her looks and job, I never would have guessed it, but she really knew her stuff. She had run a ‘zine, and still went to shows and knew all the bands. Since I had come-of-age near DC listening to classic hardcore groups such as Minor Threat and the Bad Brains, we had a lot to discuss. So, on through the flight we traded stories about our favorite records and shows. While 90% of the other passengers slept 90% of the time, my interlocutor lured me out of my deployment anxieties and uncertainty about the future with magical tales of a musical history that if we didn’t quite share, we both could appreciate.
My story isn’t as good as Turner’s or Robinson’s, or related as well, but it’s mine, which counts for something. All stories need telling, whether they find many listeners or not. It’s a social catharsis, enacted individually but resonating collectively.
The winter/spring 2013 edition of Ep;phany: A Literary Journal is guest edited by poet Brian Turner. Not fooling around, Turner has solicited and selected quality work from a who’s who of contemporary war literature. A roll call of contributors begins with Benjamin Busch, Roy Scranton, Bruce Weigl, Donald Anderson, Matt Gallagher, Jehanne Dubrow, and Paul Wasserman. Turner’s also reached out internationally to include Israeli poet Etgar Karet, Myanmar poet Tin Moe, Irish author Fred Johnston, and others.
Everything I’ve read so far is wonderful, but here I’ll just offer a few initial impressions. A poem by Army veteran Martin Ott called “Blanket Party” caught my eye with its reference to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where Ott, as I did, underwent basic training:
In Fort Leonard Wood, our rooms were windowless
the days began in the dark for pushups on fields of rock.
We were calorie-starved with only minutes to shovel
chow, and set against other squads by barking sergeants..
Brian Wright O’Connor’s “Appointment at Bu Dop” explores his father’s service in Vietnam as the commander of an infantry battalion. The essay concerns itself with treatment of enemy dead and body counts, but Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer O’Connor is in the news this week for other reasons: he has just received a posthumous PhD in English Literature from Penn. He was weeks away from completing his dissertation in 1968 when he deployed to Vietnam, where he was killed in action.
The cover photo by Benjamin Busch is a stunner. Called “Casualties,” it was taken in Iraq in 2005. It portrays the aftermath of an IED attack that killed a close friend; Busch describes the event at length in his memoir Dust to Dust. In Ep;phany, Busch writes, “…the vehicle burned long into the night. We guarded it in the dark, waiting to recover the body of a gunner still trapped under the wreckage.”
This event brought together three great authors–Brian Turner, Siobhan Fallon, and Benjamin Busch–to speak about their efforts to portray the turmoil of war. As each of them had been profoundly affected by the war in Iraq, it seemed fitting a decade and a month after the invasion to ask about their whereabouts in March 2003 and then have them describe when the war became manifest in their art. The remarks subsequently ranged over many subjects, but focused most specifically on the damage enacted on individuals and relationships by deployment and exposure to death and killing.
Asked to read selections from their works that generated strong audience reactions, Turner read “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center” from Phantom Noise, Fallon read from her story “Leave” from You Know When the Men Are Gone, and Busch read passages from Dust to Dust that described his decision to join the Marines and his first few days of training at Quantico.
Later, each of the authors read passages or poems that had been written pre-2001 that had influenced them then or seemed important now. Siobhan Fallon read from Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Benjamin Busch read Joe Haldeman’s Vietnam War poem “DX,” which he had copied into a green military-issue notebook and carried with him in Iraq. Finally, Brian Turner recited from memory Israeli poet’s Yehuda Amachai’s “The Diameter of the Bomb”—an especially appropriate poem in light of last week’s Boston Marathon bombing:
The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God..
Exit12 performed two dances: “Aggressed/This is War” consisted of two solo pieces that together depicted the story of a returned vet struggling to reintegrate into peacetime life. “Yarjuun,” which means “We hope” in Arabic, was a piece written by Exit12 director Roman Baca in Iraq in collaboration with an Iraqi dance troupe. Both dances were in turn playful, sad, sexy, and politically-charged, with inspired music, props, and choreography that dramatized the effects of war without being either too obvious or too elusive.
I had a hand in organizing this affair so I definitely want to thank the artists, all those in the audience, and all those helped make it happen. Wish everyone reading could have been there, too!
Below left to right: Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch:
Exit12 below–Adrienne de la Fuente, Joanna Priwieziencew, Roman Baca, Chloe Slade, and Paige Grimard:
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:
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.
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 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.
Phantom Noise was published in 2010 by Alice James Books.