Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bullets ring loud in Brian Turner's ears

It's Veterans Day and you know what that means, right?  Jeans are up to 75% off at Macy's!

For another portion of our nation's population, it's also a day when, as President Obama states in his proclamation, "we come together to pay tribute to the men and women who have worn the uniform of the United States Armed Forces.  Americans across this land commemorate the patriots who have risked their lives to preserve the liberty of our Nation, the families who support them, and the heroes no longer with us."

Furthermore, our Commander-in-Chief reminds us, "It is not our weapons or our technology that make us the most advanced military in the world; it is the unparalleled spirit, skill, and devotion of our troops.  As we honor our veterans with ceremonies on this day, let our actions strengthen the bond between a Nation and her warriors."

All day today, you'll hear people telling you, "Love this country?  Hug a Vet!" or you'll see bumper stickers like this one: "If You Can't Stand Behind Our Troops, Stand in Front of Them."  I can think of no better way to observe the day than this:
Thank a Vet, Buy His Book.

Specifically, I'm urging you to buy one (or both!) of Brian Turner's two books: Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise.  Turner served seven years in the Army, including one year as an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.  Before that, he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division.

Turner went to war with an anthology of Iraqi poems stuffed in his rucksack.  He came home with the music of pain and loss crammed inside his head.  Of all the writers detailing the experience of what it's like to be simultaneous freeing a nation and killing its people, I have found no one better than Brian Turner.
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.

When Here, Bullet was published by Alice James Books in 2005 (the year I myself was plopped down in Baghdad courtesy of the 3rd Infantry Division), Turner received well-deserved praise for the collection.  I don't normally like to quote other critics in my reviews, but I've always loved this blurb which came from The New York Times Book Review:  “The day of the first moonwalk, my father's college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they'll send a poet, and we'll find out what it's really like.’  Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon—the war in Iraq—and deserves our thanks...”

It's true.  In the tradition of great war poets like Walt Whitman and Wilfred Owen, Turner has descended into the horrors of combat like a deep-sea diver.  When he resurfaced, he learned how to distill that experience into the purest of language.  In a blog for the Poetry Foundation, Turner himself put it best when he wrote:
       As writers, I think it’s crucial that we not only learn and research and study the emotional world the poem offers, but that we discover as much about the world of the poem as well.  That is, if the world of the poem is scuba diving, for example, then let’s learn something about what it means to dive as well.  Let’s learn something about the ocean depths, the currents, the strata of life buried in the ocean floor.
       Secondly, there are millions of people in Iraq.  There are hundreds of thousands of Americans (and those from many other countries as well) involved in the war in Iraq (they are either there, have been there, or will soon be there).  My own story, my own act of witnessing, is only one voice from among the many stories which need to be told.  Still, no matter how small and insignificant I might feel within so vast an experience, as a writer I must speak to what is wrong in the world.  As writers, and artists, I believe we must give witness and testimony to pain and conflict and loss.
In Phantom Noise, that "witness and testimony" takes the form of showing us what it's like to be a shell-shocked veteran walking the aisles of a Lowe's Home Improvement Center:
Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shanks
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s.
                                  In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
of light.
           At dawn, when the shelling stops,
hundreds of bandages will not be enough.
             --from At Lowe's Home Improvement Center
The soldiers in Turner's verse are wracked with guilt, and the regret of battlefield indecision.  They are haunted by memories of Iraqi prisoners "shivering in the piss-cold dark," of soldiers burning alive, of shrapnel "traveling at the speed of sound" and opening up a soldier "in blood and shock."  Long after they've returned stateside, their heads echo the chop-chop-chop of helicopters that "come in low over the date palms," and the "howl wind" of the mortar round that "accelerates to the apogee of its flight."  In every word of every poem, Turner sets the music of war to the "phantom noise" that rings like tinnitus: "this/bullet-borne language   ringing/shell-fall and static."

The enemy does not always come clothed in a dishdasha or a vest wired to explode; sometimes it's the enemy within our own ranks.  In what I think is Phantom Noise's most devastating poem--"Insignia"--Turner writes of what it's like to be a female soldier in combat.  The war she fights in these lines is with a higher-ranking NCO intent on rape (the poem begins with the statement "One in three female soldiers will experience sexual assault while serving in the military").  The narrative voice of the poem urges the staff sergeant to think twice about what he's intending to do.  Take a smoke break, drink some of that gin your wife sent you "disguised in a bottle of mouthwash," take a deep breath before you go find your victim hiding beneath a truck in the motor pool:
It’s you she’s dreaming of, Sergeant–she’ll dream of you
for years to come.  If she makes it out of this country alive,
which she probably will.  You will be the fire and the hovering
breath.  Not the sniper.  Not the bomber in the streets.  You.
So I’m here to ask this one night’s reprieve.
Let her sleep tonight. Let her sleep…
The poem ends with these absolutely shattering lines, words I have read nearly two dozen times by now and they still twist my gut, flay open my heart:
In her dream, your eyes are pools of rifle oil.
You unsheathe the bayonet from its scabbard
while she waits.  On a mattress of sand and foam, there
in the motor pool, she waits to kiss bullets into your mouth.
Turner's poems catch like bones in your throat--you can neither swallow war nor spit it out.  His bitterness becomes our bitterness, his anguish threads its way into our hearts.

So today, if you want to do something for "our men and women in uniform," if you want to better understand what it's like over in Iraq or Afghanistan or Whatever-'stan-We-Fight-Next, then thank a vet by buying his books.


  1. I read HERE, BULLET a couple years ago. It has never left me, and I'm moved that you have devoted some of the dawn hour of my morning to revisiting his vision. Thanks.

  2. I am utterly chilled. Yet the shiver I feel is exactly what I must feel this morning as I deliberately think of the veterans I know & known, as well as those unknown.
    Until recently, Americans have forgotten what it's like to to have a conflict & casualties on our own soil. We still think it's an anomaly. We are so fortunate. Voices such as Turner put us there, uncomfortably, a justly so.
    I thank the men & women in various agencies & services who pledge to protect us. No matter what the politics, the feet on the ground are there for the each of us.

  3. My niece Sheleen is a Black Hawk helicopter mechanic and has been in the Army for 20 years. I went with her to see the WWII, Korean, and Vietnam veterans memorials in Washington DC. It was 10 on a chilly and wet humid night in early December. It was one of the most moving things ever.

    I'm now flipping over to order ...