Stories of War in the Words of the Warrior
Bryan Turner is an American military veteran, English professor and poet (About Bryan Turner n.p.). Prior to his enlistment, Turner attended school at the University of Oregon where he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. He spent a year in South Korea before enlisting in the United States Army. Since that time he has lived and worked abroad in many parts of the world.
His work focuses on his experiences as a soldier during his service in the Middle East, and has earned him numerous awards in the literary world including the NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, and a Lannan Foundation fellowship (About Bryan Turner, n.p.). In his effort to describe a life surrounded by death and destruction, he makes no attempt to glorify war or warriors. He simply and beautifully describes horrors with an understated and quiet wisdom speaking with the voice of a hero denying his heroism.
Turner’s “The Hurt Locker”, found in Here, Bullet, is less about describing an event and more about describing a view of the soldiers’ collective existence. Throughout this poem, Turner keeps returning to the phrase ‘the hurt locker’. He is giving readers a collection of images described in both visual and auditory terms that help the reader see the frightening and dismal reality of the soldier’s experience. He describes the “bled-out slumping” (3) and cursing and yelling of wounded soldiers. His use of course language here is far from being offensive. On the contrary, it serves to effectively convey the agony and shock of soldiers caught off guard, fighting an enemy they cannot always see coming, wondering if they will meet death at every turn and then finally meeting it. In his second stanza, he again offers a collection of images which he uses to communicate his message to readers. He includes
When a twelve-year-old
Rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
Deep into someone’s skull.
Believe it when four men
Step from a taxicab in Mosul
And fire. (“The Hurt Locker” 8-15).
“Eulogy” published in Here, Bullet is Turner’s memorial for a fellow soldier who ended his own life. As he does in much of his work, his descriptions of war are simple and beautiful, but simultaneously brutal. He describes a quiet day late in the morning. Guards eat lunch and seagulls float down the Tigris River. The images Turner describes give the reader a sense of quiet; there is no war in this moment. It is so quiet the birds on the river are undisturbed; the blue sky is broken by only a blazing sun, but otherwise uninterrupted. Turner again provides one after another of images which collectively taken in, give the reader a sense of the atmosphere of the moment. He sets the stage for the coming events beautifully, and readers can see in their mind’s eye a surreal serenity before the crisis of the work. And then the all-too familiar sound of a gun firing shatters that carefully laid out serenity. The birds escape to the air. A flurry of sound and motion ensues and the moment of peace passes for everyone but Private Miller who was surely blinded to the quiet outside by the chaos within. Turner recognizes that despite the “blur of motion” (14) surrounding him, for Private Miller “the earth is stilled,/and Private Miller has found what low hush there is” (16-17). In a fraction of a second, the image of peace is broken for many and eternally renewed for one. The ending of this work provides a terrible ironic twist: the peace being described is a façade; only through more violence does Private Miller believe true peace can be found. It is a sad reminder, and yet Turner communicates some sense of peace for the dead soldier.
“Here, Bullet” is the title of a poem in the book of the same name. In this poem, Turner is speaking to a bullet, having personified it. He is telling it to take “what you want” (1) as if the bullet is seeking people. He does not address people firing the bullet, but speaks as if the bullet is seeking out men, as if it has its own agenda and requires the “bone and gristle and flesh” (2) to be satisfied. Turner, in this poem, is offering himself up to the bullet, but not as a sacrifice. Turner challenges the bullet the way one might imagine one gladiator challenging another saying “And I dare you to finish/what you’ve started.” (8-9). Ironically, Turner then objectifies his own body in describing being struck by the bullet. He uses metaphors to describe his body in terms of a rifle:
Here is where I moan
The barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
My tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
Inside of me, (“Here, Bullet” 11-14).
Turner creates for the reader a sense that war is a living, breathing entity and bullets serve it as if it is their master. And the warriors are simply the in-human weapons being used, and ultimately they are nothing more than the fodder for those servants.
In a similar vein, Turner gives life to the non-living in “Ashbah” also published in Here, Bullet. The life he gives here, though, is reflected in “The ghosts of American soldiers” (1) and “the Iraqi dead,” (8). Turner describes restless spirits of the Americans trying to find their way home, and the Iraqi dead watching “in silence from rooftops” (9). The visual imagery is stunning, and it is easy to imagine the dark, haunting scene Turner describes. It does not give the reader the sense that Turner is talking about ghosts, however. It seems he is speaking of death in general. Once again he personifies something that is not at all a person. In “Here, Bullet” he personified a bullet, but in “Ashbah” he seems to be personifying a more general idea of death. Turner uses the concept of being surrounded by ghosts as a metaphor that gives the reader an impression death is everywhere: searching, watching, wandering. His reference to Mecca, a Saudi Arabian city with great religious significance, gives the reader an unexpected image. He says the date palms are “leaning toward Mecca” (11) and the reader is left with a sense that everything that is not a ghost, or death, is reaching for God, stretching its collective hands towards some sort of faith that will deliver the world from this grim existence.
In “Najaf 1820” Turner returns to the subject of death but does not personify it in any way. Instead, here he discusses the untidy reality of death and the efforts to maintain some semblance of order and ritual. His imagery is vivid here, as well, but far more realistic. In this poem, Turner is describing camel caravans and giving detailed descriptions of bodies wrapped for their journey. He talks about the traditions of death in the Middle East, and the efforts to carry them out by bringing the dead to an appropriate burial spot in Najaf “where the dead naturally go” (8). It is here in Najaf, he says, the people believe “the gates of Paradise open before them/the blood washed clean/from their bodies.” (9-11). He tells us it is November but the significance is unclear; perhaps it is a reminder of a coming winter, a metaphor for a time of dying. He tells us the war is everywhere when he says “the clouds made of gunpowder and rain,” (13). And he tells us the graves are heavy-laden, “the earth pregnant with the dead;” (14). This poem is rife with metaphor and sense language to give the reader clear visions of the world Turner sees. But Turner does not stop there; he says there will be more to die and much time to do it. The reader is left with a vision of time stretching out in front of the author, and a slow march of corpses making their way down its corridor.
“R & R”, another Turner poem from his book Here, Bullet, may be the most descriptive of those discussed. Turner does not limit his description to visual imagery. He includes auditory, taste and tactile elements as well. In fact his visual descriptions are limited to only a few lines: “a blue day” (3) and soldiers “play[ing] volleyball/just down the beach, while others tan” (15-16). The majority of the descriptions, however, rely on the other senses, and the reader gets not just a vision of the setting, but an understanding of every aspect. Turner opens the poem with the line, “The curve of her hip where I’d lay my head,” (1) which gives a visual suggestion, but also a tactile one as the reader imagines the feeling of resting his head in the cradle of his lover’s body. He describes “her fingers/gone slow through my hair” (2-3), another tactile description that can almost be felt by the reader. Again relying on tactile descriptions he talks about cold beer cans and adds a simile in the description: “where the beer is so cold it sweats in your hand,/cool as her kissing you with crushed ice,/her tongue wet with blackberry and melon.” (5-7). Here Turner also invokes the sense of taste, bringing to the reader’s mind the sweet taste of fruit on a lover’s lips. He describes “swaying/in a hammock by the water’s edge” (13-14) and one can almost feel the gentle rocking and the smell of salt water. And he tells us what it sounds like around him as well “as soldiers laugh” (15) and “talk with nurses” (17). Turner pulls out all the stops in his effort to provide a clear sense of everything happening in this poem. By incorporating so many senses in his description, a full and undeniable understanding of the situation emerges for the reader, and Turner takes one far beyond the still shot images a scenic description provides. He allows the reader to see what he sees, but also to hear it and feel it and taste it with him.
“About Bryan Turner.” Bryan Turner. 2014. Web. 2 Feb. 2016.
Turner, Brian. Here, Bullet. Farmington, ME: Alice James Books. 2005. Print.