Friday, June 11, 2010

The Fierce and Terrible Strains of War: PHANTOM NOISE by Brian Turner

When Brian Turner's first collection of poems, HERE, BULLET, took the Beatrice Hawley Award in 2005 and was published by Alice James Press, it shot onto bestseller lists the way poetry rarely does -- but exactly the way that good war reporting and vivid war novels do. And that's what it was: a haunting portrait of Turner's service in the US Army in Iraq as an infantry team leader, where his master's degree in fine arts and his small notebook of poems needed to stay carefully hidden from his men. Their belief in his capacity to take them through gunfire and explosions could have been sabotaged by any doubts about Turner's own masculinity. Writing poems wasn't going to give the men the confidence that they desperately needed.

Turner already knew himself as a military leader, after a season in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. What his service in Iraq (3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team and Infantry Division) did was fill him with images, moments, and emotions that had to find a discharge route, like lightning drawn to ground. Now his second collection, PHANTOM NOISE, opens with "VA Hospital Confessional":
Each night is different. Each night is 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.
Don't we all know these dreams, in smaller measure? The ones in which the telephone won't dial, the trigger won't move, the car refuses to start, and terror rises up to take our breath, force our hearts to pound. And when we send our "boys" and our "men" and now our women also to war, or even to the warlike rigors of basic training, we know we've sentenced them to this permanent tattoo of the brain and spirit. The ink never rubs off.

The rare gift that Turner offers us is a clear voice and the discipline to use it, to take the experiences and place them on paper so that we can share or at least witness what he sees, feels, lives with. PHANTOM NOISE braids into the combat life the devastating experience of being "safe at home" afterward: where sharp sounds make the body convulse in preparation for shrapnel and bullets, where sleep is a time seized by corpses and mistakes, where guilt and horror and the quiet satisfaction of work well done, of comrades treasured, rise up more real at times than the table and chair and person in the room.

After the prefatory poem, this collection pounds out an awareness of that chimeric life of memory and body recall with an amazing piece, "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center." Turner names detail upon detail, naming tools and nails and soldiers, as the sound of a cascade of nails from a broken box evokes the firing pins of machine guns and their shells falling on the floor:
Bosch walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head.

Here, Bosch says,  Take care of him.
I'm going back in for more.
And that's the moment, maybe a fifth of the way into this unforgettable poem, when Turner reminds us of what is, in both collections, his personal mix of shock and tenderness, of courage and grief.

One of my nephews is determined to serve in the military, and I know he'll lead well. I'd like to give him Turner as an example, but not yet ... he will have his own full-color memories that burn, ache, turn to horror or compassion. May be be as fortunate someday in his loving partner as Brian Turner portrays in "Illumination Rounds," where the poet evokes a lover who sleeps while the veteran struggles up from a dream of burning parachutes -- a lover who wakes to find that Turner has gone to the backyard to dig a grave for the war dead, and who generously touches his hand and accepts the presence of the dead: "We should invite them into our home," she says in the poem. Here is the companionship at home that matches the comradeship of well-conducted combat.

Yet Turner also dares to write the beauty of the occupied landscape and its people, whether it's captured in assisting a childbirth in the midst of war ("Helping Her Breathe") or the "cuneiform, papyrus, stone" of Iraq's long, rich history.

There are a few poems in this new collection that walk away from the war -- that write gently about life "after" without mention of that other life that continues, that never departs because it's part of the brain, soul, and muscles. These poems are soft, and they breathe quietly, almost escaping notice. It's hard to choose which route I'd wish for my nephew, say, or a brother -- is it better to be able to write about "life away from all that" or to continue to name the presence and mark of wartime in the rest of one's life? I've listened to veterans of World War II, only recently starting to talk about the beaches of Normandy and the bodies, the catastrophes, the nightmares. Was it better for them to wait to speak, to raise their families in a silence that blocked out combat, and only to release the words from creased faces under white hair? I'm not sure.

But a friend of mine, after listening to me talk about the power and glory of this book, mingled with regret that a writer and person as fine as Turner carries the burdens of being our eyes and voice, wrote this to me a few days later:
Perhaps you can say that his strength still lies in his war imagery and/or references (or whatever words you use)...   As to how long he can continue to use the war in his poetry…my thought would be that as long as it speaks to him he HAS to use it…on and on until it is used up.  You are the poet but that is what I have always thought about poets.
Thanks, Joanne, for those thoughts.
And that, perhaps, is the finest gift of this extraordinary collection of powerful and beautifully written poems: It keeps me thinking. PHANTOM NOISE gives the scenes, the people, the emotion to become a haunting that I welcome.

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