Buy an Extra Copy to Lend Your Friends

Here, Bullet, Brian Turner
[71pp, $14.95, Alice James Books, Framlington, Maine, USA]

No 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 its occasion:

     The word for love, habib
, is written from right
     to left, starting where we would end it
     and ending where we might begin.
          ['A Soldier's Arabic']

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 lbs'

     ...wander confused amongst one another,
     learning each other's names, trying to comfort
     the living in their grief...

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:

     O-guf! Tera armeek
is rarely useful.
     It mean Stop! Or I'll shoot.

     Sabah el khair
is effective.
     It means Good Morning.

means Allah be willing.
     Listen well 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,

     not realising just how hard life fights
     sometimes, how an American soldier
     would run to his aid there on the sidewalk,
     trying to make sense of Hasan's broken legs,
     his 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:

     With a 40x60mm spotting scope
     I traverse the Halabjah skyline,
     scanning rooftops two thousand meters out
     to find a woman in sparkling green, standing
     among antennas and satellite dishes,
     hanging 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 flight home

     ...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.

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. He survives.

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'

     Cranes roost atop power lines in enormous
     bowl-shaped 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.   

      © Jane Routh 2006