Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

I never quite developed the muscles for reading poetry.  The year that it was covered in my high school, I had a kind but somewhat inept English teacher who could have done a better job of introducing me to Betjeman and who probably shouldn’t have let me memorize a song from Chess for a recitation assignment.  (Don’t cry for him: after one year teaching private school eleventh graders, he fled back to his girlfriend in England and subsequently became a mildly successful novelist and critic.)  So I’ve been trying to build those muscles as an adult and not quite succeeding.  Thanks to podcasts (mostly from Poetry Magazine, who produce several terrific ones), I’ve discovered that I enjoy listening to poetry, but I still find reading it to largely be a challenge.

Although he mostly covers fiction, Michael Silverblatt does occasionally interview poets on his invaluable radio program Bookworm.  (He also makes me jealous, as he once noted on the program that he has two separate apartments: one to live in and one that holds his books.)  A few years ago, one of his guests was a poet named Brian Turner, who had recently published his first book after returning from a tour of duty in the Middle East.  And a year or so later, when I found myself browsing the poetry shelves at the big Barnes and Noble in Union Square, looking for something to try reading, my mind flew back to that intriguing interview and the fascinating excerpts that Turner had read.  And so I bought Here, Bullet and proceeded to read it slowly over the course of two months, a poem or two at a time every few nights.

Turner’s poetry is grounded wholly in reality, in the day-to-day banality that makes up the bulk of wartime life.  He chronicles an autopsy, a suicide, scanning the skyline for snipers, fever dreams from malaria pills, information that soldiers should know (“If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,/it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.”), listening to another soldier play the guitar.  He counterbalances this with poems from the POV--or at least telling the stories of--the Iraqis whose lives have been so rudely interrupted by war: a painter, a black marketer, mothers and fathers and children.  And ultimately how everything turns, in the end, to the same dust: “To sand go tracers and ball ammunition…To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year…”

Turner is also one of the few people currently writing of the war in the Middle East from direct experience—there’s been a fair amount of first-hand non-fiction (Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War stands out) and plenty of excellent reportage (books by Sebastian Junger and Dexter Filkins, most notably) but as yet little or no fiction and poetry.  (It strikes me that, with the elimination of the draft after Vietnam, we may never again see a wealth of such strong literature of war from participants—would Tim O’Brien, to name but one, have ever voluntarily enlisted?  Whether this is a bad thing or a good thing is up for debate.)

And so I leave with a portion of the title poem (read it in full and hear it at From the Fishouse), which is the one that, read by the author on Bookworm those years ago, attracted me to the work in the first place.

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, the 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.

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