Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Diversion: The War Memoir That Tells It All -- MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY, Brian Turner

Can we make it a military rule from now on, that every large group of soldiers include an embedded poet? Incognito, of course -- Brian Turner kept his poetry writing to himself while he led missions. It wouldn't have fit the persona that he needed to convey as a leader under fire.

But now, 11 years after "Sergeant T" departed with his men for the Iraqui desert, this highly trained observer and wordsmith gives us the reality of war. The exhilaration of enlisting into a (mostly) male experience that your older, battle-experienced relatives will now share with you. The joy of feeling competent, and the goofiness of being "boys" with girlie magazines, guns to shoot, silly secrets. And the horror of death -- including potentially your own.

Turner gives us the men as they prepare to invade a presumed insurgent's family home:
The drivers will fire up their engines and check their gauges. Across town, a small child kisses her father on his cheek. The soldiers inhale the harsh smoke, lean their heads back and exhale up toward the dead surface of the moon. And -- though they darken into silhouettes as the night draws on -- the soldiers brighten inside. They crackle in nerve and flame. The gas stations and Laundromats and unemployment lines and hardware stores of America disappear. For now, they are soldiers. They are giants standing over the model of someone else's life. Humming with adrenaline, they stand in the great sweep of history -- past, passing and yet to come -- and take it all in.
That's right, MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY is written in prose. The stories follow each other, rooted in daily life on base, in trucks, behind guns ... and even when Turner stacks the segments on top of each other, pushing the despair and craziness into a ladder to that darkening dead moon, he's telling stories.

Except every now and then, just the way he does right after this passage, he turns the words into something like a pounding drum, when he writes: "The soldiers enter the house, the soldiers enter the house."

There's immense love in here, as well as carefully chosen words and images that bring hard choices to life. In a way that only the return from, and processing of, Vietnam could allow, Turner also opens up the view of what it's like to "come home" -- carrying indelible memories of pain and risk and loss and fear, endless fear, from a battleground where a child or a gift can disguise a deadly threat.

I'm not, in general, a fan of war stories. But this potent braid of necessity, excitement, and guilt and grief -- this is worth reading more than once. This is what a poem that learns to be a long, long story becomes, and lingers. Grandfather, father, and soldier son -- and more.

If only it were a real rule: Tell the truth, the way a really fine poet must always strive for.

Oh yes, you can read this without knowing Brian Turner's war poetry. But I've been a fan of all his work -- poems, New York Times blog, more poems, and now this memoir. For some perspective, click here for more discussion of Brian Turner's writing.

Most of all, after reading MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY: What story would you share if someone asked you what your war was like?

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