By Courtney Cook
Saturday, August 28, 2010; C03
By Brian Turner
93 pp. $16.95
Before the film appeared, before Kathryn Bigelow was a household name, before the Academy Award, there was Brian Turner's "The Hurt Locker," a deceptively simple poem about a soldier exhausted by nights of mortar fire. "Nothing but the hurt left here," writes Turner. "Nothing but bullets and pain/and the bled out slumping." It's one of the poems in Turner's 2005 collection, "Here, Bullet," a book written by a young infantryman without politics and with eyes wide open.
In his new collection, "Phantom Noise," Turner is the same soldier, with the same keen eye, but he is even more battle-weary. Taken together, these books are an unusual two-part portrait of a decade of war: its strength, its wounds, its fantasies of home and, as it happens, the strange beauty of a stubbornly foreign culture. Taken alone, "Phantom Noise" is an unsettling plunge into a returned soldier's dislocation. Through images that recur again and again, from Iraq to a podium in Colorado, from a field hospital to a pristine day on Puget Sound, we go deep inside this soldier's relief, grief and alienation.
Here is the former warrior in "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center":
Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shanks
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s.
Here is the returned soldier, nagged by the specter of American torture, in "Sleeping in Dick Cheney's Bed":
like a preacher's delivering me deeper into the truth,
with a gasp of air, a flash of light, to be plunged back down
the way he offers midges and blood worms and rusty scuds
to the cloudy river, running 1400 cubic feet per second,
until I cough up the fictional and beg for the heartland's
fluid clarity, salvation, the charity of forgiveness, anything.
Then, in the same poem, the soldier's own guilt rises up:
what does it say about me, that the Pinot Grigio
tasted so good on my tongue . . .
that I can return to Cheney's room after midnight,
strip my clothes off to curl in the bed
where he too has slept, the sheets a sublime reprieve
for my tired frame, the night a perfection of sleep.
These poems work a bit like the bomb blasts that echo through them, breaking down assumptions, unearthing shards of insight that help explain why, when it comes to war, we are so much at odds with ourselves.
Turner is, of course, in the strong company of other contemporary soldier writers. "Kaboom," Matt Gallagher's half comic, half heart-breaking hour-by-hour account, boasts a subtitle that says it all: "Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War." There's also "Lone Survivor," Marcus Luttrell's best-selling, knuckle-biting exemplar of bravery and humanity in Afghanistan. But it's a civilian, Rory Stewart, author of "The Places in Between," to whom Turner is closest in tone. Both men write with unusual detachment. In Turner's "Unearthed by Wind," for example, death pairs easily with beauty:
When the winds drive south from Anatolia,
down through western Iraq and into the Kuwaiti
borderlands, the dunes shift in waves, an ocean
cresting in a swirl of dust the camels traverse
at nightfall. The wind presses on, curving
over parietal bones, smoothing them
like river stones where no water runs --
grain by grain an entire skull
emerging, its hourglass sockets
staring out at the world once more.
This is a writer who is less warrior than observer, someone whose curiosity, knowledge and tenderness allow insight into landscapes and people that terrify the rest of us.
He's a guy who does his research, too. The endnotes of "Phantom Noise" reference anthologies of Iraqi poetry, both contemporary and dating as far back as A.D. 646, and he quotes Iraqi prophets, political leaders, news reports and local languages. There's even a note about an Iraqi cookbook, Nawal Nasrallah's "Delights from the Garden of Eden."
It's hard to think of a better way around ideology than poetry like this. Turner shows us soldiers who are invincible and wounded, a nation noble and culpable, and a war by turns necessary and abominable. He brings us closer to our own phantom guilt and speaks the words that we both do and do not want to hear.
Cook is a freelance writer from New York.