Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Virtual Tour of Iraq

Brian Turner's book Here, Bullet has just been published by Alice James Books. Turner spent seven years in the army, most recently a year during the invasion of Iraq. The poems are marvelous, offering a window on a world civilians do not see much of--the Pentagon has kept the news media successfully at bay for the last couple of years and reports by soldiers from Iraq have been rare.

Turner's poems blend narrative, description, meditation, and the poetry of personal witness to form a truly compelling, accessible memoir of what the Iraq War feels like, smells like, sounds like. The back of the book compares it to Yusef Komunyakaa's Dien Cai Dau (experiences of a soldier in Vietnam), but Carolyn Forche's work also comes to mind. Komunyakaa's work is excellent, but it is more lyrical in feel than Turner's work--Komunyakaa's person inhabits each poem, and the poems are of another era, imagistic in feel.

Turner's poems have more of a narrative drive--each poem telling some type of short story, relaying the particulars of a person or group. And Turner is more of an omniscient presence in the book, a witness recording what he sees, rather than a lyric 'I' transmitting personal impressions and emotions.

Which is why Turner reminds me of Forche and her poetry of witness to the atrocities in Central America. What Turner conveys to the reader is, for the most part, an unblinking record of atrocity, shifting perspective between American and Iraqi sentiments. The reader is fully immersed in a world where perspective has been shattered such that a single poem conveys to us glittering shards of multiple sensibilities.

For example, "Hwy 1":

It begins with the Highway of Death,
with an untold number of ghosts
wandering the road at night, searching
for the way home, to Najaf, Kirkuk,
Mosul and Kanni al Saad. It begins here
with a shuffling of feet on the long road north.

This is the spice road of old, the caravan trail
of camel dust and heat, where Egyptian limes
and sultani lemons swayed in crates
strapped down by leather, where merchants
traded privet flowers and musk, aloes,
honeycombs and silk brought from the Orient.

Past Marsh Arabs and the Euphrates wheel,
past wild camels and waving children
who marvel at the painted guns, the convoy
pushes on, past the ruins of Babylon and Sumer,
through the land of Gilgamesh where the minarets
sound the muzzein's prayer, resonant and deep.

Cranes roost atop power lines in enormous
bowl-shaped nests of sticks and twigs,
and when a sergeant shoots one from the highway
it pauses, as if amazed that death has found it
here, at 7 A.M. on such a beautiful morning,
before pitching over the side and falling
in a slow unraveling of feathers and wings.

--Copyright Alice James Books 2005

I find the book a remarkable document because of its subject matter, its presence, and its necessity--it is amazing political poetry, doing what poetry has done through the ages--record. Its method and aesthetics are traditional, but the marriage of this accessible and concrete style with politicall and socially charged subject matter is a perfect and compelling mix. I urge readers to take a look at the book--you can get it through Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com, and through Alice James Books (link on this site).

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