HERE, BULLET by BRIAN TURNERABIGAIL LICAD Reviews
Here, Bullet by Brian Turner
(Alice James Books, 2005)
Those inclined to believe Auden’s often quoted view that “poetry makes nothing happen” should read Brian Turner’s book. One would be hard pressed to think of a contemporary volume of poetry more relevant to our political times, and which grasps so lucidly, so compassionately, the types of responsibilities we face.
Here, Bullet is remarkable not only for the experience which compelled it, but also for the honesty and cultural sensitivity which underlies its poems. Turner, who wrote the volume while serving as a solider in Iraq, approaches his writing with no other agenda than to remain faithful to his experiences. With so many ways for war poetry to go wrong, it’s amazing what Turner accomplishes. No moralizing here. No apocalyptic prophesizing. No rants or diatribes or gratuitous descriptions. And perhaps best of all, no esoteric over-allegorizing of the postmodern, gimmicky bent. With lyric simplicity and most admirable restraint, Turner approaches each subject matter from a learner’s standpoint. In fact, two main features lend the volume with the instructive impetus of a travel narrative.
First, Turner introduces the reader to the cornerstones of the Arabic language: references from the Qu’ran and various Arabic texts emphasize structural and thematic breaks, proverbs or quotes introduce poems, and everyday words become incorporated into Turner’s language. The opening poem called “A Soldier’s Arabic” tells us that habib is the word for love and maut for death. In “What Every Soldier Should Know” the speaker instructs that Sabir el khair means “Good Morning” and Inshallah means “Allah be willing.” In “Two Stories Down,” the use of Arabic is reserved for the emotional climax of the poem, quoted in full below:
When he jumped from the balcony, Hasan swam
in the air over the Ashur Street Market,
arms and legs suspended in a blur
above palm hearts and crates of lemons,
not realizing just how hard life fights
sometimes, how an American solider
would run to his aid there on the sidewalk,
trying to make sense of Hasan’s broken legs,
with words in an awkward music
of stress and care, a soldier he’d startle
by stealing the knife from its sheath,
the two of them struggling for the blade
until the bloodgroove sunk deep
and Hasan whispered to him,
Shukran, sadiq, shukran;
Thank you, friend, thank you.
In drawing from Arabic sources to frame and punctuate his work, Turner takes the first and most essential step to cross-cultural understanding, which is, to view as much as possible from the other culture’s frameworks and assumptions rather than imposing one’s own.
Second, the recurrent tableau-like quality of each poem – the move or series of moves to focus upon a particular subject within its particular setting – gives the reader a sense of the everyday lives of people in Iraq, of their everyday habits, of their everyday sights and sounds as they are interrupted by the ongoing war. In “The Al Harishma Weapons Market,” the poem’s speaker surveys the surroundings before focusing upon Akbar, a father who comforts a son frightened by gunfire; in “Eulogy,” prisoners of war and their captors are suddenly and momentarily distracted by the sound of Private Miller’s gun as he commits suicide; in “Autopsy,” descriptions of the medical procedure being performed blends with procedures of memory.
Each time, there is a concreteness and definite sense of place to Turner’s writing, as well as a continuity between internal and external landscapes. These series of tableaus are not isolated, however, and part of the political import of Turner’s work takes effect when these tableaus interconnect and comment upon each other, reflecting ultimately the changes and transformations resulting from the war. Perhaps the most brilliant enactment of this can be found in “2000 lbs.” in which the poem’s movement along the circumference of an exploding bomb demonstrates, most likely with deliberate ironic intent, that violence is, indeed, a democratizing force, as desires and sufferings of Iraqis and Americans echo, reflect, overlap and in the end, become indistinguishable. These culminate in the description below, which rejects the us-against-them dynamic of war in favor of overwhelming oneness:
And the man who triggered the button,
who may have invoked the Prophet’s name,
or not – he is obliterated at the epicenter,
he is everywhere, he is of all things,
his touch is the air taken in, the blast
and the wave, the electricity of shock,
his is the sound the heart makes quick
in the panic’s rush, the surge of blood
searching for light and color, that sound
the martyr cries filled with the word
his soul is made of, Inshallah.
Discussion in the poetry workshop where I first encountered Here, Bullet most contentiously revolved around Turner’s vaguely rendered stance on the war in Iraq. The attending restraint in Turner’s desire to maintain the utmost respect for the sufferings of all those involved in the war by way of resisting direct commentary is often too easily confused for political indeterminacy. The following lines from “Caravan” make clear enough, I think, his opposition to the war:
Today, in Baghdad, a bomb
kills forty-seven and wounds over one hundred,
leaving a crated 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…
The implication that the White House be visually tied with coffins, that people both inside and outside the White House physically confront and also be confronted alongside actual human casualties from the war, signals an opposition to destruction and violence, and by extension, to the political decisions that have led to them. Although this is as far as Turner gets in voicing an anti-war stance, the eerie imagery of the White House as war mausoleum speaks to the intensity of his convictions. The fact that Turner waits until this penultimate entry in his volume to deliver his harshest criticism against the war only heightens its effectiveness, as he allows readers to derive their own conclusions from descriptions in prior poems. Wisely opting against closing his volume with political criticism and choosing connection over rupture, Turner shifts the focus back toward humanity’s binding mortality in the final poem to follow called “To Sand”:
To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
To sand the green smoke goes.
Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
Each star cluster, bursting above…
What Turner effectively “makes happen,” to return to Auden’s quote, is to instill an awareness of the totality of war and to promote a responsible manner of conducting oneself amidst enormous uncertainty. By “totality of war” I mean most of all the sameness that exists at the core of perceived differences – this I think is the point that Turner repeatedly returns to. When confronted by strangeness, newness, violence, or cruelty, Turner shows that first we should look, then we study, then we try to understand, but always, we connect. Here, Bullet is a moving, marvelous read, and a very important lesson.
Abigail Licad grew up in Antipolo, Rizal, Philippines and immigrated with her family to California at age fourteen. She received a B.A. from UC Berkeley and an M.Phil from Pembroke College at Oxford University, both in literature.