What Rhymes with Counterinsurgency?
by Brian Turner
Alice James Books
Here, Bullet may be the first volume of poetry by a veteran of the current war in Iraq. That's what will initially draw attention to this debut collection by 38-year-old Brian Turner, who a little more than a year ago was an infantry team leader in the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Once the reader holds this volume in her hands, though, she'll likely wonder two things: What does the book have to say about the war? And how is the poetry?
Let's deal with the second question first. Here, Bullet is clogged with the mannerisms of modern poetry. Like many other poets, Turner's fond of faux-Saxon words ("bloodgroove," "sinkwater," "ruckle"), semi-learned references to science ("long avenues/of the brain's myelin sheathing"), and lovely lists of merchandise ("privet flowers and musk, aloes,/honeycombs and silk brought from the Orient"). The same exalted tone governs the punctuation, with every period suggesting elegance and finality. Along with this we get some thuddingly orchestrated rhetoric: "Let the vultures feed on me,/let them tear me apart." All this will make regular readers of modern poetry feel at home in these poems.
Here, Bullet is a workmanlike little book, easy enough to read, with a few standouts. Sometimes Turner romanticizes the Iraqis and their land in neat, shallow lines. Sometimes, as in his "Eulogy," the hushed emotion and the restrained tone match perfectly. More exciting are the discordant flares of horror that occasionally break the pretty surface. One poem meanders over the lost lives of Iraqis before returning to the American soldiers who "kick their hard feet, saying/Last call, motherfucker. Last call."
That desperate, ungrounded anger emerges again when Turner imagines making love to a Middle-Eastern woman-goddess: "Our orgasm destroys a nation." Given room, these unresolved, frightening moments could bring readers into the reality of war.
Instead, Turner tamps down the emotion and leaves his reader with questions. No matter how little she likes to pry into the private lives of writers or soldiers, the reader will find herself wondering about Turner's story. Why does a man finish an MFA in poetry and then enlist for seven years? Did he sign up with enthusiasm? Did he sign up out of a sense of duty? Who is this man?
Turner is an observer, mostly, watching Iraqis, watching other soldiers. Occasionally he mentions his own trauma--he needs "anything/to remind me I am still alive," he is "a soldier who will never be the same." The trauma is understandable. But where did this poet, whose call sign includes the word "ghost," come from?
The curiosity is compounded by Turner's political commentary, which is scarce but strong. "Where we would end a war/another might take as a beginning," he warns. In some of the most powerful lines in the book, he imagines Iraqi body parts being shipped to the White House lawn and buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, because "if this is freedom, then we will share it." In a short, heavy poem, Turner writes, "my friend,/it should break your heart to kill."
Is Turner speaking of himself? Has he killed and has it broken his heart? The answers are not necessary to appreciate a poem. But with them--and their sense of moral involvement--the book might speak to more than the conventional audience for poetry. Turner can assume a certain common ground with his readers--that we take a thoughtful and liberal approach to life, deplore violence, and understand the power of the past--and he rarely moves beyond this common ground. For all the wrought language and harsh images, the reader comes no closer to understanding the minds or lives of soldiers. And those who do not start from this common ground--how likely is it that they will find their way into it? How many enlistees will read Turner's painful "What Every Soldier Should"?
But those questions are less about Here, Bullet than they are about the narrow reach of published American verse. It's not Turner's job alone to win back poetry's authority and its audience. If the author cannot yet articulate what happened to him and inside him, perhaps in time he will find the words:
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 in Talafar.
These poems are dispatches from a war we largely know through statistics and stage-managed press conferences and the words of correspondents holed up in hotels. And yet by invading this country, by sending our army to fight there, we have linked ourselves to its sand, its fire, its oil, its pride. "This land of confluence and heat," Turner writes, will become the nation of soldiers who die there, "and even if they live, it will be theirs as well--the land that tested their souls and changed them."
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