Review by Chris Routledge
Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet is a collection of poems about the war in Iraq. It draws on his experiences there serving with the US Army in 2003 and 2004. Twenty-first century soldier-poets have a tough job. Not only do they have to contend with the legacy of Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and the rest, but modern warfare is conducted on television. While the images seen by civilians may be controlled and mediated, the way war looks and sounds is familiar, at least in a general way, to most adults. In World War I poets provided a human narrative to go with the lists of dead. What can a poet add when war itself is right there in your living room?
The answer is, quite a lot. In ‘Night in Blue’, a poem about flying home, Turner says ‘I have no words to speak of war’, but if that is true then the words he finds to speak of other things say a great deal about war and about this war in particular. What strikes me reading these poems is the clarity of the description and the sense of bright, sharp light. This is a war of waiting and long-distance, of sudden violence and shattered calm. In ‘Hwy 1’ a crane is shot by one of the soldiers as it roosted on powerlines: ‘it pauses, as if amazed that death has found it / here, at 7 a.m. on such a beautiful morning’. Elsewhere, in ’16 Iraqi Policemen’ Turner describes the aftermath of a car bomb in which ‘the dead policemen cannot be found, / here a moment before, then vanished.’
Beyond the coolness of these descriptions Turner’s sensibility is one of solidarity and shared experience. Several of the poems are from the point of view of Iraqis; several others have a semi-mystical feel to them, as in ‘Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927’:
… the dead are buried deep in the mind
of God, manifest in man and woman,
given to earth in dark blood,
given to earth in fire.
For the most part the soldiers do their jobs as sensitively and simply as they can, muddling along with the Iraqi population and living alongside them. But war is never far away. Its brutalizing effect erupts in the poem ‘Body Bags’, in which soldiers kick the feet of dead Iraqis and mock them. What is best about the collection though is its understanding of how war ties us together, how it changes forever the way we think and feel and remember:
Rockets often fall
in the night sky of the skull, down long avenues
of the brain’s myelin sheathing, over synapses
and the rough structures of thought, they fall
into the hippocampus, into the seat of memory —
where lovers and strangers and old friends
entertain themselves, unaware of the dangers
headed their way …
You can hear an interview with Turner in which he reads from Here, Bullet at the Guardian Books podcast. Here he is reading on YouTube. Another interview is here at Alice James Books. His page at Bloodaxe Books is here.
Brian Turner studied poetics at the University of Oregon before signing up to the US Army at the age of 30. He served for seven years, including tours in Bosnia-Herzegovina and finally in Iraq, where he was an Infantry Team Leader for a year from November 2003. Here, Bullet is Turner’s first collection of poetry and the first published collection to emerge from the Iraq war.