Tuesday, May 8, 2012

VA Hospital Confessional by Brian Turner

Each night is different. Each night the same.
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

On January 24, I featured US poet Brian Turner's AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem) as the Tuesday Poem selection on my own blog. 

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 compassionboth 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 meperhaps 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.


Kathleen Jones said...

Helen this is so beautiful it made me shiver, partly I think because the poetry is so profoundly 'true'. He articulates the unsayable - I thought the parallel with Wilfred Owen was spot-on. I haven't read Brian Turner before, but I'm going to get hold of his work as soon as I'm finished reading Robert Hass.

Kathleen Jones said...

Discovered that I can get both books on Kindle (Bloodaxe edition)at very reasonable price and have downloaded. Now must resist reading until I've completed the Robert Hass marathon - he's mesmerising!

Helen Lowe said...

I think you will find both collections well repay the read. Poems like "Here, Bullet" and "The Hurt Locker" were definite contenders for the Hub feature today.

Jennifer Compton said...

oh it's that brian turner - i was confused for a minute - it's just wonderful - fully of heart and pity and ache

Helen Lowe said...

Yes, "that" Brian Turner indeed, as opposed to our New Zealand one. :)

I recommend both collections for "heart and pity and ache."

Mary McCallum said...

Fantastic you got permission to run this poem Helen - it's wonderful to find a poet writing contemporary war poetry from the frontline... So raw and provocative: Thank you. This image stays with me: When the boy brings us a platter of fruit, I mistake cantaloupe for a human skull.

Helen Lowe said...

I agree, Mary, about the rawness -- I think that comes through even more strongly in the "Here, Bullet" collection than it does in "Phantom Noise" -- and no accident that the film "The Hurt Locker" was named after the poem of the same name in "Here, Bullet."

Ben Hur said...

I too thought it was the Kiwi Brian Turner before I got past the title.

Good choice, Helen. fantastic poem.

Tim Jones said...

I agree completely - a great choice, Helen.

Helen Lowe said...

Andrew, Tim: Thank you for your positive comments.

Helen McKinlay said...

What I love about this poem, Helen is its openess and vulnerability.
No heroics nothing that glorifies war but also no criticism... no need to the poem speaks for itself.

Michelle Elvy said...

This poem is the answer to anyone who claims that poetry is esoteric and removed, an intellectual exercise. This shows the reader that poetry is terrifying and real, too. The image that sticks with me and which is the turning point for me, too, is this:

The milk cow wants to know
how I can do this to another human being.

It speaks to everything in the poem and in the discussion that you consider so well, Helen: the subject/object of lovers, warriors, humans. The discussion made me go back and re-read the poem again -- thanks for the thoughtful reading of your own, Helen. Really powerful stuff. If I were still lecturing at uni, I'd make my students read Brian Turner alongside Erich Maria Remarque, certainly.

Helen Lowe said...

Helen M: Mary used the word "rawness" and I think it's right, but you are right too, about the open-ness there: a kind of raw painful honesty about what *is* in terms of the aftermath of war.

Helen Lowe said...

Michelle, oh, it's undoubtedly very 'present'--& even more so in "Here, Bullet" than in "Phantom Noise" simply becasue NOISE is essentially more reflective whereas in BULLET you're *in it* you're right there in The Hurt Locker.

And yes, yes to the lines you quote being the turning point: it's the way it picks up on the second couplet which ends in "aren't you asahamed?" and also contrasts placid domesticity, the milk cow, with what is happening around it.

Keith Westwater said...

Fabulous poem Helen, thanks for introducing me to another Brian Turner. I'm going to do the Kindle thing now too.

Helen Lowe said...

Glad you enjoyed, Keith. Thanks for reading & taking the time to comment.

T. said...

Thank-you for this, Helen.

Helen Lowe said...

Thanks for commenting, T.

Malcolm St Hill said...

Turner's poetry gets right into the heart. The psychological impact of killing the enemy, on the soldier-killer, is chillingly invoked in his poem, 'Sadiq' from “Here Bullet.” I also admire his use of epigraphs. One that he uses in “Phantom Noise” relates to the contradictions between beauty and horror in the war-zone. He quotes an Iraqi poet, “I embrace the frightful and the beautiful.” There was an insightful radio interview with Turner on 'New Letters on the Air,' which comes from the University of Missouri, Kansas City. I'm not sure if the podcast is still available online but look at http://www.newletters.org/onTheAir.asp there is lots of great interview there.

Helen Lowe said...


Thank you for commenting on the 'Tuesday Poem' and on Brian Turner's poetry. I agree the epigraph from Al-Bayati(1926-1999)"I embrace the frightful and the beautiful" is very apt, so much so that it almost encapsulates other commentary. I will certainly look for the interview you mention. I think Brian's poetry is perhaps not as well knonw here as it deserves to be and hope this Tuesday Poem Hub feature will begin to change that. His poetry certainly goes to the gut, as well as getting right to the heart as so you rightly say.

Malcolm St Hill said...

Helen, here are some more references to Brian Turner interviews/articles...

Interview with Philip Adams, Late Night Live, ABC Radio National (Aust.)

The MFA at War Proximity Reality and Poetry in Brian Turner's Phantom Noise. American Poetry Review. http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_broek.php

Fick, N. When Yellow Ribbons and Flag-Waving Aren't Enough An ex-soldiers take on recent war poetry. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/180043