V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




One of the ways Brian Turner has responded to his history,
as a soldier at the battlefront who returns home, has been
to explore in his poems various experiences encountered
in a war zone and to examine the enduring emotions evoked
by them. Indeed, early in his new collection of poems,
Phantom Noise, Turner reminds readers of how frequently
 soldiers encounter an inability to leave behind the traumatic
images and dramatic experiences of war.

After Brian Turner’s first book of poetry (Here, Bullet: Alice James Books, 2005) concerning contemplations about the circumstances surrounding war was published, many readers discovered that the collection contained marvelous works exhibiting a poet-soldier’s individual and vivid images. Written in concise lines of poetry that at times appear intimate yet often also maintain an ability to present a bit more of the differing perspectives of other Americans or Iraqis ensnared by the circumstances of combat and survival, the poems frequently offer personal considerations and experiences that somehow have struck a widespread interest and have assumed a somewhat greater public significance in the handful of years since their release.
    Turner, who served seven years in the U.S. Army, including tours of duty in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then Iraq, is also an MFA graduate from the University of Oregon’s creative writing program. With Here, Bullet Turner followed in the footsteps of other American writers who have eloquently recorded emotionally charged front-line observations during a time of war. Indeed, Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemingway, and Tim O’Brien seem among the primary influences on Turner (the Vietnam War poems of Bruce Weigl, Yusef Komunyakaa, and John Balaban surely also play a part). In interviews Turner has acknowledged a debt to O’Brien’s works (especially Going After Cacciato), and like O’Brien in his fiction, this poet often focuses on details that lend a persuasive sense of authenticity or authority to the voice in the poems, even when pieces involve fanciful scenes or surreal dream-like narratives.
    Recognition of Hemingway’s influence appears early in the book, as a quote from Papa opens the initial poem: “This is a strange new kind of war where you learn just as much as you are able to believe.” Throughout the poetry in Here, Bullet Turner displays his attempts at understanding the conditions in which he, his fellow soldiers, and the Iraqi citizens must endure day after day in order to survive. He wants to believe the terrible sacrifice of lives will be worth it in the end; however, by the final poem in this volume readers witness indications Turner has lost all hope the cost of the war will be warranted, let alone rewarded by a better future.
    Like the wounded Harold Krebs in Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” who comes back from combat and reads books about his battlefront, seeing in them a different war than the one he experienced, Turner’s speaker in “Ferris Wheel” comments: “The history books will get it wrong.” Nevertheless, one of the most important characteristics of this volume remains Turner’s almost complete avoidance of any overtly political commentary or editorializing, reserving his sole focus for the presentation of powerful actions and clearly depicted individuals, allowing readers, if they wish, to form their own opinions on political concerns or controversial issues.
    Admirably, Turner tries to offer different versions and to identify distinct visions of the events related throughout the book by learning various aspects of local language, customs, and religious beliefs. The speaker in these poems desires a way to understand and empathize with those whose country is caught in the crossfire of conflict. Indeed, in published comments Turner has voiced great admiration for the writings of Balaban, particularly Remembering Heaven’s Face, a memoir about his relationships with the Vietnamese people he met — learning their language, literature, and culture — during a time in which he volunteered to work in the war zone even though he’d been granted conscientious objector status. Readers can appreciate Turner’s compliment to Balaban just as they also may appreciate the complementary elements in each author’s approach to the subjects in their writings.
    Some of the poems in Here, Bullet seem like contemporary camp scenes reminiscent of the Civil War campfire poems by Walt Whitman, as soldiers are portrayed in ordinary circumstances while on base or enjoying a lull after curfew. In “Cole’s Guitar” Turner’s language most closely resembles Walt Whitman’s voice when he catalogs images of America evoked by the sound of a comrade’s six-string. “I’m hearing America now,” Turner writes as he lists various everyday events he imagines taking place back home. By the final lines of the poem (which is recorded as taking place in Al Ma’badi, Iraq), Turner’s speaker reveals seeing strangers’ faces “the way ghosts might visit the ones they love, / as I am now, listening to America.”
    Although, as with almost all first books of poetry (perhaps one could just as easily say “all books of poetry”), there is a selection of poems that clearly stand as the strongest in this collection, a number of compelling compositions that draw the reader from the opening piece introduced by the Hemingway quote through to the closing work in the book. However, one poem in Here, Bullet deserves to be identified not only as an outstanding work in this volume, but also as one of the finer pieces by any poet in recent years. “2000 lbs.” is a poem that freezes in time the moment a terrorist suicide bomber triggers his explosives in a town square of Mosul. In sectioned passages of the poem, Turner provides readers with brief profiles introducing some of the victims in the blast — what they are doing, what pasts they have experienced, whom they love and by whom they are loved, what hopes for the future they hold, where they are headed — when their lives are suddenly and shockingly destroyed.
    Among the victims arbitrarily targeted are American soldiers, as well as Iraqi men and women, including one old woman who “cradles her grandson, / whispering, rocking him on her knees / as though singing him to sleep.” Consequently, in addition to fixing in time an isolated moment of horror in the center of a war zone, Turner also aptly captures an iconic act emblematic of an entire period of history. Few poems show such potential for moving readers so emotionally while at the same time inviting intellectual and ethical reflection, requesting that readers investigate the tenuous thread by which any life hangs.
    By the time readers reach the final poems in this collection, they are left to consider unanswered questions similar to those raised by the speaker of “Night in Blue,” thoughts that also must linger in the minds of soldiers returning home from the war zone: “What do I know / of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have / to say of the dead — that it was worth it, / that any of it made sense?”
    In an article, “To Bedlam and Back,” that appeared in the New York Times last October, Brian Turner wrote about the difficulties facing soldiers when they make the transition from war to home. Even as a veteran, an infantry sergeant who served both in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Iraq, Turner questioned his own perspective on this issue: “I guess what I’m wondering most is, as a country that is currently at war, how do our veterans rejoin the life waiting for them back home? How do they rejoin the tribe once they’ve been to Bedlam? How do we help them so that they don’t feel as if they’re encased in glass, pinned to the walls as specimens in some museum-house of culture? It’s a difficult question to answer. I have trouble answering it myself.”
    One of the ways Brian Turner has responded to his history, as a soldier at the battlefront who returns home, has been to explore in his poems various experiences encountered in a war zone and to examine the enduring emotions evoked by them. Indeed, early in his new collection of poems, Phantom Noise, Turner reminds readers of how frequently soldiers encounter an inability to leave behind the traumatic images and dramatic experiences of war. Even when engaged in an everyday activity, such as shopping at the local hardware store, a veteran seems haunted by his past in a combat zone:

        Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
        I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
        open by accident, their oily bright shanks
        and diamond points like firing pins
        from M-4s and M-16s.
                                                In a steady stream
        they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
        falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
        kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
        stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
        of light.
                    At dawn, when the shelling stops,
        hundreds of bandages will not be enough.
                            [“At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”]

    Similarly, in “Perimeter Watch” a soldier who has returned home remains guarded against an imagined battlefield scene: “I lock the door tonight, check the bolts twice / just to make sure. Turn off all the lights. / Only the fan blades rotate above, slow as helicopters / winding down their oily gears.” He believes he can detect water buffalo on his lawn, and when the sprinklers around his house begin to operate, he thinks “cowbirds lift up from the grass / with heavy wing-beats, a column of feathers.” The speaker confides:

                                    Through venetian blinds
        I see the Iraqi prisoners in that dank cell at Firebase Eagle
        staring back at me. They say nothing, just as they did
        in the winter of 2004, shivering in the piss-cold dark,
        on scraps of cardboard, staring.

    “Perimeter Watch” concludes with a brief but compelling closing stanza: “When I dial 911, / the operator tells me to use proper radio procedure, / reminding me that my call sign is Ghost 1-3 Alpha, / and that it’s time, long past time, to unlock the door / and let these people in.”
    Even in sleep, or perhaps especially in that state when figures rise from the subconscious, the psychologically wounded or searching speakers in Turner’s poems cannot escape the harsh memories and emotional moments encountered in war. The opening of “Illumination Rounds” introduces evidence of long-lasting damage:

        Parachute Flares drift in the burn time
        of dream, their canopies deployed
        in the sky above our bed. My lover

        sleeps as Iraqi translators shuffle
        in through the doorway—visiting
        as loved ones might visit a hospital room,
        ill at ease, each of them holding
        their sawn-off heads in hand.

    Later in the poem the lover finds Turner’s speaker “at 3 A.M., shoveling / the grassy turf in our backyard, digging / three feet by six, determined to dig deep.” The veteran tries to convince his love that “the war dead” are still present, and he attempts to get her to see them, “how they stand under lime trees and ash, / papyrus and stone in their hands.”
    Instead, she persuades him to halt his shoveling and advises: “We should invite them into our home. / We should learn their names, their history. / We should know these people / we bury in the earth.” Nevertheless, in the poem’s final section the speaker endures another painful flashback as he drives the familiar roads in his home community:

        I’m out on patrol again, driving
        Blackstone to Divisidero, Route Tampa
        to Bridge Number Four, California
        to the neighborhoods of Mosul, each stoplight
        an increment, a block away from home
        and a block closer to the August night
        replaying in my head.

    By the time the poem reaches its end, the speaker confesses to a continuation of his past trespassing on the present, as he reports hearing “gunshots echoing years later, the incoherent / screaming I’ve translated a thousand times over, / driving until I finally understand / who it is I’m supposed to kill.”
    The persistence of the past, including its seemingly unending memories of misery and moments of despair associated with war, is evoked through the book’s title poem in which the author employs the technique of word repetition and the form of a single unpunctuated stanza without any end-stopped lines, including the final one. The “Phantom Noise” heard by the narrator consists of a constant “ringing hum” he cannot avoid, one that echoes sounds so familiar from wartime events: “bullet-borne language”; “ringing / shell-fall and static”; “broken / bodies ringing in steel”; “ringing / rifles in Babylon   rifles in Sumer / ringing”; “ringing of midnight in gunpowder and oil,” etc.
    This ringing reminds the speaker of “children their gravestones / and candy their limbs gone missing,” and he recalls the “muzzle-flash singing  this / threading of bullets in muscle and bone.” The poem closes with little or no hope that the ringing will ever stop, “this ringing / hum  this ringing hum  this ringing hum  this / ringing
    However, this remarkable collection of poetry manages to move forward, to embrace the present despite the formidable pull of past events. Indeed, Turner’s new book appears to display the necessity for one to accommodate the past in the present as a way of understanding that will eventually allow an advance into the future with a greater degree of confidence.
    Beyond the poems about Iraq and other recent events, many of the works in Phantom Noise are identified with specific time periods in the past, some personal memories and others historical happenings, a few more distant than others. “Homemade Napalm” features a “Winter, 1978” designation as the speaker relates details about his father and grandfather in an era after a different war: “He drank coffee, / saying nothing of my grandfather, / the Marine, Guadalcanal, the flamethrower / carried on his back. He didn’t need to.” Another poem, “Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon,” begins in the same time period: “I drank a Seagram’s Seven and Seven on 7/7/77, / when I was only ten and my mom a bartender.” In the opening lines of “Lucky Money,” the speaker declares: “It is 1971. / At Willie Lum’s Hong Kong Restaurant / I’m four years old . . . .” Similarly, “The Whale” starts with a childhood recollection: “It is 1970 / and the summer of love is over. // I am three years old, barefoot, / running along the surf / near Florence, Oregon.”
    Elsewhere, the poet locates “.22 Caliber” in “1981. The Soviets fight in Afghanistan.” Still, in a couple other powerful poems Turner glimpses much further back in history for incidents and information that might aid with an understanding perhaps necessary for him to step forward into the future. In “Ancient Baghdad” the author reveals intensity in the poem’s initial descriptions:

        Ash blackened the sky in 1258, blood
        ran in the rivers of Dajla and Farat,
        the House of Wisdom burned to the ground
        and the caliph was trampled to death by horses.

        This was ancient Baghdad, July, and hot.
        After 50 days of siege and 40 days of plunder
        800,000 lay dead in the streets, beheaded
        by Mongols, many bodies thrown to the river.

        Some hid in wells and sewers.
        Later, they rose from the stench
        to walk the wailing streets, where wild dogs
        slept with tongues panting, bellies swollen.

    “Al-A’imma Bridge,” an ambitious and extraordinary poem in the same category of outstanding works as “2000 lbs.” in Here, Bullet, contains a number of references as it travels through various stages “in history’s bright catalogue.” Readers are reminded of “laser-guided munitions directing the German Luftwaffe / from 1941, Iraqi jets and airmen from the Six-Day War, / the Battle of Karbala, the one million who died fighting Iran; // and Alexander the Great falls, and King Faisal, / and the Israeli F-16s that bombed the reactor in ’81.” A number of other years are included among the litany in this poem:

        the year 1956 slides under, along with ’49 and ’31 and ’17,
            the month of October, the months of June, July, and August,
                the many months to follow, each day’s exquisite light,
        the snowfall in Mosul, the photographs a family took
            of children rolling snowballs, throwing them
                before licking the pink cold from their fingertips.

        Years unravel like filaments of straw, bleached gold
            and given to the water, 1967 and 1972, 2001 and 2002:
                What will we remember? What will we say of these?

    The speaker even retreats again to the historic moment mentioned in “Ancient Baghdad”: “the dead from the year 1258 read from the ancient scrolls / cast into the river from the House of Wisdom, / the eulogies of nations given water’s swift erasure.” Seeking illumination concerning the human history of conflict through examination of evidence left by those who have gone before us, Turner seems to believe confronting sins of the past possibly can assist in liberating individuals from pain felt in the present, especially as they peer with uncertainty into a distant vista acting as camouflage that conceals what the future may hold for them.
    Despite the numerous descriptions of death or desolation and images of despair one naturally expects to find in recollections of war, Brian Turner also presents brief hints of hope in his poetry. In “Helping Her Breathe,” a soldier tries to filter the sounds of battle surrounding him (“Subtract each sound. Subtract it all.”) as he assists a woman in childbirth. Following two stanzas in which the speaker lists the noises of war — “decibels of fighter jets,” “skylining helicopters,” “rifle reports,” “hissing bullets,” etc. — a final pair of stanzas emphasizes the quiet moments in a woman’s labor and “the hush we have been waiting for.” The closing scene in the poem beautifully provides readers with a symbolic situation of life and hope so rare in such conditions:

        She is giving birth in the middle of war—
        the soft dome of a skull begins to crown
        into our candlelit mystery. And when
        the infant rises through quickening muscle
        in a guided shudder, slick in the gore
        of birth, vast distances are joined,
        the brain’s landscape equal to the stars.

    Turner also offers an exquisite example of lyrical description in a poem titled “Eucalyptus,” which begins with an epigraph quoting Harry Mattison: “The grace of the world survives our intervention.” The tone suggested by this statement seems apt as it is attached to a brief but precise poem evoking the environment of Mosul at dawn — not just “the brain’s landscape,” but the physical landscape of the countryside: “a dense fog / hangs in the eucalyptus grove. / Water buffalo / lift their heads from the belly-high grass, nostrils / wet and shining, to breathe in the damp smell of the earth.” By the final lines of the poem, among the trees, “shadows in the half light of dawn” appear to be “forms / of men, women, children” in the new day’s illumination: “the small bright lanterns of sunlight / breaking through the leaves above.”
    As the collection nears its conclusion, a few poems invite more optimism for the future even though darkness continues. In “Study of Nudes by Candlelight,” the speaker again uses an image of shadow and light as he remarks:

        I can see from this day forward,
        how you carry my shadow in the gloss
        of your skin, without complaint, the promise
        of light dripping from your fingers,
        your wine-dark nipples, my lips
        kissing your own, farther and farther away.

    The volume’s penultimate poem, “In the Guggenheim Museum,” introduces a narrator and his lover touring the art exhibits along a curving ramp in the building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, itself an artwork. While observing those objects representing the past, the speaker reminisces about a romantic moment the lovers spent together in a park the night before: “a breeze might lift / the tips of her hair, my fingers guiding / the zipper in its channel, tooth by tooth, / the way it did last night, in the park, long after / closing time when the sprinklers switched on, / and we didn’t stop.” With thoughts of love and memories of passion, he seems to realize a renewed desire to appreciate life:
        this is what I’m thinking about in the museum,
        the skeletons of art hung around us, petrified,
        staring through the hard lenses of framing and oil,
        staring at us from their fossilized stations
        in the past, in wonder, marveling at
        these two lovers, here, each of us
        fully given to the inexorable process
        of death, and yet, here we are
        walking among them—alive.

    Once more, readers are given an image of the speaker in a poem aware that he is walking among evidence of the dead and his own mortality; however, the recognition of life and the necessity of taking advantage of all living offers, especially an opportunity for love, are emphasized in the work’s italicized final word. Regardless of the many instances of death and pain one may witness along the way, perhaps even feelings of guilt, particularly in war, there are significant reasons to rejoice in life and declare forcefully in affirmation to the value of being alive.
    Appropriately, “The One Square Inch Project,” the last poem in Phantom Noise, contains contemplation concerning some of the elements previously encountered throughout the collection: life and death, love and loss, light and shadow, sound and silence, past and present, the physical landscape and the brain’s landscape, memory and understanding. One might be reminded again of the influence of Ernest Hemingway—whose epigraph began Here, Bullet — and recall the meditative mood brought about by being alone among nature in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” as the speaker of this poem explores the deep and silent nature discovered in Olympic National Park, following a footpath through “deadfall and leaf rot.” He declares such a setting as “a type of medicine by landscape.”
    The reader is placed amid startling scenery, demonstrated through a series of delicate painterly descriptions: “auburn leaves of mountain ash, variations of maple, / aspens in gold and rust and creamy yellows — all given to memory, / hushed by the green work of water; moss, vines, forest canopy.” Suddenly, the speaker shares a surprising comment, an admission especially difficult to believe when delivered by one so eloquent, so perceptive and clearly adept with poetic language: “there is not one thing I might say to the world / which the world does not already know.” However, such a conclusion allows for the book’s final passage, which acts almost as a summary statement for the whole collection:

        I sit. And I listen.
                                    When I return to California,
        to my life with its many engines—I find myself changed,
        the city somehow muted, frenetic and fully charged with living, yes,
        but still, 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. 

    Although back home, thousands of miles in distance and years later in time, the speaker cannot leave behind the experiences and emotions accumulated during his tours in a war zone. He finds himself changed, acknowledging the presence of sunlight and shadow, as well as the persistence of memory. Nevertheless, he must move forward. Turner’s words in the New York Times article quoted above come to mind once more: how do our veterans rejoin the life waiting for them back home? How do they rejoin the tribe once they’ve been to Bedlam?
    In “Jundee Ameriki,” a poignant poem that explains the circumstances for a soldier who has returned to California after having been wounded in an attack by a female suicide bomber in Baghdad on a cold afternoon in November of 2005, the reader learns how shrapnel still must be surgically extracted at a VA hospital periodically: “Dr. Sushruta scores open a thin layer of skin / to reveal an object traveling up through muscle. / It is a kind of weeping the body does, expelling / foreign material, sometimes years after an injury.” This poem seems a sequel to “2000 lbs.” as it chronicles lingering physical injuries in the aftermath of such an incident that might mirror the emotional impact lasting long beyond a soldier’s return home from the front. Just as much of Phantom Noise blends the domestic and exotic, the present and the past with an eye toward the uncertain future, many of this new book’s poems represent a bridge back to those works in Here, Bullet. These latest poems link the two existences that continue together, often in conflict, in the minds of their speakers.
    Like the soldier in “Jundee Ameriki,” Brian Turner’s speakers continually reveal fragments of wartime memories and emotional scars, bits of the past that rise to the surface long past the wounding. Yet, each seems to learn a lesson, that the past must be absorbed and understood before it can be brought to light and expelled. Moreover, one must grasp the need to carry on despite the enduring pain caused by such remnants, like he “who carries fragments / of the war inscribed in scar tissue, / a deep, intractable pain, the dull grief of it / the body must absorb.”
    Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise presents evidence once more of that powerful and compelling voice with which readers first became acquainted in Here, Bullet. With this new collection of poetry, Turner fulfills the promise so clearly demonstrated in his earlier volume, and he adds greater depth to readers’ understanding of the circumstances or emotional conditions in which his personae find themselves, many inhabiting lives forever influenced by experiences or individuals — including a number of the dead — from the past and still directing much of their present state of mind as the poems’ speakers walk among them in their memories.
    As those personages in Turner’s poems continue to seek comprehension and continually exhibit compassion, walking among ghostly figures to learn lessons from the past and leading readers in contemplation about the present, they also engage in the continuous task of looking forward toward a fragile future, perhaps absorbing grief and moving ahead with some uncertainty, but undoubtedly walking onward with hints of hope and helped by love. Phantom Noise is an enlightening and intriguing contribution to contemporary poetry that reaffirms the talent readers first observed in Brian Turner’s debut book. This rich and resonant new volume proves Brian Turner now has firmly earned a position as one of the nation’s more valuable poets.      


Phantom Noise, Brian Turner. Alice James Books, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-882295-80-7 $16.95

© by Edward Byrne


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