one's asked to me write this review, and I haven't even got my own copy of
the book yet - an American friend's just lent it to me. I've ordered one, so
I can pass it around: this a book I want all my friends to read.
The poems were written during the time Brian Turner served as 'an infantry
team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and Infantry Division'
in Iraq. This is remarkable enough in itself, and will invite comparison with
other war poetry, but what I'm more interested in is that you sense from the
first lines of the book that this is going to be poetry which has risen to
The word for
is written from right
starting where we would end it
where we might begin.
The writing comes from a place beyond politics, beyond prejudice, even beyond
presuppositions: the hot dust where the dead, all of them whomever, in '2000
confused amongst one another,
other's names, trying to comfort
the living in
It's lyrical but restrained; vivid but understated; colourful but precise.
The poems are honed so there's no unnecessary extras between you and what is
written; maybe this is why it's been awarded the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award.
One of the book's most engaging strengths is its recognition of the necessity
to understand Iraq's history and people and, simultaneously, the
impossibility of doing so. 'What Every Soldier Should Know' takes phrases
from a survival guide. The writing isn't all heavy, there's humour too.
Here's the part of the poem with actual phrases:
It mean Stop!
Or I'll shoot.
It means Good
Inshallah means Allah be willing.
when it is spoken.
Later, we're given contexts in which Inshallah is spoken, without translation.
Half a dozen poems further on - the book's been very thoughtfully put
together as a whole - 'Two Stories Down' enacts the impossibility for an
American and an Iraqi to understand each other. Hasan jumps from a balcony,
just how hard life fights
how an American soldier
would run to
his aid there on the sidewalk,
make sense of Hasan's broken legs,
screaming, trying to comfort him
The poem then makes a turn which renders Hasan as incomprehensible to the
American as the American soldier is to Hasan, but in such as way as to make
this incomprehension the reader's own. (I'm not going to spoil this poem by
typing it out here; it's one of the pieces that needs to be savoured whole.)
Phrase books, the Qur'an, history books...the poems try these as routes to
approach Iraqis. But they're usually seen from a distance - even through
gunsights. 'In the Leupold Scope' Brian Turner uses this distanced view to
give him a position of objectivity, almost outside the moment:
40x60mm spotting scope
the Halabjah skyline,
rooftops two thousand meters out
to find a
woman in sparkling green, standing
antennas and satellite dishes,
laundry on an invisible line.
Women seem to be associated with redemption here - long hair shaken down on
the rooftop of a brothel in another poem reminds him, he is 'still alive'.
And 'if we're lucky', he says in 'Autopsy', the mortuary affairs specialist
will be 'someone like her / singing low'. Such stereotypical female roles
brought me up against a discrepancy; I kept seeing the image which the media
have lodged so firmly in my mind of a woman soldier abusing prisoners.
But of course he isn't outside the moment. What if it had been a man picked up in that spotting
scope on the Halabjah skyline? There's an extraordinary contradiction going
on here. I'm reading this as a book of eloquent and convincing anti-war
poems, but they're written by a man with his finger on a trigger. You can't
just draw parallels with the First World War poets who were conscripts,
because Turner is a man who chose
the army for his career, who is prepared to participate in a war machine, who
has hold of that scope through his own choice. So is this volume of poems a
record of a change of heart as he saw the horror and senselessness of war?
Turner doesn't write in political terms, but in images; this isn't a book
about him. He questions himself only at the end, in 'Night in Blue' on the
...what will I
to say of the
dead - that it was worth it,
that any of
it made sense?
I have no
words to speak of war.
A curious line, since he's already shown that it wasn't worth it, that none
of it made any sense. This poem doesn't actually answer his question, though
you might say the internet does - he's teaching creative writing these days.
Many don't. There are so many deaths in the book and so many wounds as well
as precise knowledge of attempts to save the wounded. Psychological wounds
are addressed indirectly in a group of vivid poems, 'Dreams from the Malaria
Pills'. Horror is contained both within poems by balancing quiet lines 'a
mongoose pauses under the orange trees' ['Eulogy'] and within the collection
as a whole, with (literally) quiet poems such as 'Curfew'.
Which I suppose in its own way makes the horror all the more horrific. The
gratuitous violence described simply in 'Hwy 1'
atop power lines in enormous
nests of sticks and twigs,
and when a
sergeant shoots one from the highway
it pauses, as
if amazed that death has found it
here, at 7
a.m. on such a beautiful morning
didn't hit me too hard on first reading; now it haunts me. So I want to read
the book again. And want others to read it too.