More on why Jason Dempsey is wrong: Thoughts on our first poet of the Iraq War
By Peter Molin Best Defense bureau of war poetry Jason Dempsey’s 13 February post on this site decried the lack of poetry by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nostalgic for the kind of poetry written by great World War I poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Dempsey writes that from verse, ...
By Peter Molin
By Peter Molin
Best Defense bureau of war poetry
Jason Dempsey’s 13 February post on this site decried the lack of poetry by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Nostalgic for the kind of poetry written by great World War I poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Dempsey writes that from verse, "we get a tactile feel for the war paired with examinations of what it means for life writ large — the purpose of art, as it were."
I agree with Dempsey that poetry helps us understand war (and all experience) best, but disagree with his claim that our contemporary wars have been left uncharted by poets. Since December of 2012 I have been reviewing art, film, and literature associated with the war at my blog Time Now (www.acolytesofwar.com) in an effort to publicize authors and artists who take the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as their subjects. I have already posted on three poets — Walter E. Piatt, Paul Wasserman, and Elyse Fenton — who explore how the contemporary wars have wrought alterations of perspective and emotion on those who fight them and those who have been affected by them. Below I offer a few comments on Brian Turner, by far the most well-known and important of contemporary war poets.
The author of two volumes of verse, Here Bullet (2005) and Phantom Noise (2010), Turner combines an MFA in creative writing from the University of Oregon with seven years of service as an enlisted infantryman, to include a tour in Iraq with the 2nd Infantry Division. His poetry is at once subtle and sensational, accessible and complex. A good example is the title poem of his first volume:
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
Interesting about the poem is the marriage of modern war imagery and emotion with the classical verse form of the apostrophe (a direct address to a non-human thing), all informed by a poetic smartness about half-rhymes, assonance, alliteration, and other forms of sonic alertness. Thematically, the poem presents an original take on bravery. The poem is half-taunt and half-cry of pain, the challenge to the onrushing bullet a futile effort to both resist and understand war’s deadliness. The blur of emotions is matched by the interpenetration of the imagery, where the rifle and bullet are given human qualities and the soldier-speaker’s body parts are weaponized, as in "the barrel’s cold esophagus" and "my tongue’s explosives."
The metaphysical musing of "Here, Bullet" is typical of many Turner’s poems, which rarely stop to consider events in which he personally participated. Occasionally though he works in a biographical vein, too. A great example is "Night in Blue," from Here, Bullet. Many readers have told me it is their favorite Turner poem:
Night in Blue
At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.
Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? 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?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves of Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.
I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.
When Turner isn’t considering his own emotions or the cosmological significance of war, his dominant mode is empathy for those with whom and against whom he fights. Two examples will suffice, one recording a birth in Iraq and one a death:
Helping Her Breath
Subtract each sound. Subtract it all.
Lower the contrailed decibels of fighter jets
below the threshold of human hearing.
Lower the skylining helicopters down
to the subconscious and let them hover
like spiders over a film of water.
Silence the rifle reports. The hissing
bullets wandering like strays
through the old neighborhoods.
Let the dogs rest their muzzles
as the voices on telephone lines
pause to listen, as bats hanging
from their roosts pause to listen,
as all of Baghdad listens.
Dip the rag in the pail of water
and let it soak full. It cools exhaustion
when pressed lightly to her forehead.
In the slow beads of water sliding
down the skin of her temples —
the hush we have been waiting for.
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.
It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M.,
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way piano wire thrums when given slack.
And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth:
the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
crackle over the radio in static confusion,
because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.
PFC B. Miller
(1980-March 22, 2004)
Turner poems record such facts of modern war experience as IEDs, women in uniform, and PTSD, but the characteristic most worth mentioning in conclusion is his deep interest in history. Turner’s not particularly interested in the war’s political dimensions, but unlike 99 percent of American soldiers, he is ever conscious that the Iraq soil on which he fought had a long, richly-recorded existence before America turned it into a 21st century battleground. This pre-history of Operation Iraqi Freedom wells up in Turner’s poetry in the form of references to ancient texts, images of ghosts, evocations of ancestors, and readiness to consider contemporary events in a temporal context extending deep into the past and into the future.
To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
To sand the green smoke goes.
Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
Each star cluster, bursting above.
To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year.
To sand go reticles of the brain,
the minarets and steeple bells, brackish
sludge from the open sewers, trashfires,
the silent cowbirds resting
on the shoulders of a yak. To sand
each head of cabbage unravels its leaves
the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.
Turner, the first or near-first Iraq veteran to turn his war experience into verse, has established an impressive standard of both poetic craft and thematic depth for the poets who have followed him. Still, no one artist says it all, and other poets such as Piatt, Wasserman, and Fenton have also found interesting and important ways to use their verse to document how the war has been fought and how it has been felt. We wait to see what they bring us in the future and what other poets join the conversation.
Peter Molin is a U.S. Army infantry officer with deployment experience in Kosovo and Afghanistan. He holds a Ph.D. in English literature from Indiana University. The opinions expressed herein are his alone and do not reflect DA or DOD policy.
Thomas E. Ricks is a former contributing editor to Foreign Policy. Twitter: @tomricks1
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