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.

A Marine’s Poetry: Johnson Wiley

Johnson Wiley is a former Marine now studying at Rutgers.  I heard him read last week at Pete’s Candy Shop in Brooklyn, NY, and asked him to send me one or two poems.  He did, and here they are.  In his email to me, Wiley wrote, “After the reading I was able to speak with another veteran who told me that he related very much to my poetry, and I hope that anyone else, and any other vets and service men and women who read it will also get something from it.”

“Shooting Stars of Kuwait”

In less than a second you pass overhead.
Sometimes alone, other times in pairs,
Playing a cosmic game of follow-the-glowing-leader.

Is it your ability to avoid petty human affairs
That allows you to fly so carefree?

Your radiance against the darkness
Erodes my sense of pride
Like a sand hill in a windstorm.
You and I were not given a choice of where to live.
I, on the life-giving, blue-green marble of Earth;
You, in the unforgiving, vacuum of space.
Yet, somehow, I think you got the better deal.

An unforeseen conflict broke my
Made-in-the-USA glass bubble,
And brought me here, to witness your stellar travels.

And though I know that my terrestrial rounds can’t reach you,
It is for you that I must take aim.
Will you come back tomorrow?

“A Mother’s Son Returned”

“You lost your smile,” she says.
And what was she supposed to say,
When the traces of the child she waved goodbye to
Were expected to be present in the young man who returned?
Physically the same, but…emotionally inaccessible.
The keys to my mental vault I keep hidden,
Locked away in a place so deep even I don’t have access to them.
“Do you ever smile anymore?” she asks with a quiver in her voice.
But, how can a man smile when he no longer finds humor in the world?
You know so little about me.
Yet, you know me more than anyone else.
She’s still looking for the child she remembers the last time she saw me.
“Can’t you hear me talking to you?” she asks.
I can’t be who I was before I left.
Not for you, not even for me.

Thanks, Johnson, and please keep on writing.

More about mothers and the contemporary wars here.  More thoughts on the Marines here.

Marines on parade, Veterans Day, 2011, NYC.
Marines on parade, Veterans Day, 2011, NYC.

Her Own Private Ithaca: Jehanne Dubrow’s Stateside

Stateside3Jehanne Dubrow’s volume of poems Stateside portrays a stressful period in the marriage of the poems’ speaker before, during, and after the deployment of her husband, a Navy enlisted sailor or officer.  In so doing, it brings impressive skill and sensitivity to bear on the theme that war is also hell on the home front. Dubrow, who lives on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, sets Stateside‘s poems in nearby locales such as Washington DC, Virginia Beach, and Assateague Island.  I know the Chesapeake Bay/mid-Atlantic region well and love it like crazy, but here it serves as the backdrop for pain and confusion.  Home is where the hurt is, indeed.

Dubrow’s artistry shows in her ingenious adaptation of traditional verse forms and meters.  Many of the poems in Stateside are sonnets, for instance, but Dubrow makes this stuffy form amenable to contemporary thought and speech by mixing up conventional rhyme and stanza schemes and relaxing the stately iambic pentameter rumble.  Check the following, for an example:

     "The Rooted Bed"     

     I’m stateside now, my husband six months gone.
       I think of another soldier and his wife
     they built their bedpost from an olive tree,
       roots spreading underfoot, gray branches splayed
     like fingers, floorboards grassy as a lawn.
       The tree grew through the center of their life.
     They slept beneath its living canopy.
       And once the wife was alone, its shade
     stroked darkened hands across her brow.
       I like to imagine that she often thought
     of chopping down the trunk, fed up with boughs
       which dropped their leaves, black fruit turning to rot.
     I can’t help asking if, when he came home,
       did they lie together there or sleep alone?

Reading Stateside the first time through, I did not notice how structured by meter and rhyme the poems were, but the clever stylistics fill the verse with an allure and power that kept drawing me back.  I can also easily imagine them being very pleasant to hear read aloud, with the music of rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, and assonance swirling through the air enroute to the ear.

The passage in “The Rooted Bed” about boughs and leaves recalls Shakespeare’s great Sonnet 73, in which “yellow leaves, or none, or few” hang on the boughs of trees which are said to be “bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” But the real precursor poem here is Homer’s The Odyssey, in which Odysseus and his wife Penelope have built a massive bed attached to a tree, alone in which Penelope sleeps for twenty years while Odysseus goes to war.  A head note to “The Rooted Bed,” taken from The Odyssey, offers a direct clue to Dubrow’s thematic concerns:  “One moment he seemed … Odysseus to the life– / the next, no, he was not the man she knew.”  So too do the titles of the poems that follow “The Rooted Bed”:  “Argos,” “Ithaca,” “Penelope, Stateside,” and so on.  In Penelope, Dubrow finds an historical-literary ancestor who lends gravitas and imagination to her saga of contemporary marital angst.

“The Rooted Bed” and other poems titled “In Penelope’s Bedroom” and “On the Erotics of Deployment” suggest that Dubrow is not shy about exploring the carnal dimensions of modern military marriage.  A great scene from Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where Big Mama berates Maggie the Cat by saying, “When a marriage goes on the rocks, the rocks are there, right there” while emphatically slapping Maggie’s bed seems to be the spirit of Stateside, too.  Unhappiness in the bedroom begets unhappiness in life, or vice-versa, but in either case it’s not very fun to live through. Poem after poem in Stateside records a husband-wife relationship beset by chill—desire unrequited, communication balked, and passion a memory.

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Maggie suspects her husband Brick desires his friend Skipper more than he does her, and she attempts to seduce Skipper to test her theory and spite her husband.  Adultery and homosexuality don’t figure in Stateside, but the psycho-sexual circuitry of Cat crackles throughout the volume.  Dubrow’s poetic speaker can’t help but feel disappointed by her husband, who is preoccupied by career, mission, and unit.  She’s also stung by his obliviousness to her desire, and frankly, a little mystified herself at its persistent strong presence.  The dream of a shared life—public, domestic, and intimate–trashed by the war, she now wonders about Penelope’s sterling rectitude in the face of her many suitors.  Surely her thoughts and emotions must have been more complicated than Homer tells us.  Suggesting how that might be so, she uses the tools of history and poetry to make what is nominally her husband’s war even more her own than it already is.

My favorite poem from Stateside:      

     "Surface Warfare"

     Our arguments move
     across the surfaces
     of things, smooth

     flat areas where silence
     floats for weeks.
     The rule:  whoever speaks

     first loses.  If he patrols
     the living room,
     then I control

     our bed, an Atlantic
     filled with my insomnia,
     the quilts too thick

     to wade through.
     Some nights I think
     drowning would be easier

     and drink mouthfuls of salt.
     No shallows here,
     only the fathoms of marriage,

     and we are anchored side
     by side, the darkness wide,
     percussive as a mine.

Stateside was published in 2010 by Triquarterly Books, an imprint of Northwestern University Press.  It might be read usefully and pleasurably alongside Elyse Fenton’s Clamor, also published in 2010 and Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, published in 2005.  All three use poetry to explore the war’s devastating impact on trust and intimacy from a woman’s point-of-view.    

More on Stateside from Jehanne Dubrow’s website

A review of Stateside by David Abrams from his blog The Quivering Pen

Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs: Leftist-Postmodern-Feminist Non-Veteran War Poetry

9780520242951The recent American Literature Association War and Literature conference in New Orleans placed the  contemporary war lit scene under sharp academic focus.  On the fiction side, papers and panels addressed works such as Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen.  Regarding poetry, Brian Turner as might be expected received a fair amount of scrutiny, but non-veteran Juliana Spahr’s 2005 collection This Connection of Everyone with Lungs seemed the most enticing object of attention among the assembled scholars.

Looking back, we might remember that the publication of This Connection of Everyone with Lungs in 2005 was a major event in the poetry world—an important statement on war by a poet who mattered.  Spahr established herself as a talented, imaginative, and daring poet in the 90s, and her book of criticism, Everybody’s Autonomy: Connective Reading and Collective Identity (2001) had been well-received among the cutting-edge poetry crowd.  The two long poems that make up This Connection of Everyone with Lungs, “Poem Written after September 11, 2001” and “Poem Written from November 30, 2002, to March 27, 2003,” were first published in a number of small print and online journals, and now, in 2005, their appearance in one volume asserted a formidable poetic way of understanding and dealing with the facts of national trauma and global war.  Spahr’s credentials as a leftist-postmodernist-feminist artist and critic were impeccable, and now her poetry brought these cognitive, ethical, and political predilections to bear against the weightiest of game-changing world events.

The critical consensus in New Orleans was that This Connection of Everyone with Lungs expressed an impulse to escape the lyrical and the subjective and the humanistic to conceptualize a collective (if not a consensus and consensual) response to the fall of New York City’s Twin Towers and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The idea here is that poetry’s association with the lyrical, the subjective, and the humanistic makes it complicit with the imperialistic and war-mongering forces that brought the nation to war.  That’s a lot to unpack, but turning to the first poem in the volume, “Poem Written after September 11, 2001,” we see this communal sensibility reflected by a refrain repeated with very slight variations 13 times over eight pages:

      as everyone with lungs breathes the space between the hands
      the space around the hands and the space of the room in and out

The refrain introduces increasingly long stanzas portraying the spatial domains occupied by “everyone with lungs”:  “the continents and islands and the space of the oceans,” for example.  The poetic voice—there is no “I” and no story-line to speak of—explains, “How connected we are with everyone” before concluding “How lovely and how doomed this connection of everyone with lungs.”

Spahr tells us she wrote “Poem Written after September 11, 2001” in Brooklyn.  Though we don’t know if Spahr was in New York on 9/11, we feel the force of the poet’s physical proximity to lower Manhattan urging her to connect her own feelings about the attacks, colored by her own national identity and anti-war politics, with a global consciousness in a relationship not permeated by fury, fear, and greed.

A short note before “Poem Written from November 30, 2002 to March 27, 2003,” reveals that Spahr’s physical place of writing—in this case, Hawaii—was also important to her while crafting this long poem.  Reflecting her dismay at hearing the news of the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, she writes, “I felt I had to think about what I was connected with, and what I was complicit with, as I lived off the fat of the military-industrial complex on a small island.”  She goes on to say that it was “[t]his feeling made lyric” that energize the long poem that follows, but warns, “I gained no sophisticated understanding as I wrote….” Instead, the poem evokes sensations, moods, and halting stabs at intuition and epiphany, with no real resolution at the end of 64 pages.  Trying to figure out the war from news reports, the most she can conclude explicitly is that the war has been profoundly unsettling.  Exactly how is one supposed to feel?  Exactly what is the effect of the war on the national populace not charged with exactly fighting it?  Eschewing grand conclusions, moral indignation, and political screeds, she tries to measure the impact in personal terms that are neither hyperbolic nor trivial and mundane.

“Oh this on the map, off the map feeling,” she writes.  A fuller expression of the sentiment:

      During the bombing, beloveds, our life goes on as usual.

      Oh the gentle pressing of our bodies together upon waking.

      Oh the parrots and their squawking.

      Oh the soft breeze at five to ten miles per hour.

      Oh the harsh sun and the cool shade.

      Oh the papaya and yogurt with just a little salt for breakfast.

      Oh the cool shower that we take together.

      This makes us feel guiltier and more unsure of what to do than ever.

      We watch it all happen on television.

      We go to protests as they happen.

The odd “beloveds” illustrate how, befitting her interest in postmodern expression and the decentered subject, Spahr bends and twists conventional usage to fit her message. The most noticeable stylistic tic is her use of plural forms of address in places where convention would have her addressing a single listener.  For example, the opening line of the poem is “Beloveds, we wake up in the morning to darkness and watch it / turn into lightness with hope.”  Later, she writes, “Beloveds, yours skins is a boundary separating yous from the rest / of yous.”  I’m not naïve enough not to recognize Spahr has little interest in placating readers’ conventional tastes, but I won’t kid you, either; this technique is distracting.  A line such as, “We slept soundly during the night, beloveds, and when I woke / yous were wrapped around me….” is fine by me without the linguistic embellishment.

Make of that what you will, but Spahr gets full credit for being first into print with her abundant use of that modern magical military lingo that has saturated everyday speech and beguiled poets and writers who have written on war subjects since 2001.  A (slightly edited) transcription of the poem’s last lines illustrates:

      We get up in the morning and the words “Patriot missile systems,”
      “the Avengers,” and “the US infantry weapons” tumble out of our
      mouths before breakfast.

      And it goes on and on all day long and then we go to bed.

      In bed, when I stroke the down of yours cheeks, I stroke also the
      carrier battle group ships, the guided missile cruisers, and the
      guided missile destroyers.

      When I wrap around yours bodies, I wrap around the USS Abraham
       Lincoln, unmanned aerial vehicles, and surveillance.

      Fast combat support ships, landing crafts, air cushioned, all of us
      with all of that.

The most certain thing we might be able to say is that after a decade of war “all of us” are with a lot more of “all of that”—a vastly expanded vocabulary of military technical and operational terms and soldier slang. But what else?  We might contemplate Spahr’s need for connection as an impulse intensified by post-9/11 jittery-ness and exacerbated by millennial-age status anxiety and computerized possibilities for contact. Or, she might be pointing us to the collapse of older stances and perspectives viz-a-viz war, national militarism, and soldiers and soldiering.  A redefining of the civil-military divide, if you will, that is true to her politics and yet in keeping with the times.  Let’s acknowledge Spahr for being on to something–both in 2005 and now–and remain alert for future reports from the academic community as to how and why.

Juliana Spahr’s This Connection of Everyone with Lungs was published in 2005 by the University of California Press.

Veterans Day Poem–Brian Turner’s “Wading Out”

Brian Turner at Custer's grave, West Point Cemetery, New York.
Brian Turner at Custer’s grave, West Point Cemetery, New York.

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.

Writing Wars: A Special Veterans Day Reading

Original post below:

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.

Wading Out

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.

UPDATE:  “Everyday is Veterans Day,” by Kevin E. Foley for Philipstown.Info, an on-line newspaper in New York, features this blog and more of my thoughts about veterans.

Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, the Superintendent of West Point, shaking the hand of a veteran in the stands at the Army-Western Kentucky game, Saturday 9 November 2013.
Lieutenant General Robert Caslen, the Superintendent of West Point, shaking the hand of a veteran in the stands at the Army-Western Kentucky game, Saturday 9 November 2013.

Veterans Writing

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.

Courtesy of Bill Putnam.  Used by permission.
Courtesy of Bill Putnam. Used by permission.

New York Times review of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta

Veteran David Carrell writes about his return to college at Vassar

My War author Colby Buzzell writes about his own love of punk rock

War Poetry: W.H. Auden on the FOB

In an Atlantic magazine article, author Caleb Crain touts the virtues of memorizing poetry, and for him in particular the mid-20th century British poet W.H. Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone.”  I’ve followed Crain for a while—he’s got a great blog—and I’ve also memorized many poems and prose passages.  Not lately, though—trying to remember so much as a birthday these days brings me to my knees—but the ones I secured in my mind as a young man are still with me, friends for life.  I like Auden, too, though I don’t know his work so well.  But Crain’s essay recalls an anecdote from my tour in Afghanistan.

While stationed at FOB Lightning in Paktiya province, my hooch was in a “B-hut” partitioned into cubicles by plywood half-walls.  Inside your space, no one could see you, but you could easily converse with your neighbor to either side.  Next to me was a full-bird colonel whom I’d already come to know and respect.  A veteran of three or four tours, he still threw on his body armor and clambered into an armored vehicle and drove out into sector 3-4-5 times a week.  Just to put things in perspective, some hardcore infantry squads didn’t go outside the wire that much. The colonel was not just still brave and committed, but wise and practical and friendly and against lots of evidence to the contrary, optimistic and hopeful about Afghanistan.

When he heard that I had been a college English teacher, he asked me from the other side of our cubicle wall if I knew “September 1, 1939,” a poem Auden wrote about the beginning of World War II.  I did, a little, or at least the first lines:

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street 
Uncertain and afraid 
As the clever hopes expire 
Of a low dishonest decade 

My battle-hardened neighbor then told me that he knew the poem by heart and that he recited it to himself—all 99 lines of it–almost every day.  He told me that he’d learned it in his first year at West Point, that it was the first poem he had ever loved and had always remained his favorite poem, and that it had inspired him to read much more poetry and to write verse himself.  “From one thing, everything,” as the saying goes.

For the rest of the time that we were neighbors, the colonel would often recite the poem, or bits of it, to me.  He would also probe me about my own knowledge or interest in Auden.  I didn’t know much, but because I had access to that particularly modern accoutrement of contemporary deployment, a laptop computer with an Internet connection, I could cheat.  I would bring up Auden on Wikipedia and feign expertise, unseen by my neighbor:

“So, did you know Auden visited the front lines of both the Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War?”

“Did you know that he actually hated ‘September 1, 1939,’” especially its most famous line, ‘We must love one another or die’?”

That was true.  Auden had come to regard the sentiment as trite and the poem’s ending too smiley-faced:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Auden basically refused to speak about the poem and only rarely gave permission for it to be republished.  But I love those lines, and so did the colonel, and so do many others.

I never discovered if the colonel realized that I was cribbing from the Internet, but I was trying to keep up with someone who knew a lot more about Auden than I did.  Maybe he knew and didn’t care, or perhaps he enjoyed reversing the roles and being the teacher.  He also knew a lot more about the US Army, working with Afghans, and fighting the Taliban than I did, and I learned plenty from him about those things, too.

Good man.

Lots of Auden recited inside this FOB Lightning b-hut in the summer and fall of 2009.
Lots of Auden recited inside this FOB Lightning B-hut in the summer and fall of 2009.

Brian Turner, Benjamin Busch, Siobhan Fallon, and Exit12 @ West Point

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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..

Amazing.

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:

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Exit12 below–Adrienne de la Fuente, Joanna Priwieziencew, Roman Baca, Chloe Slade, and Paige Grimard:

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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

Where Did All the War Poets Go?

Or, better, why have the Afghanistan and Iraq war poets not arrived? So asks an interesting short essay by Jason Dempsey posted on Tom Ricks’ blog at the Foreign Policy website. Dempsey is an active duty infantry officer (as am I) who served in Afghanistan in 2009 (same year as me) and now is back in Afghanistan as an advisor (same job I had). The link is below, so check it out and then read my comments beneath.

Tom Ricks-Jason Dempsey Where Are the Poems?

Great post, all-in-all.  I like most of all the fact that Dempsey values art and thinks it might have something to contribute to our understanding of the wars.  I like his informed speculation about our current dearth of culturally important works of art, especially his savage denunciation of Hollywood’s inability to do anything other than recycle cliches.  Just a few quibbles, if I may:

1. It seems odd that Dempsey does not mention–no, not my blog–but Brian Turner, whose Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise loom large in discussions of contemporary war poetry.  If Dempsey is aware of Turner, then why not specifically explore why he has not achieved wider recognition?  Or a consideration of what Turner brings to the poetry table?  If Dempsey is not aware of Turner, then he probably shouldn’t be making his claims as stridently as he does.

2.  Dempsey’s notion that the great World War I poetry by Owen, Sassoon, and others effortlessly achieved cultural prominence seems a bit thin.  I’m sure our awareness of its greatness has more to do with decades of sustained attention by the intellectual literati and academic mavens, through which it gradually permeated the consciousness of educated readers.  That is to say, I don’t think any poetry written in the 20th or 21st century has become well known through any other means than being taught in thousands and thousands of high school, college, and graduate school classrooms.

3.  Finally, Dempsey articulates the importance of World War I poetry in informing the public of the ghastly reality of trench warfare, but struggles to define exactly how he thinks contemporary poetry will contribute to a better, truer understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan.  Well, of course, he might say:  we await the poet who can tell us what we don’t yet apprehend.  But not just Turner, but other poets such as Walt Piatt, Elyse Fenton, and Paul Wasserman have already begun that work, as I try to explain in my posts on them.

More to follow on Turner in the weeks to come.  I’m very interested in explaining with as much accuracy as I can what I think is the nature of his achievement.

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