Friday, October 20, 2006

Brian Turner, HERE, BULLET: and the PEN Award

When I first thumbed through HERE, BULLET, the notable first collection of poetry from Brian James, I stumbled and had to sit down. This isn't amateur hour from the war, was my startled thought -- it's highly professional poetry from a poet who knows the field.

And that, in turn, is why I am delighted this evening to pass along news that emerged October 13, but just caught up with me: The PEN USA Literary Award for Poetry is going to Brian Turner's HERE, BULLET. The award ceremony takes place in December. It will probably wreak havoc with Turner's schedule, as he is much in demand for readings and interviews.

In a short, pithy essay for the New York Foundation for the Arts site (, Turner describes himself as having been an "embedded poet" in Iraq. Veteran already of an MFA program, he lived in South Korea for a year, then entered the armed forces (U.S. Army) for seven years (the same as the apprenticeship period for which the biblical Jacob labored to win his wife; hmm). Part of the service took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division; the most significant, in terms of HERE, BULLET, was the final year, spent as a buck sergeant in Iraq.

This poetry is finely crafted, resonant with form, carefully shaped lines, spare language and rich images. The war reports are clean and clear; sorrow, shock, pain, and fear emerge without headlines or italics. There isn't even a lot of blood, although there is plenty of death. My current favorite example of this is the final stanza of "Hwy 1," which, like many of the poems, bears an epigraph from Arabic poetry (Turner determinedly immersed himself in poetry, people, language: "embedded" at its most complex.) The opening line of the poem is, "It begins with the Highway of Death," and the final stanza is:

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,
before pitching over the side and falling
in a slow unraveling of feathers and wings.

Another facet of this collection to treasure is that despite the clearly personal impact, Turner hasn't tried to turn his sequence of poems into a time-labeled narrative of his year in Iraq. Only the reflective "Night in Blue," near the end of the volume, asking (among other hard questions) "Has this year made me a better lover?", suggests the transition back to civilian presence in a safer landscape. And instead of "me me me" there is a quiet unfolding of layers, of friendships, of loss and growth.

The PEN USA Literary Awards honor more than poetry; they honor a sense of outreach and commitment to the people of a beleaguered planet. Turner's HERE, BULLET is hence the obvious and valued selection for the 2006 award.

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