It Should Break Your Heart to Kill
To psych themselves up, Brian Turner explained, young U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq would repeat this line: "I'm going to go over there and shoot someone in the face." It was one way of building courage.
"The people over there -- insurgents, freedom fighters, enemies, whatever you want to call them -- were not only ready to kill us, but they knew how. And they were capable. For us, it was just war-gaming," Turner said.
But the line gnawed at Turner, who was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq. So he wrote his fellow soldiers a poem, "Sadiq," which means friend in Arabic.
It ends: no matter/ what god shines down on you, no matter/ what crackling pain and anger/ you carry in your fists, my friend,/ it should break your heart to kill.
"By the end of the tour, nobody in the unit said the phrase anymore," he said. "They just wanted to go home."
Turner recently published "Here, Bullet," one of the few collections of published poems written by soldiers who served in Iraq. As both a trained solider and a trained poet, a war participant and a conscious observer, his voice and experience contribute a unique perspective.
And the book is garnering due national attention. "I can't say that I don't enjoy it," said the 38-year-old from Fresno, Calif., who served with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. "But if it were a different book on a different subject, I might enjoy it more. All this comes from a war zone."
And a place of pain. "Eulogy," which Turner calls the book's emotional centerpiece, memorializes a friend who committed suicide while on duty in Iraq. It is difficult for Turner to consider that reflections such as "Eulogy" have thrust him into a literary spotlight.
But with his humble background and articulate soft-spokeness, Turner -- hobby punk musician turned poet-soldier -- doesn't come across as someone scrambling to break into the literati. When he transitioned out of the army last year, Turner taught online English classes and worked in construction, at one point holding four jobs. Now he teaches at Fresno City College, picks up electrician gigs on the side and recently moved in with his girlfriend. And he's back together with the garage band of his younger years, under a new name: the Burnouts.
In his twenties, Turner was a machinist writing lyrics (for the original Burnouts) and messing around with the three chords he knew. With rock star ambitions, he enrolled at California State University, Fresno, but soon settled for poetry. In 1992 he took a class with Fresno's poet darling, Philip Levine. Ignorant about the poetry scene, Turner was surprised to find the first class filled, standing room only. When Levine walked into the classroom and put down a mug, Turner recalled a woman shoving the celebrity token into her purse. Turner thought, 'Who is this guy?'
"I knew he was working class, a straight shooter kind of guy," he said. "I told him I don't care about grades or any of that bullshit, but I want to study with you."
And he did, graduated and took the extra $25 he had at the end of a month and put it toward the application fee for a poetry program at the University of Oregon. He got in. But with a hard-earned M.F.A. in hand, Turner turned away from academia or the modern bohemian living of other aspiring poets. He enlisted in the U.S. military. It was in the family, it would help pay off bills and it was adventure.
A military counselor told Turner he could sign up for anything, from a desk job to the front lines. The meeting was being held in a drab office, and the whole time Turner was thinking, 'I don't want anything boring like this.' Turner recalled the counselor pointing to a poster of a group of guys rowing down a river at dawn and asking, "Do you want something like that?"
"Yeah," Turner said. "Like that."
A little over five years later, Turner found himself in Iraq, participating in war, observing war and writing about war.
"While things were happening, it was easy to get caught up in the exhilaration of the moment," he said.
But then there was a continuous feeling of loss -- and a feeling of disconnectedness.
"When you watch war movies, they have a narrative," he said. "There's a mission, something to be saved. Something gets blown up. But over there nothing seemed connected. I came back with a manuscript of poems, having no idea which one came before the other."
More than anger or bitterness, it is the feelings of disconnectedness -- loss, surrealism, confusion, emptiness -- that set the tone in "Here, Bullet." And it seems important to Turner that the poems tell the straight story of his time in Iraq, "I wanted to witness as clearly as possible and not romanticize. Concentrating on the body helped."
The damage to the human body wracked by war is a reoccurring theme in Turner's collection -- from "AB Negative (The Surgeon's Poem)," where a surgeon in tears loses the fight to save the life of a young woman from Mississippi -- to "2,000 lbs," the collection's lengthiest poem that describes the immediate aftermath of a car bomb in Ashur Square, Mosul.
Drawing on the images of the traffic circle, the predominate road feature in Iraq, and the circular radius of a bomb, "2,000 lbs" cinematically pans a scene of human destruction. A sergeant's eardrums have ruptured, a civil affairs officer stares at the space where his hands once were and a grandmother cradles her grandchild thinking, 'It's impossible. This isn't the way we die.'
Even with "Here, Bullet" bound and on bookstore shelves, Turner has only begun to process his time in Iraq.
"I think it is going to take me a few years to take in all that happened, think it through and figure it out. It sobered me up, but at the same time, it helped me further my sense of loving life."
And when asked the question posed in "Night in Blue" at the end of the collection -- did Iraq provide him an understanding of hardship and loss -- Turner was unsure and careful of where he placed himself on a spectrum of suffering.
"I was a witness," he said, sounding more like a poet than a participant.
"I never had to deal with pain like the woman who had to bury a child, never had a spouse taken away in the middle of the night, never lost hands or legs. I didn't come back to America damaged. I didn't feel as damaged as other people in Iraq."
"Eulogy" from "Here, Bullet."
It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 A.M.,PFC B. MILLER
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way piano wire thrums when given slack.
And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth:
the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
crackle over the radio in static confusion,
because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.
(1980 - March 22, 2004)