The philosopher Eli Khamarov wrote, Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition. In November 2003, Army soldier and poet Brian Turner was assigned a one-year deployment as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq. His collection of poems, Here, Bullet, relates his experiences in Iraq and details the lives and dreams of the soldiers and citizens caught in the conflict.
Turner will discuss his latest book Here, Bullet, as part of the College of Southern Marylands Connections Literary Series beginning at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 14, at the La Plata Campus, Center for Business and Industry (BI), Room BI-113.
Turner earned a masters in fine arts from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea prior to serving for seven years in the U.S. Army. Turner has just completed his second book to be released by Alice James Books in the spring of 2010, currently titled Talk the Guns. According to Turner, the title comes from a fire command Army team leaders give to other soldiers. It is a way of conserving ammunition during a firefight, though I used it as a title because it suggests the language of wartime experience and the oral history of war and conflict, said Turner.
In preparation for CSMs Connections program, Turner discussed his experiences as a soldier, the role of the soldier/poet and the difficulties returning home when the nation is largely ignoring the war in Iraq.
CSM: In the New York Times book review, the reviewer mentions a moonwalk and his fathers professor saying, Some day theyll send a poet and we will find out what it is really like. Do you think poets have a greater ability to distill the human experience?
Turner: Not necessarily, I think poetry is one tool towards it. The idea of the lyric and trying to freeze a moment in time is similar to what a photographer, a filmmaker or other artists are trying to get at, but since poetry is a portable art that we carry inside of us, if we can freeze a moment in time, encapsulate it and share it with each other, then in our own way it lives inside our bodies and inside our minds and we can react to it. It is unique in that you can carry it with you.
Reporters and journalists are witnessing from a distance and I dont think it is possible for them to capture all of the emotions and stories that are being lived around them, but they do try. I am not trying to knock what journalists do because I think it is very necessary and needed but unfortunately not enough of the stories that could make a difference get through. I often think the poets job is to bring the emotional context to the moment and that is the key element that is missing, or has to be read into, most journalistic reports.
CSM: In the poem, Night in Blue there is a line I have no words to speak of war and then you list all of the experiences you havent had as a solider. Why do soldiers downplay their experience? Is this a coping mechanism and if so, could you talk about it and other things that soldiers do to maintain their sanity?
Turner: I dont know if that line serves as a coping mechanism but I think it is an acknowledgment that I didnt see things that I think were much more difficult to deal with. I didnt lose a limb so I havent had to deal with that level of loss and destruction to myself. I'm not a parent who has lost a child to war. There are people who have experienced things that are far more traumatic than the things I lived and I have to acknowledge that the book is very incomplete because there is so much left to say about this war, and every war in general, than what is gathered here. There are several poems in the book entitled observation posts and they each have a number, though not the ones that I gave in the book, and I was hoping that readers would find themselves wondering about the observation posts that didnt make it into the book. I want them to realize that this story is not complete. So when I say, I have no words to speak of war, [what I am saying is] there is so much more to be said.
In terms of coping mechanisms, I think down the road I will be able to look at Sergeant Brian Turner and be able to evaluate whether speaking about these events and issues had a psychological, health benefit to me. I am a very mellow guy and the people who served with me and my friends, etc. were all very surprised that I served.
Someone recently told me, and I kind of agree with this, that when you are over there you have to develop a hairpin reaction to things, so now I still kind of have that trigger without even realizing it. When simple, even mundane things happen, I dont have a very good graduated response. Often that trigger inside instantly goes to 10 when it should probably go to two. I am able to check it. I am not getting thrown into jail or fighting people or anything like that, but the experience changed my trigger setting and that has been one of the hurdles that I am working on.
CSM: Did it affect you that you were so much older than the other soldiers?
Turner: I think it helped in a lot of ways. It was a hard working environment. Sometimes because I was older, I wasnt quite one of them. They were younger and had other concerns. But I think it helped because if I had been 19, just knowing me at that age, I think I would have come back more tragically shattered. I wouldnt have had the tools to cope with what I experienced. Being older, I had certain expectations of what I was going to experience and it gave me a bit more perspective. I was much more conscious of what was happening around me than I would have been when I was younger. At 19, I would have gotten more caught up in the rush of adrenaline. Not to say that I didnt get adrenaline rushes while I was there, but that I didnt get addicted to it. Some people get addicted to adrenaline, and where are they going to get their rush when they get back home? Pumping gas, working at a convenience store? This is how a lot of these guys fall into trouble when they return.
CSM: I heard you say on National Public Radios Fresh Air that you were very disappointed in Americans understanding and interest in the war in Iraq. What is the one thing you wish people knew about the war and the soldiers that are fighting there?
Turner: Two things. The soldiers that make it back are assimilated back into society. They wont be wearing uniforms, so you wont see them all the time, but that doesnt mean that our nation doesnt have decades of work ahead of us to welcome these people back and help them on their on their journey to being individuals with happy, healthy lives.
For many soldiers, it is going to take a lot of work. They have experienced things that might be very difficult for them to deal with, and many of them wont have the tools to do it, so they will struggle. There will be more homeless veterans or individuals that just cant make their marriages or relationships work. They may be good workers but they may never be able to settle into one job for very long and these are the subtle veterans. The ones that lost limbs or have brain injuries are more visible in their struggle.
But bigger than that, and not to minimize any of our veterans, we have buried so many Iraqi people in the earth and I find it very disturbing that America knows very little about them. I thought it was very brave when Ted Koppel went on Nightline and read the names of all the American soldiers who had died up to that point. At some point, when are we going to read the names of the Iraqi people who have died? And when are we going to acknowledge who they are? Our country is now tied with [the Iraqi people]. We share a mutual history. I fear that it is too easy for America to ignore this and move on to the next big hurdle in history. But, the people in Iraq will remember us whether we do or not.
We cant have justice for the lives that were lost without also remembering them. I can hear the critics out there saying, Oh, they are terrorists and Al Qaeda and stuff like that, but the vast majority of the people who died are just civilians. And even if we dont know it, we are connected to them.
CSM: What is the duty or obligation of the writer/poet in a time of war?
Turner: I dont like to have maxims or rules, but I think they have to be honest. They have to act as a witness. I remember learning about poetry as a form of witness in grad school, and I understood it as a theory because we witness our lives as poets but I guess I never considered myself as being in events that were far greater [than me]. So then I found myself in that position, even though I wasnt writing at the time consciously, thinking, Oh, I am writing as a witness, but I was writing and filling that role.
We can learn from writers and I dont think it has to be right at that moment. I think the people who are coming out of this war will turn to different art forms as a release. Most of these veterans will be 18 to 22 years old. A lot of them will have the talent but will have to learn the craft skills of the art form they choose to explore. So many of them will go to colleges or learn about art on their own and I think seven, eight, 10 years from now we will benefit from this gift of amazing art that we can learn from.
They will be witnesses to their own lives but also the lives and events that happened around them. It is unfortunate that we will lose so many of those threads of history and stories, because each person, even the Iraqis, has their own interesting story to tell. Hopefully we will get some of those voices coming back to help us make sense of what is really happening there. It is happening here, too, but we are removed from the forces that can make inroads to, What is the Iraq war? What is the war in Afghanistan?
CSM: With the success of Here, Bullet, and with your next book being on a similar topic, do you worry about being pigeon-holed as a war poet or a war writer?
Turner: Doug Anderson, the poet of the Moon Reflected Fire, says that sometimes war poets tend to be ghettoized into that role. I thought about it and I was concerned, but I had written seven other manuscriptsone about Bosnia and my time there, and then the rest were on a wide variety other subjectsand this is how I would like for the rest of my career to go. It seems to me that there isnt a problem finding something to write about, the problem is choosing what one to write about because there are so many things, such a broad palette.
I worried but the war is still ongoing and I keep getting these emails from Bosch and others who are over there and it still seems as if the war isnt happening here in the U.S., especially here in Fresno, today. And yet, it is still happening overseas, percolating up through these different forces and it made me think. I recently read this essay and the last sentence reads this war will never end. I dont agree with it but I understand the sentiment.
Sadly, I think this war will be forgotten in the next generation, or maybe remembered by only a few historians, but it will basically be forgotten by this part of the world. It may be remembered more in the Middle East but there is a chance that it might get lost in the tangle of bigger wars. Or, maybe not. In either case, I felt it was important to write for the living so people know and maybe have a better connection to the war that is here if we just stop to realize and acknowledge it.
Since 1990, the Connections Literary Series has held readings featuring national award-winning contemporary writers, poets and artists who share their work and time with residents of Southern Maryland. All readings begin at 7:30 p.m. The cost is $2, general admission. Tickets are available the night of each reading. For information call, 301-934-7864 or 301-870-2309, Ext. 7864 for Charles County; 240-725-5499, Ext. 7864 for St. Marys County or 443-550-6199, Ext. 7864 for Calvert County or visit http://www.csmd.edu/Connections/.
Eulogy feels like the most important poem in the collection, said Brian Turner, who noted that he considers a poem a success if I can keep coming back to it and learn from it. I dont always know what I am learning but I am learning.
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, 2003)