Monday, November 29, 2010

Phantom Noise -- Brian Turner

Brian Turner’s poetry can’t help bring to mind the poets of the First World War: Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke.  It’s not just that Turner writes about “war, and the pity of war” like Owen, but that no other major poets have done so since the Great War.  Where did the poetry of WWII and the Korean War go?  I have read one poem written about the Vietnam War—an unpublished poem by my father.  So Turner’s poetry is at once novel and grounded in tradition—the tradition of bypassing the temptation towards the lugubrious or the nationalistic when dealing with war, and confronting the horror and pain with unflinching resolve.

The title poem of the volume is a good example:

Phantom Noise

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 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
I like how the thread of tinnitus unites a series of impressions and memories to the point where the unceasing roar stands in metaphorically for the strife and pain.

Specific connections to First World War poets arise poem by poem, connected by particular subjects and concerns.  But whereas Sassoon observes post-traumatic stress disorder (he would have called it “shell shock”) in general terms, Turner focuses on the fractured first-person impressions of a returned soldier.

S. S.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain
Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.
Of course they're "longing to go out again,"—
These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,
They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed
Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died,—
Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud
Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride…
Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;
Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

Perimeter Watch
B. T.

I lock the door tonight, check the bolts twice
just to make sure.  Turn off all the lights.
Only the fan blades rotate above, slow as helicopters
winding down their oily gears.
                                                Water buffalo
chew the front lawn, snorting.  When the sprinklers
switch on, white cowbirds lift up from the grass
with heavy wing-beats, a column of feathers
rising over my rooftop, their wing-tips
backlit by the moon.
                                    Through Venetian blinds
I see the Iraqi prisoners in that dank cell at Firebase Eagle
staring back at me.  They say nothing, just as they did
in the winter of 2004, shivering in the piss-cold dark,
on scraps of cardboard, staring.
Brian Turner, like Sassoon and Owen, excels at personalizing experience and alluding to generalities through specifics.  In Phantom Noise we get a wide slice of this experience, ranging from guarding prisoners to a panicked stampede at al-A'imma Bridge, from a VA hospital to childhood memories.

Turner clearly has respect for both valor and mercy; he treats the people and cultures involved in the Iraq War with understanding and insight.  One poem, “Stopping the American Infantry Patrol Near the Prophet Yunus Mosque in Mosul, Abu Ali Shows Them the Cloth in his Pocket” is no war poem—simply a poem borne of the tensions and misunderstandings between cultures alien to each other.

Through it all, Turner remains reserved.  He shows but does not tell, so that while he speaks in the voice of a soldier, a father, a lover and a passing observer, he only alludes to any grand statement or unambiguous opinion.  He never writes, as Sassoon does,

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
Part of me wishes he would.  Part of me is glad that he doesn’t.

American Internal

Down in the hole, down in the clay and mud,
we dig. The noon sun hot on our backs
as we bend to the task, as if digging
down into our own shadows
with the stained shovels of our hands,
digging until someone gasps—another,
they have discovered another; with pale eyes
the dead faces are rooted among worms and stone,
the brassy shells of bullets in their mouths.
We raise each one carefully out of the earth,
men dressed in sandals and thawbs,
wet cotton robes dyed by clay,
and women, like the one I lift now,
how her hair unravels in a sheen
of copper, cold as water in my palms.

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