“Here, Bullet,” poems by Brian Turner

Here, Bullet, poems by Brian TurnerHere, Bullet, poems by Brian Turner. Alice James Books, 2005. 71pp $14.95 paperback ISBN 1882295552

A review by George Leonard.

From the time of the Iliad until World War I, war was one of poetry’s central topics, yet now the subject seems taboo; as if all other artists were allowed to address this large and persistent area of human life except the poet. Even to write poetry involving war is suspect. Why? Why must the poet be excluded from the debate?

So I was surprised but pleased to read that Alice James Books was not only publishing Brian Turner’s poems, but that they had presented him with the Beatrice Hawley Award. I think of Alice James Books as a ferocious feminist press. I remember its founding, named for the neurasthenic sister of two famous brothers, soon after an excellent biography had resurrected her. They had published my friend, the Marin poet Laurel Trivelpiece, in the 1980s. I connected them with our poetry workshop, which frequently met in the women’s Marin homes. It was a stretch to picture them publishing war poems until I read the poems. Brian Turner is a “real poet” and Laurel– a holy terror who loved nothing as much as real poetry– would have loved them. (Matter of fact, Alice James was a holy terror too.)

Of course, these poems aren’t “political.” They bring no news that would affect one’s opinion of the Iraq War either way. What they do is use poetry’s power (they’re poems, it isn’t just the content that makes them interesting) to bring deeper knowledge of how any modern war feels, and how it is experienced by the people caught up in it. They bring knowledge that a news story or a film camera cannot bring. But do I really have to defend poetry’s superior powers to the San Francisco Humanities Review’s sophisticated readers?

Last night, I saw the Oliver Stone movie, “World Trade Center,” which used every device of the giant screen, of digital magic and THX sound, to make you feel how it felt to be there when the building collapsed. Yet the movie theater concussions affected me less than these lines in Brian Turner’s poem, “2000 lbs.” The subtitle, “Ashur Square, Mosul,” makes it clear that this actually happened. Mosul was a place where, as in this poem, Shia suicide bombers detonated trucks full of improvised explosives. Turner starts with a close-up of the terrified bomber’s sweating hand, waiting:

It begins simply with a fist, white-knuckled
And tight, glossy with sweat.

–And then Turner cut around the square at the moment of detonation, showing up the Iraqis (Sunni, I take it?) in the last second of life:

Rasheed passes the bridal shop
on a bicycle with Sefa beside him
and just before the air ruckles and breaks
he glimpses the sidewalk reflections
in the storefront glass, men and women,
walking and talking, or not, an instant
of clarity, just before each of them shatters,
under the detonation’s wave,
as if even the idea of them were being
destroyed, stripped of form

As if “even the idea of them were being destroyed!” I see it in my mind’s eye, to echo Coleridge, better than Stone could ever blue-screen FX it. The film director has the power to replace the audience’s imagination with his own; but a real poet, like Brian Turner, has the power to enlist your own imagination; and, as the saying goes, “what the audience can imagine is always stronger than anything you can show them.”

Turner has, even more than Robert Frost, taken the road less traveled by, at least for a poet. After his MFA at the University of Oregon, he served for seven years in the United States Army. It was the Clinton era, and his first job was defending Muslims from Serb atrocities in Boznia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000). I trust nobody will object to that, whatever their antipathy to the current Iraq war. “He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the Third Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division,” the book’s publicity also tells me. As the epigraph for one poem in Here, Bullet says, “The wrong is not in the religion; the wrong is in us.” Not “American us” but “any of us, us.”

If Turner’s current assignment somehow disqualifies Turner as a poet all by itself, well, that’s quite an aesthetic. The Left does maintain a stance that it hates the conflict but does not blame the soldiers. I for one am relieved to picture an M.F.A. and a working poet in a position where he can exert influence over his men.

Iraq, then. It is a world which plainly awes Turner, a world where

At dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins,
Behind the rubbled palaces.
(Curfew, page 47)

He has seen terrible things and has a compulsion to make us see them too. After the suicide bomb, he imagines the spirits of the newly dead,

As they wander confused amongst one another,
Learning each other’s names, trying to comfort
The living in their grief….
That it might not be forgotten.

I think that here the poet speaks of himself, as the speaking spirit of these muted dead, talking to us that “it might not be forgotten.” He has the power to re-present them to us, the power to make us see them; and– far more than a film director can– the power to make us feel what we are seeing.

When he jumped from the balcony, Hassan swam
In the air over the Aschur Street market,
Arms and legs suspended in a blur,
Above palm hearts and crates of lemons,
Not realizing how hard life fights
Sometimes, how an American soldier
Would run to his aid there on the sidewalk,
Trying to make sense of Hassan’s broken legs,
His screaming, trying to comfort him with words in an awkward music of stress and care….

I thought of the jihadi, who “swam in the air,” tonight, when the news showed a row of buildings in Baghdad brought down by “improvised” explosive devices. People must have swum in air, leaving them.

The poem isn’t over. The American, making his “awkward music of stress and care” is trying to comfort him when Hassan pulls the soldier’s knife out of its sheath and tries to kill him. The soldier who had been comforting Hassan, wrestles with him, finally kills the weakened jihadi, who says, dying,

Hassan whispered to him,
“Shukran, saddiq, shukran.”
“Thank you, friend, thank you.”

One has a sick feeling that there is no way Brian Turner could have made something like that up. I’ll remember Hassan, and the soldier, in their complex bond. I’ll remember too, that nowhere in the poem does the soldier hate Hassan, or, it seems, Hassan the soldier.

In fact, no place in the whole ambitious poetic cycle of Here, Bullet, does Turner unconsciously display any animosity to the “enemy,” any triumphing, gloating– none of that. It is war as a miserable and ugly duty which one does not shirk, but certainly cannot enjoy. There are people who do enjoy it, I believe; and plenty who hate. But they aren’t in these poems. Even the jihadis are just doing what they believe must be done. Turner’s vision of war is a vision of tragic necessity. I don’t share it.

These poems are arranged, as I said, in an ambitious poetic cycle which, like all poetic cycles, has better moments and worse moments. I don’t like the title poem, “Here, Bullet,” the only poem in the group with even a trace of soldierly bravado to it. (Though who am I to deny him a moment of that? Or to deny him pride in his ability to go through scenes like those above and still be able to write real poetry?)

As craftsman, Brian Turner is better when he describes than when he ventures into the abstract:

Rockets often fall,
In the night sky of the skull,
Down long avenues of the brain myelin sheathing over synapses
And the rough structures of thought
(Katyusha rockets, page 32)

Those are lines which any working poet could have written without having to be there. In fact, they read a bit like lost lyrics to a Doors song. By contrast, read this imagist vision:

Ankle-dash in the white-ocre salt flats
North of Babylon, women harvest salt
With buckets and bare hands,
In stands of water the color
Or rust, or a blue, dark as oil
Come up from the Earth
As if they walk on the water’s surface
Ablaze with sunlight, dressed in black, the color of crows, the color of shadows….

It burns your eyes. We talk a lot, in writing, about Make it New! But we also value, Make it Real! After reading Turner’s poems, how people suffer in a war, all wars, was realer to me. That’s knowledge any of us need to have, whatever our politics.

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