Brian Turner, Soldier-Poet, Tells us What The Iraq War is Really Like

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Here, Bullet: High mark of human sensibility

(Here, Bullet, Brian Turner, Alice James Books, 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, 71pp)

Anyone who knows anything about the history of Arabic, anyone who has savored the elegance and balletic athleticism of its script, is both reassured and exhilarated by the first poem of this daring book: reassured because the speaker is in awe of his subject, exhilarated because the poet is a soldier-contemplative, not a saga-teller.

The demeanor of the work is neither heroic nor antiheroic, which is fitting because true heroism speaks for itself; everything else is adjectival. There is no enemy here, only combatants, even children. The true enemy is elsewhere, as is always the case with war. What is remarkable about Here, Bullet, even more remarkable after five years, is that it remains a far more enlightening testament to the Iraq war than news reports. That is because poetry and art are news, and what we call news is commercially censored simulation.

It is shame that our taste-making apparatus conveys an impression that once a book has been reviewed it has been dealt with. We don’t deal with books. We don’t get past them. Good books live on, they operate in the world, they change our consciousness. Here, Bullet is more significant now than when it was published because war is never past, it is never history. Not Troy, not Carthage, not World Wars I and II, not Korea nor Vietnam. We do not understand Achilles and the Greeks or Hector and the Trojans the way the Renaissance did or the way the Victorians did. The great literature we have read becomes part of our DNA. Politicians and bankers may choose to ignore it, but we merely write their venality into the code. Authorized versions never retain their authority. If we believe Helen launched a thousand ships it is because we choose to entertain ourselves. No one who has read Carl Jung or Bruno Betelheim reads The Iliad the way it was read in the West when it reemerged in the 15th Century.

Our throwaway, hyper-commercialized culture misleads us. We think we know things we don’t know. We think we have experienced things we have only brushed up against. But there is that soldier standing on the cover of Here, Bullet, defying the bullet not only of immediacy but of time and our perception-defying the news reports, the thousands of pundits and their conclusions, the speeches and lies. We don’t know if that soldier is Brian Turner, infantryman or Everyman or both. It doesn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter if it is Brad Pitt playing Achilles. The poetry, like Homer’s, will outlive the hype.

The word for love, habib, is written from right to left, starting where we would end it and ending where we might begin….

This is how Here, Bullet begins, in the poem called “A Soldier’s Arabic.” The poem consists of four tercets. The third reveals how the poet has considered the nature of Arabic:

Speak the word for death, maut, and you will hear the cursive of the wind driven into the veil of the unknown.

Like T. E. Lawrence before him, like some of the Crusader poets, Turner grasps the alchemy of a Bedouin society-sand, time, waves, stars. He understands, and says so from the start, the irrelevance of politics, even of history.

“A Soldier’s Arabic” sends you back to the cover of Here, Bullet. A lone soldier stands in a waste, his weapon down, his stance that of a dancer at rest. There are no heroics, no opera. no posture. Each stone is important as the soldier. The photograph is as remarkably reverential as that first poem.

Next comes a Sura from the Qu’ran:

Who brings forth the living from the dead, and the dead from the living?

The Qu’ran, of course, has some of the world’s most beautiful poetry, and no headline that has ever emerged from Iraq or Afghanistan is as significant as the news that a single American soldier, considering that life has brought him under arms to Iraq, should ponder it. Nothing is as reassuring to common humanity than that. I have no doubt that there are Iraqis who have read Here, Bullet with the same sense that it is somehow hopeful, that war is not always made by brutes, by politicians and profiteers. Sometimes it is made, however reluctantly, by poets and scholars.

The news media are unsuited to report wars, the scholars too remote. Artists, poets and musicians should tell us about war when it is still hot and loud and bright. They will tell us the truth. They serve the numinous, not Mammon. That is the nature of Here, Bullet’s urgency. It is a reliable, terrible witness to a war that has been covered under the rubrics of a 19th Century journalistic paradigm.

In the 21st Century, especially in a terrorist era entrenched in the public consciousness by Germany’s violent Bader-Meinhof gang from 1968 to 1977, the objective standards that governed coverage of World War II are no longer as useful as they once were. War is not merely a factual complex; it has a psychic and spiritual dimension, and journalistic norms must be revisited to encompass that. Dispatches from the field, the tradition begun with the Crimean War, no longer cut it. War does not take place overseas, it takes place everywhere. Enemy strongholds are not bombed in isolation: the psyches of the bombers are bombed. It is the 19th Century journalism we practice that makes Holocaust denial an issue. Much more to the point are the thinkers and poets who wondered how art could be created in the aftermath of the Holocaust. They understood the nature of horror; the current state of journalism merely acknowledges it as stagecraft.

There have always been aspects of war that the press has chosen to ignore or downplay, such as the way banks profit from interest on war debt. Recently it was left to the film, The International, to bring this squalid concept home to the public. That is why what Brian Turner has to say about Iraq and Tony Barnstone about the Pacific War in Tongue of War broadens and deepens our consideration of war in a way the present state of journalism cannot and will not do.

Turner’s poetics offer much to admire, not least the poet’s fierce respect for his own material. He never imposes a convenient meter or form on a vision or idea. One senses an intense communion between the poet and his witness, so that the poetics that emerge are so appropriate that one hardly considers them at all:

This time it’s beautiful. He’s in the kelp beds somewhere off the California coast, floating where green leaves touch the sun, as if he’s disentangled from thought itself, as if the mind has come this far, up from the depths to release him to crests and shallows drifting wave by wave back to shore….

is the opening stanza of “Dreams From The Malaria Pills” (Turner), Forward Operating Base Eagle, Iraq.

Respect is a crucial aspect of this work, respect for Turner’s experiences, his comrades, the enemy, and the innocents. The idea of enmity almost disappears in Here, Bullet, giving way to the much larger tragedy of men and women pitted against each other for reasons they do not always understand. Here, Bullet is not so much about war as it is about the inability of humanity to grasp its enormity.

Turner told The New York Times that “the day of the first moonwalk, my father’s college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they’ll send a poet, and we’ll find out what it’s really like.’ ” Turner himself has fulfilled that prediction. Poets understand how stereotype demeans the human experience; they understand its evil. When they tell us what a war is like we can believe it. They are not foreign correspondents-a term that tells us much that is wrong with the world-they swallow the war and die from it, and in dying they open our eyes.

No two accounts of a thing are ever identical. Ask the police about this. Eyewitness doesn’t necessarily mean consensus. But usually the differences in accounts derive from the degree to which witnesses consent to see what they see-or the degree to which witness is uncensored by prejudice. If Turner has prejudices they are against whatever he hasn’t seen with his own eyes, and what he has seen seems hair-raisingly unfiltered.

Here, Bullet is informed by Turner’s recognition that rarely is anything like anything else, not really. Unlike journalists the poet is not concerned with consequences because they are already so horrifically evident. No conclusions need to be drawn; everything he sees is its own conclusion. How absurd, in this context, all the fact-finding junkets. How absurd the political reference to “facts on the ground”-where else would they be?

Take, for example, the poem “The Al Harishma Weapons Market” with its deadly line: An American death puts food on the table. Journalists can’t stop politicians’ mouths because they thrive on the output, but poets can, and this line is one of the world’s great show-stoppers.

Then there is the poem “The Hurt Locker,” which concludes:

…Open the hurt locker and learn how rough men come hunting for souls.

The poem has been speaking of the enemy. A 12-year-old rolls a grenade into a room, and the poem ends on a note of universality, suggesting that in a sense we’re all the enemy, because if we’re not, then nothing really makes sense.

I thought for a long time before trying to write about this book that I would have nothing to say unless I understood why the poet chose to make the title poem the ninth poem, not the first. The poem defies the bullet with the poet’s intention to speak. Wasn’t this as natural a first poem as Homer beginning The Odyssey by saying, Rage-Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles? I’m abashed that it took me so long to see the poet thought it intolerable for Here, Bullet to be about him. He is simply a poet-witness, and what befalls his comrades, the 12-year-old boy, the insurgent snipers, the blast victims-what befalls us all-is more important than what befalls him.

Here, too, he differs markedly from journalists, because inevitably they are about hyping the significance of what they report, and that demeans it. War is reported as a show, a game, and that is a tragedy for us all. The poet himself hints at this when he quotes an old Iraqi proverb late in the book in the poem “Caravan”: No matter the barking of the dogs, the caravan marches on.

A sequence of prose poems called “Medevac” occurring towards the end of the book deserves special mention. It reminds me of Arthur Rimbaud’s breathtaking prose poems because Rimbaud’s A Season In Hell conveys a sense of nothing like it having gone before, and so does “Medevac”: The sheriff of Baghdad needs to know-A smoke signal? An orange panel? How best do you mark a place of loss and pain?

We need to know, all of us. It’s the war’s epitaph, isn’t it? All wars.

I think I knew instinctively when I read about Here, Bullet-it has received much popular attention-that I wasn’t up to it and wouldn’t be for some time. I had been rereading The Iliad and The Odyssey for perhaps the fourth or fifth time, and, as usual, I was dismayed by all I had missed and misunderstood. I suppose in a sense we are, none of us, ever up to the deeds and misdeeds of our race. I felt ashamed that I didn’t want to see the soldier’s witness, bear an iota of his pain. What kind of American, what kind of human being did that make me? But over time I came to realize that we’re never up to such things. Ask the detectives whose teen-age suspects seem incapable of grasping that they have killed a fellow human being, killed him dead so that he will never be among us again.

How could I have preferred news reports-words piled on words, interspersed with advertisements-to this tragic testament, this lyric benchmark of human sensibility? Simply, I suppose, because the news reports cheapen events, trivializing them and making it all seem like a video game. I think this suggests the fate of Here, Bullet on our library shelves. It is always going to daunt us, just the way Homer does, and every time we return to it we are going to see what was there all the while for us to see if we’d had the heart for it.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm

New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/

His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com

His mother’s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com

His aunt’s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.