Monday, 16 July 2012

Brain Turner: Here Bullet and Phantom Noise

Brian Turner served as a US soldier in the middle east and in the Bosnian war in Yugoslavia.   Everything in these poems he has seen, heard or felt.   Here Bullet comes from his active service, Phantom Noise from the trauma of trying to reintegrate into civilian life afterwards.
The poet puts in front of us Wilfred Owen’s ‘pity of war’ as well as Yeats’ ‘terrible beauty’ with the minimum of words and economical imagery.  There is no hyperbole, no gratuitous violence, pathos or horror just for effect.  Brian Turner lets us enter an unimaginable world where human beings are stretched beyond their limits of endurance, where extremes are ‘normal’.   The horror is never condoned. They are trained to kill, but Turner gives a warning in a poem called  Sadiq -

‘It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequence
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’

For me one of the highlights of this collection was the prose poem ‘Last Night’s Dream’ dedicated to Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, love and war.  The poem records the catastrophic result of any kind of love or union between two opposed cultures, however much it may be longed for by individuals.  Though it also seems to be saying that it is only through love that true understanding can be achieved.

‘In the dream she kisses Arabic into my skin and I understand every word of it, I transcribe it backwards into cuneiform and stone, I rename the arteries and veins for every river and wadi from Dohuk north to Basra south, I feel for this geography of pleasure, my tongue is a marker that writes even in the rain, even in salt and sweat, and I write with it now, over every curve and turn of her body.

In his dream they fuse together and their explosive love-making destroys everything around them.  ‘As we kiss on, long into the denouement of skin and fire, where medevac helicopters fly in the dark caverns of our lungs in search of the wounded, and we breathe them one to another, a deep rotorwash of pain and bandages.’

There are graphic images from war of slowness, hours and hours of waiting and watching, keyed up for action.  
‘And the hours pass the way helicopters
hover above the palm groves
or the way Fiorillo reads letters from his wife
with a red lens flashlight, down in the troop hold.’

In Night in Blue the soldier is leaving Iraq and finds language inadequate to express what he has experienced.

‘At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight.......

I have no words to speak of war. ....

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

Turner's poetry stands with the poetry of other middle eastern poets - Iraqi or Palestinian - it goes beyond politics, articulating what war does to people - physically and mentally.  It asks the question why?  Points out the idiocy of it all, the pointless destruction.

There are beautiful, sensual descriptions of the middle eastern landscape:-

‘Cowbirds rest in the groves of date palms,
whole flocks of them, white as flowers
blossoming into wings when the wind rises up.’

I haven't read war poetry in the English language as powerful as Turner's since I read Wilfred Owen.
As one reviewer put it: the poems ‘leave the reader to draw conclusions or moral lessons. Here, Bullet is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war, regardless of political affiliation.’

More importantly for me, all the poems reference arabic poets and the long tradition of poetry in the middle east, with quotations and epigraphs, Brian Turner fitting his own work alongside theirs in a way that makes conflict between the east and west appear obscene.

Phantom Noise allows us to experience what it feels like to come back to the ordinary lives of ordinary people, in a place of relative safety.  The world of shopping malls and relationships, where every nail becomes a pin from a weapon, every car hides a bomb, the street a booby trap.  The woman in bed with you faces away from you to avoid the war video running in your eyes as you look at her.

Returning soldiers who have seen and done the unspeakable, carry the war inside them like an invisible wound.  The film of it plays and replays in their heads.  Post traumatic stress syndrome isn’t an illness, it’s an alteration of the personality, changing the way the world is seen and experienced.  Brian Turner writes from within it, with supreme intelligence.  If the reader was a fibre optic probe inside the soldier’s brain, we couldn’t have a view more graphic than this.

Personally, I think Here Bullet is the better of the two collections, but it was Phantom Noise that was short-listed for the TS Eliot prize.   Both collections are published by Bloodaxe and are also available on E-platforms. 

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