Today is Veterans Day in the United States, a day on which we honor the men and women who have served in the armed forces during times of war. Other parts of the world celebrate Armistice Day or Remembrance Day as well.
In keeping with the day, I thought I'd discuss a book by a veteran of the Iraq War named Brian Turner. Brian Turner earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Oregon prior to serving seven years in the U.S. Army. In 2003, he served a one-year tour of duty as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.
With this collection, Turner joins the ranks of war poets who have shined a light on the atrocities and small mercies of war through the ages. Some of the best-known war poets were from World War I, and include Wilfred Owens (with poems such as "Dulce et Decorum Est", Rupert Brooke (including the fifth poem of a work entitled 1914, a poem called "The Soldier", which begins: "If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England."), and John McCrae of Canada, who wrote "In Flanders Fields". The poems in today's collection, Here, Bullet, continue the tradition of relating both the noble and base qualities of humankind during war, and are primarily the result of Turner's time in Iraq.
To give you an introduction to the power of Turner's work, here is the title poem:
by 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, that 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.
Here, Bullet by Brian Turner was published in 2005. It has won several awards; reading some of the poems makes immediately clear why that is. Turner manages to talk about the war from a variety of viewpoints (no mean feat, I assure you). He talks about the landscape and history of Iraq, its people - those who were happy to see the U.S. forces and those who wanted them dead, and about the realities of war, from changes in perspective to bad dreams to injury and death. The poems include tremendous beauty as well as tremendous brutality (sometimes in the same poem), and enlarge the reader's perspective on Iraq, the Iraq war, and more.
Here's a poem entitled "Alhazen of Basra". A helpful note at the back of the book makes clear that the poem refers to Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, a polymath from the turn of the first millenium who made advances in the fields of physics, among others.
Alhazen of Basra
by Brian Turner
If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunset, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn't ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind's great repository
of dream, and whether he's studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.
Lest you think the poems are all introspective or contemplative in nature, or not particularly violent, I should alert you that there are poems such as "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem)" that describe in graphic terms the death of a single soldier, and "16 Iraqi Policemen" that describe the wholesale explosion of the men in the title, with lines such as these: "The shocking blood of the men/forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone/on a sidewalk, a blistered hand's gold ring/still shining . . . " The book includes other forms of graphic language as well, including the occasional swear word or sexual reference.
Reading this collection conveys an impression of Iraq and what it is to be involved in the war there in a way that news footage cannot do, for the news only has a few seconds of footage to bring you, usually with a voiceover, before the camera's eye turns to a reporter standing in the sun, in the sand, telling you what has happened. Sometimes the news tells us nothing at all of what is going on over there. But these poems pile up like verbal snapshots of moments and incidents and histories, in a way that is compelling and true. Whether they are, collectively, devastating or hopeful, is left to the reader. Whether the U.S. soldiers and their actions are always in the right is left to the reader. Turner turns his poet's camera on what he sees and feels and hears, and tells it true, even when the truth is ugly or hard.
I'll leave you with one more poem from Here, Bullet, and leave it to you, the reader, to decide whether this poem is ultimately hopeful, merely pragmatic, or something else entirely. The notes at the back of the book say that Halabjah is a city in Kurdish Northern Iraq. The Iraq military under Saddam Hussein attacked these Iraqis with chemical weapons. As many as 5,000 deaths have been attributed to a single attack on Halabjah.
by Brian Turner
The day before the Kurdish holiday
Hussein and Abid stir the muddy paste
with a shovel and their bare hands.
Because Hussein's arm is scarred
elbow to wrist from the long war with Iran,
he holds the trowel in his left hand, pushing
mud against a bullet-pocked wall, the cement
an appeasement which Hussein pauses over,
waiting out his hand's familiar tremor,
then burying the lead, its signatures
like dirt-filled sockets of bone
which he smoothes over and over.
Here, Bullet is recommended reading for those interested in war and/or military history, those interested in contemporary events including the Iraq War, and those who are interested in war poetry.