Poetry’s Embedded Soldier

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. Alice James Books, 2005.

As Reviewed By: Aaron Baker

Civil unrest, wars, and insurgencies rage around the globe, but for most of us, comfortably ensconced in some version of a Western lifestyle (a “lifestyle” itself being one of our consumer choices), this news, like that of distant weather, almost always takes place on the level of heady abstraction. If the half-digested soundbytes and fleeting images on our television screens incite our political or moral passions, if they stir our imaginations, they almost never manage to touch us where we actually live, even if we fear that someday they will.

[private]This predicament, our isolation in the West from not only our own history but the unfolding history of much of the planet, has been given perhaps its most brutal (and cynical) treatment so far by David Herd, in a poem of exactly two lines from his book Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir.

September 11, 2001

Worked in the morning.
Watched TV.

So it’s a surprise to come across a first book of poetry like Here, Bullet, written not, as are most first books these days, by a student enrolled in an MFA program or university professor, but by an infantry sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. For most of his year-long tour, Brian Turner carried the book’s title poem in a Ziploc bag in his uniform’s left chest pocket.

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. 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.

How does one go about offering critical judgments on a book like this? It occurs to me that there are two separate discussions that ought to be had: (1) To consider the oddity of the book’s very existence in our contemporary literary climate, and (2) To evaluate the success of Turner’s poems for their artistry-as if they did not come packaged with an interesting and extremely timely back story.

As subject matter for poetry, warfare automatically unites the public and private spheres at points of incredible intensity, linking in a way that is completely direct the results of an individual’s involvement in a social world. Soldiers bear the burden of not only their own characters, but of the characters of their societies, and many of the great human themes-mercy and cruelty, the seductions of power, personal heroism and sacrifice, the fulfillment and degradation of ideals-are all brought to a boil within a microcosm of action. For poetry, this raises a number of risks and opportunities.

Any poetry clearly based on a writer’s personal experiences (and not just when those experiences are of war), adopts an aura of authenticity that readers can find coercive. It’s not uncommon to see poets who use “experience” as a cudgel of authority to beat down a reader’s resistance. When it comes to stories or poems about war, or others forms of trauma, there is always a nagging sense that we ought to shut up and just listen to those writers who have, in the vernacular, “been through the shit.” But at the same time, we can’t help but remain on guard against the attempts to self-justify and self-mythologize to which such work is especially prone. And all of this happens before we can even begin evaluating poems on the basis of their technical achievement-to commence weighing and measuring somebody’s extreme real-life crises in a way that some might find (not always unreasonably) inappropriate if not downright indecent.

Without the grounding of personal experience, on the other hand, a poet can too easily approach a subject like war in the same manner as a politician: by freely incorporating and excluding-from a range of options limited only by what the poet thinks he can get away with-whatever images, references and facts seem expedient to bolster a desired effect. This critique does not pass final judgment on the quality of any given poem, but the problem is familiar. Is the story of Iraq, for instance, best told by the image of a burning Humvee or a purple finger? A bulldozer turning over a mass grave filled by a dictator or a hooded figure with electrodes attached to his fingertips?

If war poetry based on personal experiences can also suffer from such selectivity, it’s at least forced to draw from a narrowed range of references and come by its subjectivity openly, announcing itself through the filter of an involved speaker, one who unlike a propagandist can be sympathized with and scrutinized (and even doubted) in the same ways we can scrutinize and sympathize with some guy telling us his stories over a beer at the local bar. So long as we don’t feel that the poet is abusing or making excessive demands on our deference (talking down to us), the nature of the transaction between poet and reader can be one that inherently acknowledges-and even makes use of-the inevitable fallibility involved in attempting to understand our lives.

Turner, it turns out, is a poet of surprising discretion and reserve-anticipating, no doubt, the way in which a book on his topic would be received. For the timeliness of its first-hand account of a subject of immense public interest, Here, Bullet needn’t have been any good at all to generate the kind of interest it has (respectful notices in the New York Times and The New Yorker, interviews on PBS and NPR, and an Amazon sales ranking that exceeds as of this writing even the newest book by Billy Collins). Without jeopardizing its reception, Turner’s poetry, as poetry, could have gotten away with being pretty awful. Fortunately, it has plenty going for it.

Anyone hoping that the book might provide fodder for either side of our nation’s political slug-fest over Iraq will likely come away disappointed, which doesn’t mean that Turner has failed to consider the broader moral and intellectual dimensions of the conflict but that he has tried to consider them on a more intimate level.

Many of the more successful poems in Here, Bullet deal with Turner’s struggle to understand his experiences through the uncertain field of vision afforded him as a soldier. Several of his poems approach this predicament literally, describing how Iraqi landscapes and citizens are transformed through a rifle scope or binoculars. At the same time the range of his vision narrows, its intensity grows.

With a 40x60mm spotting scope

I traverse the Halabjah skyline,

scanning rooftops two thousand meters out

to find a woman in sparkling green, standing

among antennas and satellite dishes,

hanging laundry on an invisible line.

She is dressing the dead, clothing them

as they wait in silence, the pigeons circling

as fumestacks billow a noxious back smoke.

She is welcoming them back to the dry earth,

giving them dresses in tangerine and teal,

woven cotton shirts dyed blue.

She waits for them to lean forward

into the breeze, for the wind’s breath

to return the bodies they once had,

women with breasts swollen by milk,

men with shepherd-thin bodies, children

running hard into the horizon’s curving lens.

(“In the Leupold Scope”)

This approach is used in a number of other poems, so many that it appears to be the book’s signature device, suggesting (though Turner doesn’t explicitly make this point) that modern warfare places soldiers at a physical and psychological remove from events that is at least somewhat analogous to that of civilians. In “Observation Post #798,” Turner describes his actions as a soldier in nearly voyeuristic terms:

It’s over a hundred degrees, even at dusk.

I scan each story with binoculars

and a smile, hoping to glimpse the girls

drawing open the curtains,

their silhouettes edged in light.

And, in its entirety:

Owls rest in the vines of wild grapes.

Eucalyptus trees shimmer.

And from the minaret, a voice.

Each life has its moment. The sunflowers

lift their faces toward the dawn

as milk cows bellow in fields of trash.

I have watched him in the shadows.

I have watched him in the circle of light

my rifle brings to me. His song

hums in the wings of sand flies.

My mind has become very clear.

(“Observation Post #71”)

“Observation Post #71” displays Turner’s abilities at their most concentrated and is one of the finest poems in the collection. Sandwiched between sparsely described physical details, the line “Each life has its moment,” sets up the alchemic moment of the inward turn when the rifle in the speaker’s hands becomes the instrument and bringer of vision. The unspecified “he” (the voice from the minaret?) raises a song that merges in the speaker’s imagination with the song of insects as he reaches his moment of crisis and clarity: “My mind has become very clear.”

Hemingway, who Turner evokes in an epigraph to the book’s first poem, wrote: “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates,” and an attractive quality of Turner’s book is the way he situates his experiences against the geography, language, and history-including the poetic history-of Iraq. According to an interview, he carried with him to Iraq a volume of Arabic poetry, and many of the poems of the book show him attempting to fit his own experiences (while acknowledging the difficulties of doing so) into the context of his historical and cultural surroundings.

Each of the collection’s sections begins with an epigraph from the Koran or an Arabic poet, and in “Najaf, 1820,” Turner alludes to the bloody history of the region (a history in which he now plays a part), envisioning the very earth as the repository for vast multitudes of spent lives.

Camel caravans transport the dead

from Persia and beyond, their bodies dried

and wrapped in carpets, their dying wishes

to be buried near Ali

where the first camel

dragged Ali’s body across the desert

tied to the fate of its exhaustion.

Najaf is where the dead naturally go,

where the gates of Paradise open before them

in unbanded light, the blood washed clean

of their bodies.

It is November,

the clouds made of gunpowder and rain,

the earth pregnant with the dead;

cemetery mounds stretching row by row

with room enough yet for what the years

will bring: the gravediggers need only dig,

shovel by shovel.

At the same, the less successful poems in the collection are those in which there is no first-person speaker at the center. The instinct to decenter the subjective I, to sympathetically enter into the experiences of others, is admirable, but the poems which do this usually seem cursory and ill-suited to the minimalistic, perceptually immediate approach that serves Turner better elsewhere. Poems like “The Al Harishma Weapons Market” (about black-market arms dealing) and “Two Stories Down” (about a civilian’s suicide), have documentary interest, but they could just as well have been written by anybody who had heard the same stories.

For the most part, Turner’s poems derive little energy from any formal or linguistic invention and rely primarily on juxtapositions of aptly selected images and observations which lead his speaker(s) to make inward, often highly imaginative turns. Occasionally those turns become labored and labyrinthine, losing their way among thickets of stacked conditional phrases. From the title poem:

. . . 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 . . .

Urgency and momentum help carry the poem through these grammatical obstacles, but how does moaning a barrel’s esophagus (what does that mean?) trigger a tongue’s explosives for anybody’s internal rifling? You can eventually figure it out-sort of-but why so much elaborate artifice for something as brutally direct as getting shot in the heart?

Turner usually demonstrates a very fine eye for detail, an ability to radically pare down a situation into a few images for raw impact. Still, there are occasional instances of diffuse, almost inexplicable imprecision, as in this description: “Because Hussein’s arm is scarred/ elbow to wrist from the long war with Iran,/ he holds the trowel in his left hand…” In a poem that depends on closely observed details, a wound should have a far more precise cause than simply the long war during which it occurred, and a scar alone doesn’t make an arm useless. Small quibbles, I know, but this is from a twelveline poem, and poems of that length require-or should-a standard of surgical economy and accuracy.

Turner’s book stands on its head Wordsworth’s concept of poetry as powerful emotion recollected in tranquility. With the exception of two poems, Here, Bullet was written entirely in Iraq, often by red lens flashlight after dark to avoid disturbing the soldiers sleeping around him. Regarded this way, the book comes off as a kind of performance art; whatever is rushed and unsatisfying about these poems is part of what the book documents-the voice and testament of someone in the middle of the action.

* * *

The history of poetry has always been deeply intertwined with the history of war. Since Homer, since the Bible, since Beowulf, a traditional function of poems has been to exalt the exploits of warriors, though after the ascendancy of Modernism, Western poets have rarely taken on this role, which pretty much gave its expiring gasp in the work of Rupert Brooke during World War I.

Early Modernism had much to do with the intelligentsia’s reaction to World War I, and even poets not directly involved in the war incorporated into their poetry the discoveries of those who had. This didn’t take place merely on the level of subject matter, but in the very ways that poems were created, as when the prosodic techniques pioneered by Wilfred Owen in a hospital behind the Western Front resurfaced in the work of the Modernists. For instance, Owen’s use of pararhyme to underscore the disturbed surrealistic atmosphere of his poem “Strange Meeting.” (“And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall,/ By his dead smile I knew we stood in Hell./ With a thousand pains that vision’s face was grained; /Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground”) would return to haunt Auden in lines like, “‘Out of this house,’ said rider to reader,/ ‘Yours never will,’ said farer to fearer,/ ‘They’re looking for you,’ said hearer to horror…”

Later, European expressionism/surrealism, so important to many younger American poets of today (though in forms denuded of the intensities of their origins), had its roots in the work of figures such as Trakl and Celan (who, though not a soldier himself, nearly died in a concentration camp). And the sensibility of Milosz was forged in the ruins of Poland.

But since the end of World War II, when a large number of those American veterans who would become American poets began to migrate into the universities (often as a result of the G.I. Bill), the percentage of poets with personal experiences of war or even a reasonable expectation of ever being subjected to such experiences, has radically declined. Because of educational deferments and the relatively smaller scale of the Vietnam War, this process was well under way during the sixties and seventies (with notable exceptions like Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl).

Today, in the era of an all-volunteer military, the overwhelming majority of young Americans who will become young American poets will neither experience military service, or war, nor ever reasonably expect they will. It has even become unlikely for a young American poet to personally know a serviceman or woman who has served or might serve in Iraq or Afghanistan-such is the economic and social divide that separates those who become soldiers from those who become poets. But what, if any, implications does this actually have?

Because war is a societal, communal event, does the voice of a soldier actually command greater deference than anyone else’s? Does having “been there” give a poet’s work additional weight? The question of deference is probably the wrong one to ask. Regardless of any single poet’s experiences or imaginings, poems are entities with lives and careers of their own and will flourish or fail according to terms separate (if not wholly independent of) a poet’s biography.

When T.S. Eliot wrote in response to the traumas of World War I, Robert Graves asked, “But why is he complaining? Who forced him, during the Battle of the Somme, to attend London tea-parties presided over by boring hostesses?” Graves’ annoyance notwithstanding, Eliot really did write “The Waste Land” in response to the cataclysmic traumas of the war, while a great deal of poetry by soldiers which came out of World War I is now justly forgotten. Walt Whitman was not a soldier either, but he experienced the Civil War intimately, serving as a nurse for the wounded, and arguably the best contemporaneous prose account of Civil War combat was The Red Badge of Courage, written by the civilian reporter, Stephen Crane, who had never seen action. And the later Eliot (whether or not he was still attending those boring London tea parties Graves complained about), wrote parts of Four Quartets in response to the experience of living through the Blitz.

It’s still too soon to say how events like 9-11 and the Iraq war might weigh on American poetry-how it might, in some way, place all American poets in a situation analogous to that of Eliot in London. While poetry has been written in response to 9-11, and especially in response to its political aftermath, it’s not clear that any sea-change (or even a very strong current of influence), has emerged in the collective poetic consciousness.

* * *

As good as Turner’s book is, when it is good, it’s unfortunate that in so many interviews he repeats this idea of having been an “embedded poet,” as though being a poet, like being a journalist, connotes membership in some sort of professional guild, and that a sensibility-a “poetic” one-somehow precedes the intense and mysterious union of personality, craft, and material that forces its way into the world in the form of poems.

Turner does not offer nearly as much in the way of facts about Iraq as do the many non-fiction memoirs out there by soldiers and others; neither does he purport to show us (thankfully) what the “poetic reaction” to Iraq is or should be. The important thing about Turner’s book-and where I wish the emphasis would lie-is with the promise of Turner himself, a poet with perspectives and experiences almost completely unique among poets of his generation. This isn’t to say that there’s anything necessarily less meritorious about either the work or the concerns preoccupying others, so much as it is to notice that poets increasingly share a similar social, economic, and educational profile that enables to American poetry as a whole to become ever more out of touch with some of the most intense aspects of human experience. It’s far more interesting, in this environment, to think of Turner as a soldier embedded in the provincial world of American poetry than as a poet embedded in a war.

Turner, it’s true, was a poet with an MFA in creative writing before he was a soldier, and according to interviews, he went into Iraq from the outset intending to bear witness to what he saw. In this, he is no different from Wilfred Owen or most of the great English poets of World War I who were also poets first. But a first book is usually a promise, a harbinger of things to come, and I hope that Turner isn’t sincere when he says that Here Bullet contains the last poetry he intends to write about his experiences as a soldier. Hurried into print months after his return from Iraq, the book is important because it’s the only book like it, but despite a handful of successful poems and its documentary interest, Here Bullet does not break or even attempt to break technical or intellectual ground in the manner of work by previous generations of war poets. The book really is much as Turner describes it-a record of facts that have been professionally packaged as poetry by one trained to write it. For the most part, this book demonstrates a sensibility shaping-rather than being shaped by- its material.

As the first collection of poetry published by an American Iraq war veteran, Brian Turner’s book may auger wider cultural and literary shifts that will occur in the post-Iraq war climate-especially if, as seems likely, we in the West find ourselves no longer as permanently insulated and removed from conditions of life which we have mostly forgotten but which so much of the world knows only too well. On the jacket of Here, Bullet, T.R. Hummer’s blurb reads: “Reader, take note: 21st century poetry, as such, may well begin here.” If true, this says more about the shocks awaiting us in the 21st century than it does about the poems of Brian Turner-at least the poems he has given us so far.[/private]

About Aaron Baker

Aaron Baker is a poet whose work has appeared in numerous journals, including Poetry, New England Review, and Post Road. He has recently been a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University and a Henry Hoyns Fellow at the University of Virginia. He currently teaches at Baruch College in New York.
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