May 2006

Mark Jenkins

poetry

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner

When a quick invasion becomes a long-term occupation, it’s easy to turn off nightly news casualty reports, or offer vague support in the form of a fading yellow ribbon car magnet. But how many Americans have a remote sense of what it’s like to know that “The 107s have a crackling sound/ of fire and electricity” (“Katyusha Rockets”) or notice that a line of corpses “look as if they might roll over,/ wake from a dream and question us/ about the blood drying in their scalps” (“Body Bags”)? Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, winner of the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Book Award, writes of personal experiences, as well as other soldiers’ and local Iraqis' experiences.

Unlike most MFA program graduates who go on to teach four sections of freshman composition, Brian Turner enlisted in the army, serving seven years, including a tour in Iraq. Turner’s first book, Here, Bullet, focuses on his Iraq tour and combines personal experience and interaction between English and Arabic. Turner is in a unique position, because he went to Iraq with rifle and pen, coupled with a desire to understand.

Each war has its own writers and Turner fulfills this role well, touching on the usual themes of death, blood, ghosts, and the otherness of being in a foreign place. He focuses on the unique, including a cycle of malaria pill nightmares with “Dreams from the Malaria Pills (Bosch)” where the increasingly paranoid soldier, Bosch, tries to scrape the heat off his skin, then finally:

soaks his forearms in lighter-fluid
…sets his skin on fire.
He burns his chest like a savanna.
By morning, even his head is on fire
as the sun rises up over the earth at dawn
like the opened mouth of a flamethrower, 140 degrees.

Reading Turner’s book, especially poems like “In the Leupold Scope,” brings to mind Yusef Komunyakaa’s collection Dien Cai Dau, about his experience serving in Vietnam. It recollects the tedium, anxiety, and voyeurism in observation posts, much like Komunyakaa’s “Starlight Scope Myopia.”

A key difference in Here, Bullet is Turner frequently moves outside of himself, his company, and even other American soldiers. Many of the books sections starts with lines from the Quar’an and Iraqi poetry. Poems like “Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927,” “Mihrab,” and “Alhazen of Basara” reflect attempts to understand Iraq’s past, before the country was known only for oil and volatile politics. “Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927” especially alludes to future events “We live on the roof of Hell, he says/ ...he’s watched the gas flares/ rise from the holes in the earth.”

Hell reappears persistently in other poems in this collection, like the surprising title poem, “Here, Bullet” a solider admits what could amount to a death wish: “I dare you to finish what you started” or at least address the sudden bullet “If a body is what you want,/ then here is bone gristle and flesh.”

Brian Turner provides strong details such as in “Tigris River Blues”: “I’ve had too much bad sleep. Not enough coffee./ And the hours pass the way helicopters/ hover over palm groves.” The poem alternates observations of setting and personal observation. It starts with a night setting “a blood moon hung over the river/ a medevac request cross the radio/ in static.”

Poems like “16 Iraqi Policemen” collect disturbing images often lost in news reports. In this poem, sixteen Iraqi Policemen are killed in an explosion, Turner includes disparaging lists that reflect random conflict: “The shocking blood of men/ forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone on a sidewalk, a blistered hand’s gold ring/ still shining.”

Once such evidence of Turner trying to understand Iraq is a regular inclusion of Arabic, not so much to demonstrate a basic knowledge of Arabic, but to give a voice to Iraqis. “What Every Soldier Should Know” advises soldiers new to Iraq what expressions in their Arabic phrasebook are useful, such as threats of “stop or I’ll shoot” is “rarely useful” while “Sabah el khair is effective./ It means Good Morning.”  This pragmatic advice echoes what new arrivals to Iraq might hear against threats.

In short, we need literature like Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet about the Second Iraq War, even more so while tens of thousands of American soldiers are going to be there for the foreseeable future. It seems appropriate that his reading tour not only includes universities, but military colleges like Virginia Military Institute. The NEA has made efforts to help soldiers put their experiences on paper and at least one Iraq War poetry anthology, Voices in Wartime Anthology has been published. Until then, it will be too easy for many Americans to think of over there as nowhere. 

Here, Bullet by Brian Turner
Alice James Books
ISBN: 1882295552
80 Pages