A very special Featured Poem selection this week – to look forward to his upcoming visit to Liverpool with The Reader Organisation and the Writing On The Wall Festival, a poem from the award-winning poet Brian Turner; to be precise, the title poem of his second collection, Phantom Noise, which was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2010 and deals with the aftermath and various emotional impacts of the Iraq War. With more on Brian Turner’s powerful poetry, over to Maura Kennedy, Events and Publications Manager at The Reader Organisation:
In 2006, when I first encountered Brian Turner’s poetry, media coverage of the Iraq War was at once sensationalist and jaded – Stalin’s reputed remark that “one dead person is a tragedy; one million dead is a statistic” seemed to hold true. The “Conflict in Iraq” was a toxic mess, unimaginable in its human cost. Then Here, Bullet struck me: Brian Turner’s first collection of poems about his experiences in Iraq as an infantry soldier in the US army.
The poems in Here, Bullet are both visceral and elegiac. The epic past and landscape of Babylon/Iraq is conflated with the terror and pain of young, frightened soldiers, stalked by intense boredom and an amorphous enemy that not only appears in human form, but in the terrain and unbearable heat of their treacherous surroundings. Turner’s muscular, beautiful writing gives voice to the “grunts” alongside whom he fought: the title of one of the most powerful films about the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker, was taken from his poem of the same name.
But while Turner’s poems are explicitly focused on his experiences and those of his fellow US soldiers, the true power of his work lies in his ability to intimate the suffering of those they are blindly fighting against: the “insurgent”, the civilian, their own souls. In his second collection, there are poems about violent, frightening encounters but more are about the echo of these experiences: the spacing of the titular poem and the final italics in Phantom Noise gives the poem a pleading tone, an urgent need to express “the rifled symphonic” to the reader, to bring relief from “this ringing hum”.
There is this ringing hum this
bullet-borne language ringing
shell-fall and static this late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet ringing
hiss and steam this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks broken
bodies ringing in steel humming these
voices of dust these years ringing
rifles in Babylon rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy their limbs gone missing their
static-borne television their ringing
this eardrum this rifled symphonic this
ringing of midnight in gunpowder and oil this
brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone this ringing
hum this ringing hum this
‘Phantom Noise’ is taken from Phantom Noise (Bloodaxe Books, 2010) and reproduced here with the kind permission of the author and Bloodaxe Books.
Brian Turner will be visiting Liverpool in May as a guest of The Reader Organisation and the Writing on the Wall Festival. He will be giving four readings in Mersey Care NHS Trust and HMP Liverpool, where TRO run weekly Get into Reading groups, and a public reading in the Casa, Hope St, Liverpool L1 9BQ at 7.30pm Wednesday 2 May. For further information and booking, please see the Writing On The Wall website.