Death, Survival, and Pity

Brian Turner’s poetry hits the reader with the immediacy of a fist to the gut.  The poems are full of Iraq’s death and blood, nightmare, fear, and an unexpected reverence for the land and its people.  Turner’s aesthetic encompasses a world about which most Americans choose to remain oblivious.  Tom Brokaw tried to explain the ongoing disconnect of the average American with the two wars in which America has been embroiled for close to nine years by suggesting that because of the volunteer nature of the US armed forces, only a small percentage, less than 1%, of Americans, are directly affected by the wars; everyone else, Tom Richards, a decorated Marine who fought in Vietnam, says, are “…at the malls.”* Brian Turner’s life could have been different; he might have spent it at the malls as well.  Considering Turner’s subject matter, it seems strange to say it’s lucky for lovers of poetry that he didn’t.
According to the Poetry Foundation, “Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. He was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. Then in November 2003 he was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His first book, Here, Bullet, chronicles his time in Iraq” as does his second offering, Phantom Noise.
Turner’s work follows in the footsteps of past poets of the “war poets” genre—Wilfred Owen and Seigfried Sassoon immediately come to mind, but there’s something about Turner’s work that sets it apart from the genre—Something real and immediate and painfully honest.  His is a poetry of horror, but also one of love and loss, infused with the restless spirits of the dead who hover over the living on both sides. Turner’s work is that of a man collecting his most private thoughts and then writing them across the page to expose them to the world.  His is a voice of honesty and despair, of imperfection and a self-awareness that most of us can only pretend to possess.
Many of the poems in these books are a deep purging of the horror that is war, a cathartic howl, though some pieces are quietly crafted natural portraits.  This is the work of a man who has seen death all around him, one who has cradled the bloodied stub of an arm, hoping his comrade might still need it, but it is also the work of a man with an artist’s eye for the small detail, one who sees and appreciates beauty no matter where it lies as he does in his poem “Jameel” from Here, Bullet: “Cowbirds rest in the groves of date palms,/whole flocks of them, white as flowers/blossoming into wings when the wind rises up.”
Turner’s poems stand witness to the futility of war in a country that has always known war.  Turner’s poem “AL – A’ IMMA BRIDGE” from Phantom Noise is an accounting of all the wars, all the killing, all the sorrows from Abu Ghraib back in time to “…the walled ruins of Nineveh.”  “the djinn awaken from their slumber/to watch the dead pass by, one fixed/with an odd smile, the drawn-out vowel /of a word left unfinished, and they want to hold these dead/ close and tight/…and the Tigris is filling with the dead…”
Strangely enough, the poems focus almost exclusively on the intricate experiences of Turner and his immediate comrades; they do not slip into any sort of ideological demand for an accounting.  They do not judge, only in an oblique way.  One poem, “Sleeping in Dick Cheney’s Bed” from Phantom Noise comes closest to a direct exploration of how the political becomes the personal, but even it is not overtly condemnatory.  In his ubiquitous first person voice, the poet comments on what Cheney, having slept in the bed he will now use, may have left behind for him, “…dead skin sloughed off/ to coat my own skin at an invisible level…” The symbolism of taint is evident in this blending of physical detritus from man to man. An unarticulated guilt is also implied in the closing lines of this poem.  After the speaker has recounted to the reader a speech he has just given to the officers corps about “…rape, death, and murder…” he wonders,

…—what does it say about me
that I can return to Cheney’s room after midnight,
strip my clothes off to curl in the bed
where he too has slept, the sheets a sublime reprieve
for my tired frame, the night a perfection of sleep.

The implication of a complicity deeper than enjoying the comfort of a shared bed is clear.
The voice of these poems is one that can also muster empathy for an enemy.  The speaker has a scholar’s deep reverence for the ancient ground of Babylon on which he walks and the people who inhabit this land of harsh consequences.  He hates, fears, and loves them in equal measure.  One poem, “Ajal” assumes the voice of a despairing father speaking to his young son who has died:

…It should not be like this, Abd Allah,
many years from now, your own children
should wash your body three times
after your death.  They should seal your mouth
with cotton, reciting prayers in a wash
of light and grieving, a perfume of lemons
and jasmine on your skin.

It should not be like this, Abd Allah.
I wanted you to see the Ctesiphon Arch,
the Tower of Samarra the Ziggurat of Ur.
I wanted to show you the Arabic language
written on the spires of the sawtooth mountains.
I wanted to teach you our family history,
and see where you might take it.

I cannot undo what the shrapnel has done.
I climb down into the crumbling earth
to turn your face toward Mecca, as it must be.
Remember the old words I have taught you,
Abd Allah.  And go with your mother,
buried here beside you—she will know the way.

The empathy and suffering joined in this piece are not the response one would expect from an American soldier who has survived the worst Iraq had to offer.  These poems stand apart from the requisite jingoism Americans have either embraced or endured for the last nine years.  The poems are not measured by any means; they are not polite, but they refuse to toe the line of American chauvinism.  This rhetoric is not what the average soldier might use; rather, the poet, though he lives through the poems with an immediacy that is startling, has taken the time to step back from the brink where he teetered for a year and assess his experiences without bias.
This careful approach to an honest examination and accounting of his experience does not imply Turner is dispassionate.  Rather, many of the poems, particularly those in Phantom Noise, seem to be those of a highly intelligent individual attempting to write himself through trauma.  The specter of PTSD haunts many of these poems, especially those recounted by a voice now firmly established as back on U.S. soil.  The second poem in the book, “At Lowes Home Improvement Center” paints a wild juxtaposition between reality and nightmare in which the speaker and others (from his squad and not actually present) experience a series of flashbacks set off by sights and noises in the hardware store:

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…

Words like “bust,” “bright shanks,” “steady stream,” are used to describe the recall to war that any seemingly innocent vision or noise might bring to a recovering combat soldier; the situation that rips the speaker back to hell is one anyone else around him would not even consider worth comment.  The poem goes on as his comrade, aptly named “Bosch,” (implying that great  delineator of hell Hieronymus Bosch?)

…walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head…

Clearly, the poet struggles with sweeping these images from his head as well.  Writing his pain onto paper seems as healthy a therapy as any devised by the VA.  Opening himself to this pain also offers an opening to those who look for a way to enter a world typically closed to all outsiders.  Coffins still arrive at Andrews Air Force base in the dead of night.  Reporters must still “embed” with hand-picked units.  The wars are both still carefully stage-managed to avoid ruffling people’s feathers, or their consciences.  Turner opens the curtains and exposes the truth of war to the world and in the process he has become a poet worth reckoning.
Though Turner offers up pictures of death and destruction in both books, he also provides a place for the innocent in juxtaposition to the complicit.  Reading these poems often brings the reader to contemplate that Turner the man understands what T.S. Eliot meant when he wrote of that  “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing.”
The few poems Turner attempts outside of the subject of war are not as strong as those with Iraq as their focus.  Perhaps it is the absolute nature of war, the moment to moment imperative of the battle between life and death, the reality of  horror, the moments of utter sweetness that emerge from the detritus all around that move his pen to write so eloquently on a subject seemingly unsuited to poetry.  Phantom Noise, shortlisted for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize, is a book everyone should read in these times of carefully controlled information and sanitized pictures of death.

*(qtd. in the San Diego Union-Tribune).

Turner, Brian.  Phantom Noise. Farmington, Maine:  Alice James Books, 2010. ISBN:978-1-882295-80-7

©JP Reese 2010

Book Review originally appeared at Connotation Press in December, 2010.

http://connotationpress.com/book-reviews/646-book-review-phantom-noise-by-brian-turner

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