Alice James Books ($14.95)
by Joel Turnipseed
Several hundred books have now been published on the Iraq War—some quite good, e.g. Generation Kill, One Bullet Away, and a few others—but none have felt necessary until now. There's something in the lumbering of prose that cannot capture what poetry, done right, can make immanent with its insistent beat—as the power of the cadences soldiers sing cannot truly be understood apart from the accompanying beat of boots beneath them. With Brian Turner's Here, Bullet, we have the first war poetry since Yusef Komunyaaka's Dien Cai Dau that matters.
Turner's poems earn their attention by acknowledging, at the start, the nature of war songs, as in "The Hurt Locker":
Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.
Turner is, of course, no ordinary soldier (and there are no ordinary soldiers—each is unique with his own degree of hopelessness, valor, malice, pride, and terror), but each poem of this collection acknowledges that, however they carry their packs, there's a jaunt in every warrior's step, a punch wound up in their fist, a coarseness that is its own weight.
To see from within this experience and bring that vision to us is difficult to say the least. Turner's "Dreams from the Malaria Pills" sequences go some way toward exploring the surreal possibilities—but he also acknowledges here, as in "Easel," that there's an element of impossibility in painting the life of those caught up in war:
There are no shadows to hold them down,
No slant and fall of shadow,
light's counterpoint, the dark processing
of thought. All burns in light here,
all rises in heat as colored tongues
lift in flame, brushstroke by brushstroke,
an erasure the sky washes out in blue.
Where Turner does succeed in making us see, he also succeeds in making us feel—in bringing the weight of war upon us. You can only wish that his words had come before he or any other Americans had raised their rifles in Iraq when you come upon the eponymous truth of his poem "Sadiq":
It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
Then again, as Turner knows from learning "A Soldier's Arabic," this is a "language made of blood . . . To be spoken, it must be earned." Such an unsparing truth can only have come from a soldier willing to take in his experience and to remake himself with it. And he will have to learn again how to speak, as Turner has, from a new distance. How that gap is measured is its own song, as Turner describes in "Cole's Guitar":
Palm-mute the strings, Doc,
strum that song until I can see
the breath on a bus window, the faces
of strangers in the rain, my own hands
tracing the features of every one of them,
the way ghosts might visit the ones they love,
as I am now, listening to America,
touching the cold glass.
Turner's poems of war carry with them both lyrical desire and the inexplicable horror and surreality of the unmentionable—mentioned beautifully. Here, Bullet is, in this sense, a kind of obscenity hurled against us, full of love and intelligence and all the other things that aren't supposed to survive war. And yet, there's a anticipation even in this, as the soldier shares in the anticipation of his bullet, knowing that his world may be made or broken at any moment. That is the final victory, if it can be called that, of Turner's collection: it preserves the shock of this experience while maintaining its humanity, collapsing the headlines and battle plans to the brilliant felt life of the individual, "because Here, Bullet, here is where the world ends, every time."
Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2005/2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2005/2006