Sometimes I pull the trigger. Sometimes I don’t.
When I pull the trigger, he often just stands there,
gesturing, as if saying, Aren’t you ashamed?
When I don’t, he douses himself
in gasoline, drowns himself in fire.
A dog barks in the night’s illuminated green landscape
and the platoon sergeant orders me to shoot it.
Some nights I twitch and jerk in my sleep.
My lover has learned to face away.
She closes her eyes when I fuck her. I imagine
she’s far away and we don’t use the word love.
When she sleeps, helicopters
come in low over the date palms.
Men are bound on their knees, shivering
in the animal stall, long before dawn.
I whisper into their ears, saying,
Howlwin? Howlwin? Meaning, Mortars? Mortars?
Howl wind, motherfucker? Howl wind?
The milk cow stares with its huge brown eyes.
The milk cow wants to know
how I can do this to another human being.
I check the haystack in the corner
for a weapons cache. I check the sewage sump.
I tell no one, but sometimes late at night
I uncover rifles and bullets within me.
Other nights I drive through Baghdad.
Firebaugh. Bakersfield. Kettleman City.
Some nights I’m up in the hatch, shooting
a controlled pair into someone’s radiator.
Some nights I hear a woman screaming.
Others I shoot the crashing car.
When the boy brings us a platter of fruit,
I mistake cantaloupe for a human skull.
Sometimes the gunman fires into the house.
Sometimes the gunman fires at me.
Every night it’s different.
Every night the same.
Some nights I pull the trigger.
Some nights I burn him alive.
© Brian Turner
From Phantom Noise by Brian Turner (Bloodaxe Books, 2010)
Distributed in Australia & New Zealand by John Reed Book Distribution.
Reproduced on The Tuesday Poem Hub with permission.
Editor: Helen Lowe
I had first heard Brian in 2009, as part of a radio documentary on contemporary war poetry. The poem read in that documentary was AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem), which was why I featured it in January.
I felt, both on first hearing and subsequent reading, that it had the element I most look for in writing of any kind, which is what I call 'heart." In the poem I heard the note that I believe resonates in all great art and reaches out to the listener, the reader, or the viewer: that depiction of what NZ poet, Dr Glenn Colquhoun, has described as the "ache" of our human condition.
Part of that depiction may be gritty reality, another part may be compassion—both qualities that I found in Brian Turner's first collection Here, Bullet, a series of poems written during his service with the 3rd Stryker Brigade in Iraq. As I noted on January 24: "...the poems observe, record, note, but make no judgments outside of the personal—leaving the reader to make up his or her own mind on the subject of this war, its brutality and its human cost." In this sense, it's, "...war poetry in the tradition of the First World War poet, Wilfrid Owen, who wrote: 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.'"
Brian Turner's second collection, Phantom Noise, is still war poetry, but this is no longer the poetry of the combat zone but of its aftermath, that return to civilian life where the experiences of war, even when the individual tries to keep them locked down, still bleed into everyday life so that in the poem At Lowe's Home Improvement Center,
"... standing in aisle 16 ...
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open ... their oily bright shanks
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s."
Again, there are many powerful and moving poems in Phantom Noise, but two epitomise the collection for me—perhaps appropriately given they are also its first and last poems: VA Hospital Confessional, which I have featured today, and The One Square Inch Project.
For me, VA Hospital Confessional is all about the memories bleeding through:
"I tell no one, but sometimes late at night
I uncover rifles and bullets within me"
"Other nights I drive through Baghdad.
Firebaugh. Bakersfield. Kettleman City."
The landscapes of war are bleeding into those of home. But this is also a poem about emotional disconnection, perhaps most tellingly encapsulated in the lines:
"She closes her eyes when I fuck her. I imagine
she's far away and we don't use the word love."
Here the sexual act epitomises a world conceived as "subject" and "object", "self" and "other", one in which "I" fuck "her." Like war and killing, sex is separated out from love, becoming something which is done to the "other."
"Every night," the poem tells us, "it's different." But also: "Every night the same."
"Some nights I pull the trigger.
Some nights I burn him alive."
Raw, brutal, powerful stuff—but also full of Yeats' "terrible beauty." Some of that terrible beauty may lie in "night's illuminated green landscape" of war, but I feel, with Wilfrid Owen, that the poetry is in the pity.
And that other poem, the The One Square Inch Project? The key to why I feel it rightly completes this collection lies in the final stanza:
............................................." ...When I return to California,
to my life with its many engines – I find myself changed
............ ...when gifted with this silence, motions have more
of a dance to them, like fish in schools of hunger, once
flashing in sunlight, now turning in shadow."
Lovely lines in and of themselves, but just as the fish turn—now in sunlight, now in shadow—we are left with a sense that a return to wholeness may be possible. At the very least, amidst the gift of silence, there may be a turning away from that terrible gulf that splits the world into "self" and "other."
About the Poet:
Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq, from November 2003, with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. In 1999-2000 he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. Born in 1967, he received an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before joining the army. His poetry was included in the Voices in Wartime Anthology published in conjunction with a feature-length documentary film.
His collection Here, Bullet (Bloodaxe Books, 2007) was first published in the US by Alice James Books in 2005, where it has earned Turner nine major literary awards, including a 2006 Lannan Literary Fellowship and a 2007 NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry. In 2009 he was given an Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship. His second collection, Phantom Noise, is published by Alice James Books in the US and by Bloodaxe Books in the UK. It was shortlisted for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize.
To read more about the poet and Phantom Noise you may also enjoy the following article that appeared in The Guardian newspaper in October 2010: "Brian Turner, words of war."
When you've read Brian Turner, check out the other Tuesday Poems in the sidebar.
About the Editor:
This week's editor, Helen Lowe is a novelist, poet, and interviewer, hosting a regular poetry feature for Women on Air, Plains 96.9 FM. She is the current Ursula Bethell Writer-in-Residence at the University of Canterbury and has recently launched her third novel The Gathering of the Lost, the second novel in the The Wall of Night series. The first-in-series, The Heir of Night is currently shortlisted for the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Helen posts every day on her Helen Lowe on Anything, Really blog and you can also follow her on Twitter: @helenl0we.