What some soldiers know

Submitted by AWL on 22 February, 2008 - 12:22 Author: Pat Yarker

You carry the pearls of war within you, bombs

swallowed whole and saved for later.

Give them to your children. Give them to your love.

From: Dreams From The Malaria Pills (Barefoot)

These are poems out of the Iraq War. Many are located by title or sub-heading at precise places or moments on a battlefield whose contours are exactly those where civilians try to live their non-combatant lives: a city ring-road or central square, a town’s back-streets, a child’s bedroom, a riverbank.

Turner writes from Ashur Square in Mosul when a 2000-pound suicide-bomb is detonated, from the haunted alleys of Balad, from a US Army Forward Observation Post set up on a family’s roof, from an interchange on Highway 1 in Baghdad where graffiti on the overpasses read: “ I will kell you, American”, from the Al Harishma weapons market and from the shade of eucalyptus trees beside the Tigris.

Brian Turner knows all these places first-hand. After taking a Masters Degree in poetry he enlisted with the US Army, served in Bosnia at the end of the millennium (about which he has written another collection of poems, as yet unpublished) and in 2004 he was deployed for a year’s tour in Iraq. Turner was a Combat Team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade, the Arrowheads, escorting convoys through Baghdad and fighting the Battle of Mosul. All but two of the poems in this collection were written on that tour; the other two within a month of its completion.

Turner, then, was a volunteer with the imperialist occupying forces in Iraq! His poems report from the ubiquitous frontline where he is a combatant, not a journalist, an ambulance-driver or an official war-artist. Turner has said little in interviews about his decision to enlist. He cites a desire for “adventure”. He acknowledges a family tradition: his infantryman grandfather fought in the Pacific in World War Two, his Russian-speaking father was a military linguist in the Cold War. He also says joining up was a quick way to repay his student loan.

Perhaps these explanations suffice, but Turner must also know that he is taking his place in another tradition, that of the writer who deliberately goes to war. The first poem in this remarkable collection carries an epigraph from a dispatch Ernest Hemingway wrote from Madrid in 1937, and Turner has acknowledged the influence of other soldier-writers (notably Tim O’Brien), as well as the example of Walt Whitman, who tended the wounded in the US Civil War.

Reading his work I thought what it might have been like to meet the trench-poetry of Sassoon or Owen in the very years it was written.

Turner has read the poetry and history of Iraq. His collection makes frequent use of quotations from the Koran, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and several Iraqi poets. The opening poem engages directly with how English (or American English) encounters Arabic, both spoken and written, and how through that meeting matters of love, death and history are also to be worded. The Arabic word for love, habib, returns more than once, most poignantly at the end of the poem about the Mosul suicide-bombing. Other words and phrases in Arabic, sometimes translated and sometimes in the original, appear across the 47 poems in the collection.

To be a country’s invader and occupier is also to be “invaded” and “occupied” in turn, if only by the non-lethal force of another language and the perspectives it opens into another culture and history. Turner dedicates a poem to the scribe who carved the Gilgamesh epic onto stone tablets later found at Nineveh, near present-day Mosul. He writes a poem to the tenth century physicist “Alhazen of Basra”, and another to what’s left of the Garden of Eden.

But three-quarters of the poems here are about death, or speak to the dead, or include the dead in some way, either individually or as a collective. How could it be otherwise? “Nothing but hurt left here./Nothing but bullets and pain” as one poem begins.

Sometimes the dead remain distinguished by their nationalities too, as if in Turner’s imagination the resonance of the US decision to invade Iraq sounded on into the afterlife. He has the ghosts of dead Americans “wander the streets of Balad by night//unsure of their way home…” while from the rooftops the ghosts of dead Iraqis look down (surely in every sense) in silence.

Sometimes the dead look to comfort the grief-stricken living. In one poem they are clothed by a woman who hangs out her washing. Another poem acknowledges “an American death puts food on the table”. A US private kills himself. Sixteen Iraqi policemen are vaporised. A surgeon fails to save a shrapnel-victim. The executed are hauled from the Tigris or kicked and body-bagged. A US sniper clears his mind.

Some poems are from an Iraqi perspective. In one, Iraqi men repair a bullet-riddled wall. In another Turner imagines himself a skeleton from the Iran-Iraq war, repatriated after twenty years. In a third he evokes three moments in an Iraqi woman’s day.

Accompanying its fear, slaughter and brutality Turner includes poems which present the war as surreal. Lions, giraffes, bears and pelicans run or fly free from the Baghdad zoo among military hardware. A ferris wheel “frozen by rust like a broken clock” overlooks a moment of heroism and loss. The gas-flares of Kirkuk’s oilfields signal that Iraq is the roof of Hell. Anti-malaria pills generate vivid and terrible dreams. Perhaps strangest of all, there is beauty among the horrors. One poem uses the Arabic word for “beautiful” as its title, and without irony.

In others Turner’s perceptiveness offers the reader something untaintedly good: “orange groves/with ice forming on the rinds of fruit”, white birds rising from the Tigris on a day without bombs or panic, women harvesting salt “with buckets and bare hands”. Even the Highway of Death is also “the spice road of old…where merchants/traded privet flowers and musk, aloes,/honeycombs and silk…” The penultimate poem revisits the image of a caravan on the road, only now it is a vast corporate caravan of container-ships and trucks supplying the Occupation with boxes of bullets, light-bulbs and food. Turner ends this poem reflecting on other boxes, those which hold the dead and which “will not be taped and shipped/to the White House lawn… to say/if this is freedom, then we will share it.”

These moments of individual perception may carry symbolic weight. Early in the collection a sergeant shoots a crane roosting above the highway. It falls “in a slow unravelling of feathers and wings”, recalling Coleridge’s albatross. Albatrosses themselves fly through the end of a later poem.

Writing about the remembering of war, Turner imagines Katyusha rockets landing among the veterans of a Memorial Day parade back home: “Rockets often fall/down the night sky of the skull/… into the seat of memory.” He writes of the bomb disposal officer “determined…to dismantle death, to take it apart/piece by piece…” Perhaps this was one of the tasks Turner set himself, or found his poems trying to do, as if his writing might provide a way for him to “dismantle” the consequences of the invasion and Occupation.

He offers no overt condemnation, and none of his poems confront US atrocities or war-crimes, far less consider directly US policy. His poems are evidence of some of the results of that policy, and of Turner’s ability imaginatively and humanely to engage with what he finds. He brings his experience of the war home in plainly-worded descriptive and declarative statements, and very few images. His power comes from the authenticity of physical detail he presents precisely and often resonantly, and from the variety of ways he finds to speak of, and out of, the appalling circumstances into which his choice to enlist has led him.

Turner writes in a variety of forms, eschewing end-rhymes. One poem is set out as urgent prose, calling in a helicopter to evacuate wounded soldiers. The title-poem addresses that bullet any soldier may believe has his or her name on. Turner has called this poem a kind of taunting of death to its face: “And I dare you to finish/what you’ve started.” The bullet and everything it represents is always insufficient, until it finds the defiant living human: “Because here, Bullet,/here is where I complete the word you bring…” Turner asserts the vitality and potential of the body alive in the here and now, even as the bullet seems to speed towards him through the poem’s sixteen lines, strategically placed opposite the poem about the US sniper, the last line of which rhymes with the repeated “here” of the title poem.

In one interview Turner appears to say that the war has not been worth its cost in lives. In a poem near the end of this collection, set as he is flying out of Iraq, he writes: “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 in Talafar.”

This might seem disingenuous coming at the end of a collection all of whose words speak one way or another of war. Turner points out that other soldiers experienced the war in far more devastating ways than he did. His unit did not fight in Fallujah or Talafar. He himself returns to the USA unscathed, at least physically. He has also said that compiling the collection, ordering its poems and arranging it for publication (with the publishing co-operative Alice James Books) has helped him begin to fashion some order out of the chaos he experienced.

The collection’s closing poem both addresses Iraq’s desert sand, and points to sand as a destination for all the ordnance and all the victims (both human and animal) of war. The compacted and strange final lines suggest that even the burden with which war stowed the unconscious may find a resting-place: “to sand/each head of cabbage unravels its leaves/the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.”

The cover of Here, Bullet shows a single US infantryman in desert fatigues posed in a digitised desert terrain. The soldier stands not as a conqueror, raised above the landscape, but isolated within it. He has grounded his rifle. The skyline hills or dunes run higher than the top of his helmet. He stands under the title, a target for the bullet it summons and goads, and looks at us. Perhaps he is recalling lines in Turner’s poem ‘What Every Soldier Should Know’: “There are men who earn eighty dollars/to attack you, five thousand to kill.//Small children who will play with you/old men with their talk, women who offer chai—//and any one of them/may dance over your body tomorrow.”


Some of the poems from this collection are available in various forms on the net, including via YouTube and iTunes.

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