Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Droning engines of midnight

"It begins with the highway of death," write Brian Turner in his poem "Hwy 1" in his book Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2004).

This book of poems by a military veteran of the current war in Iraq brings the reader into the close-up flesh and blood and sand and dirt of the war there, in ways no CNN "news" report can hope to do. The culture of the present-day United States is haunted by the experience remembered, or (in some cases) willfully ignored, from the war in Viet Nam. One after another the poems in Here, Bullet bring back all of the stories, the madness and terror, the nerve-gnawing tension and deadening monotony, of that previous disastrous enterprise of corporate empire. In recent weeks even some politicians who support the Bush administration have reluctantly allowed comparisons between the war in Viet Nam and the present war in Iraq. Ghosts haunt until one addresses them.

The poem "Hwy 1" concludes:

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.
The feeble arguments in favor of the present U.S. government assault on human life in Iraq (and in the world at large), suggesting that "they hate us for our freedom," that retreating from a war policy will leave the U.S. vulnerable to attack, make hollow echoes of the similar arguments that went on for years by supporters of the U.S. military effort in Viet Nam. If the U.S. withdrew military forces from Viet Nam too soon, warhawks warned -- oblivious to the clanking irony -- there would be a bloodbath.

[...] and when she closes her eyes
the most beautiful colors rise in darkness,
tangerine washing into Russian blue,
with the droning engine humming on
in a dragonfly's wings, island palms
painting the sky and impossible hue
with their thick brushes dripping green...
a way of dealing with the fact
that Thalia Fields is gone, long gone,
about as far from Mississippi
as she can get, ten thousand feet above Iraq
with a blanket draped over her body
and an exhausted surgeon in tears,
his bloodied hands on her chest, his head
sunk down, the nurse guiding him
to a nearby seat and holding him as he cries,
though no one hears it, because nothing can be heard
where pilots fly in blackout, the plane
like a shadow guiding the rain, here
in the droning engines of midnight.
(From the poem "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem).")

Here and there people of Iraq are in Turner's poems. Here, Bullet includes a number of quotes from Arabic literature as epigrams, there are poems dealing with the history and culture of the Arabic world, and, sometimes, moments from the lives and deaths of Iraqi people in the war. From the poem "2000 lbs." (a poem in several sections, describing the first moments after a bomb explosion in a public place in a city):

Nearby, an old woman cradles her grandson,
whispering, rocking him on her knees
as though singing him to sleep, her hands
wet with their blood, her black dress
soaked in it as her legs give out
and she buckles with him to the ground.
There are times when the elegance of Turner's language seems to me to create a distance from the experience he's writing about, that feels a little artificially literary, where sheer description partially obscures the stark reality he's writing about. Many of the poems convey an understandable desperation to find something of beauty and the persistence of life in the midst of the rampant death and destruction in which, as a solder, Turner was taking part. I don't pretend to know any specific things Turner did during his time in Iraq, either as part of military actions or otherwise. However the poems in Here, Bullet do raise with particular sharpness the long-persisting questions about the blurred lines between being an observer and being a participant.

A poem that especially brought this to mind for me is "Through the Leupold Scope," in which Turner describes observing the routines of daily life in the city of Halabjah through what he describes (in a footnote) as a "spotting scope" with "long-range relief and very high resolution." Scanning the city skyline with the military device, he sees a woman on a rooftop,

hanging laundry on an invisible line.

She is dressing the dead, clothing them
as they wait in silence, the pigeons circling
as fumestacks billow a noxious black smoke.
She is welcoming them back to the dry earth,
giving them dresses in tangerine and teal,
woven cotton shirts dyed blue.

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind's breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon's curving lens.
Based on the footnotes and on the content of many of the poems, Turner has made an effort to know and understand Iraqi and Arabic history and culture. The poems, by virtue of their urgent subject matter, make an insistent political message, though for the most part do not attempt explicit statements or political analysis as such. Turner appears to have allowed his immediate senses do the speaking and listening, and I found the poems highly effective and moving throughout -- so overwhelming, at times, that I could only read a few of them at a time, and had to wait before coming back to the book to read more.

I don't intend here an argument against explicit political analysis in poems, and I am not arguing in favor of writing entirely from subjective feelings and sense impressions. Poet Thomas McGrath used the analogy from classical Greek and Roman mythology of the gates to the underworld, one made of ivory and one of horn. Dreams, it was said, came from the underworld to the sleepers of the surface world; through the gate of horn came dreams that were true, through the gate of ivory came dreams that were false. Our dreams are affected by the world we live in as much as our waking minds are, and sometimes our dreams -- and our feelings, and our senses -- can deceive us, or be deceived. There is a place in poetry for critical thought.

This is an essential book of poems, for all that it offers, and regardless of the slight mixed feelings I've discussed here. And the book is not entirely without insight into the machinery of empire at work behind the daily living and dying. From the poem "Caravan," describing the loading and transport of cargo from ships in a Persian Gulf port:

[...] Cranes
hoist connexes onto flatbed trucks
which line Highway 1 from Kuwait City
to Dohuk in the north, just south of Turkey,
with enough boxes of food
for a hundred and thirty thousand meals,
two to three times a day for a year,
an army of commerce, a fleet
of corporations with the Pacific as its highway--
these are the boxes we bring to Iraq.
Today, in Baghdad, a bomb
kills forty-seven and wounds over one hundred,
leaving a crater ten feet deep. The stunned
gather body parts from the roadway
to collect in cardboard boxes
which will not be taped and shipped
to the White House lawn, not buried
under the green sod thrown over, box by box
emptied into the rich soil in silence
while a Marine sentry stands guard
at the National Monument, Tomb of the Unknown,
our own land given to these, to say
if this is freedom, then we will share it.
* * *

My thanks to Ruth Ellen Kocher, publisher of the blog aboutaword, from whom I first heard about Here, Bullet.

Good essay, Lyle. I read a review about this book in some journal -- can't remember which one. Anyway, yours is better. LOL.

He just won a Lannan (sp?) Foundation award.
Brian is a very nice guy---humble, even with all the awards his great book has garnered. He lives here in Fresno (for now). One of my favorite poems in his book is "Sadiq," and I love the Malaria pill dream sequence of poems.

Thanks for your review of it, Lyle.
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