HERE, BULLET BY BRIAN TURNER [Alice James Books, 71pp, 2005]
HERE, BULLET IS poetic reportage with a heavy heart. Brian Turner, an American soldier who also served as a conscientious witness in the ongoing Iraq war, manages to salvage verse from the jaws of mad- ness. Here are difficult songs full of reverence for life and achingly sensitive to the blasphemy that calls itself war – or, what philosopher Bertrand Russell called “licensed murder”. Turner faithfully surveys the nightmarish landscape of obscene unravelings and endgames and somehow manages to keep awake and spiritually alive by never losing sight of the dignity of others or the immortality of the human spirit.
Written in straightforward, mostly unadorned free verse, the poetry in Bullet is fairly accessible to the uninitiated readers of prose. What impresses most here is neither verbal nor technical dexterity, but rather the sheer scope of the experience itself and the pitiful honesty with which Turner responds to it. Using short lines, simple words and metaphors sparingly, he strives to convey the “crackling stress of the air” in Iraq.
BOOK OF THE DEAD
Unsurprisingly, death figures largely in Bullet Turner is a man who has visited the land of shades and returns transfigured. These are his “pearls of war” that he offers as much to the living as to the bewildered dead, who haunt and interrogate him “about the blood drying on their scalps”, and “…where their wives and children are”. Turner wanders through this wasteland “the earth pregnant with the dead” – with such questions echoing in his head as he attempts to formulate a plausible answer.
“…If a ghost can wander amazed/ through the days of its life, then it is me , ” he volunteers as atonement; in another poem he simply offers “the remorse of the flesh”. And as he searches his soul, he continues to bear unblinking witness in a voice that is mostly tender, often wistful, hardly ever violent. He’s seen too much of that.
LANGUAGE OF THE LAND
In “A Soldier’s Arabic” Turner muses about where words begin and love ends:
The word for love, habib, is written
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.
Bullet is littered with such snatches of Arabic, the language of the land, meditations reflecting Turner’s respect for the culture and wisdom of the area. He is not only sensitive to the sanctity of life, but also to the place he finds himself unwittingly dismantling and the glorious history it is steeped in, “the gold-leafed dust of antiquity”. In turn, there are epigraphs from the Qur’an as well as Arab poets and philosophers, all illustrating the rich and universal heritage being held under siege and desecrated.
Meditating upon the truths of fables in “Gilgamesh, in Fossil Relief”, he makes this timeless pronouncement:
It is an old story now. It was an old story then full of gods and beasts and the inevitable points of no return each age must learn.
Elsewhere, in a rare erotic dream, a lover memorably “kisses Arabic into (his) skin” and he understands every word of it. Through Turner, we are allowed to overhear how others speak, think, pray, dream, love and lose. To know someone in this way is to care for them, as ourselves. Humanizing the “enemy” thus is at once his greatest feat and a testament to his own profound humanity.
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
Here, Bullet opens with a rhetorical question from the Qur’an: “Who brings forth the living from the dead, and the dead from the living?” The implication being that only the Creator decides who deserves to die. Amazed that man dare to mar His work and contemplating the enormity of the crime Turner is accomplice to, he imagines God roaming amid the mind-numbing carnage: “Allah must wander in the crowd/as I do, dazed…”
In one of a series of poems titled “Dreams from the Malaria Pills” Turner hallucinates: “The Qur’an and the Bible/have washed page by page to shore/their bindings stripped loose, their ink/ blurred into the sea.” After this evocative image, the next poem, “Curfew”, opens with this wise epigraph: “The wrong is not in the religion/The wrong is in us.”
PAIN’S HIDING PLACE
Bullet is riddled with horrid snapshots not intended to soothe and not minding to shock into awareness. There are feverish dreams, competing with waking horrors on the ground, of a world undone, a people unhinged, dismembered body parts, suicide. Anointed in blood, Turner is reborn hyper-sensitized to the senseless waste of flesh and potential; he traces the shadow, “light’s counterpoint”, in grotesque-triste and merciless attention.
He finds that death lodges itself deep in the seat of consciousness, that it resides in the “landscape of the brain, under the skull’s blue curving dome”… “where the dead are buried deep in the mind”. These are the inescapable thoughts that disrupt his sleep and torment his waking hours how so much death disfigures minds and bodies.
Yet, deeper than the pain that keeps him prisoner of war, Turner is kept alive by hope. Ghosting through this dreamscape, fantasizing of elsewhere (home and loved ones, both thousands of miles away), he drifts in reveries of sensual bliss, simpler times, kinder faces of humanity – and, ultimately, this saves him from going mad, or bad, or both.
Turner is keenly aware of “how hard life fights” and seems to agree with Beckett that “the prospect of death is vivifying.” Part-reluctant soldier, part-helpless witness, he is all poet railing against the dying of the light, from the limited light offered by his weapon, “…the circle of light/my rifle brings to me,” to the vast invisible reservoirs, “…the light within us/what shines in the mind’s great repository/of dream…how light defines us.”
In “How Bright It Is” an ode to the indomitable Light within and without, he concludes:
It will take many nails from the coffinmakers
to shut out this light, which reflects off
Aware of the distorting effects of news sources and self-serving omissions of history, Turner plaintively states: “The history books will get it wrong,” and presents us instead with an unromantic account from the battlefield and the human cost of such bloodshed-on mind/body/spirit. As animated by compassion as these searing memories are, they are the more powerful for their ghoulish minutiae – the better to emblazon themselves upon the reader’s imagination. The devil is in the details and, presumably, God too.
Here, Bullet is a sobering book for intemperate times and has a lesson simple enough for everyone to understand: “It should break your heart to kill.” To dismiss this advice in “Sadiq” (“Friend”) “…should…nightmare you” – a truth compellingly demonstrated throughout this terribly beautiful collection.