The wrong is not in the religion;
The wrong is in us.
At dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.
Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.
There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn't comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend's brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.
A helicopter went down in the river
last night, hitting a power line slung
a few feet off the water. They were searching
for survivors and body from a boat
capsized earlier, Americans and Iraqis both.
It's dawn now, and the sky
drifts low and flat and cold
the way search-boats on the Tigris
drift further and further downriver.
When Navy divers bring up the body
of an Iraqi policeman, it will be a man
we aren't searching for, and still another
later in the day--a college student from Kirkuk.
It will be a long week of searching
like this, every morning near the shoreline
restaurant where open doors are fed
kindling and tender, a cook's hands
lifting the silver bodies of fish,
weighing them on scales.
The history books will get it wrong.
There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above as his friend swam toward him
instead of the shore, how both would drown
in this cold unstoppable river.
-from Here, Bullet
BIO: Brian Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq beginning November 2003, with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. His poetry has been published in Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, and other journals, and in the Voices in Wartime Anthology published in conjunction with the feature-length documentary film of the same name. He received a 2007 NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry. His first book, Here, Bullet was published in 2005.
An Interview with Brian Turner
Intern Mary Hammond and Editorial Assistant Patrick Bagley teamed up to ask Here, Bullet author Brian Turner about his experiences in Iraq, and the difficulties of writing poetry about war.
Alice James Books: Having earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Oregon, you enlisted in the army and spent seven years as a soldier. What was the impetus for that decision?
Brian Turner: Hmmm…If we could drink a bottle of vodka and talk about this until dawn, I might be able to answer that particular question.
AJB: There have been many great soldier-poets, from contemporaries like Doug Anderson to the ancient masters like Li Po and even further back. How conscious of their work were you as you shaped the poems that became Here, Bullet?
BT: While in Iraq, I felt very isolated from the relevance of what felt like a prior life. All that existed was the here and now. That said, the novels of Tim O’Brien probably held the most resonance for me. The series of malaria-induced dream poems in Here, Bullet are certainly influenced by Going After Cacciato. Yusef Komunnyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau was definitely in the back of my mind. Also, Whitman’s care for the wounded may find its echoes in my own work. An anthology of Iraqi poetry (Iraqi Poetry Today) was very influential. Fadhil al-Azzawi, Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayyati, and Muzaffar al-Nawwab had particular impact. As a writer, I have a tendency to be overly musical and layered. I deliberately forced myself to write Here, Bullet in a more stripped-down, direct style—a choice I hoped would be honest to the events I was witnessing.
AJB: Were most of the poems written in Iraq or after your return home?
BT: Nearly all of the poems in Here, Bullet were written while I was in Iraq. The exceptions: "Najaf" and "Dreams from the Malaria Pills (Barefoot)" were new poems which were written within one month of returning stateside… When given time to sleep after a mission, I would often use a red lens flashlight (to avoid disturbing other exhausted soldiers) and either work on a poem or write in my journal about the day’s events. A typical poem might evolve in the following way…
From April and into mid-July of 2004, my company was given the task of providing convoy security for supplies moving through Baghdad each day. I was quietly fascinated with the women who harvested salt from large stands of evaporating water off the shoulders of the highway south of the city. They worked in the most brutal heat, fully dressed in black. From a distance, their blurry forms moved over the surface of the water. Was it resignation? Was it perseverance? What was it about the salt harvest which fascinated me and made me write the poem "Milh"? I believe it is the struggle to preserve something of value from what seems to be the inexorable pull of loss.
AJB: Are many of the soldiers with whom you served aware of the book at this point? If so, how do they feel about it? Did you have to change anyone’s name for the book?
BT: While we were in Iraq, some soldiers in my squad knew that I often spent my downtime working on a book. However, I never shared the content with anyone while overseas. Once home, I did show a few of the poems to Thomas Bosch (a good friend and my rifleman during our year-long tour). One of the reasons he joined the military was to save enough money to put himself through film school. I wanted his opinions, thoughts, and, ultimately, his approval regarding "Dreams from the Malaria Pills (Bosch)" and "Eulogy". I wanted to know, from someone who was there and from someone who cared deeply, if I had got it right. Only a handful of other soldiers are aware of the book at this point. I really don’t know how they might feel about this work. It’s my hope that it rings true to them.
A few of the names have been changed in Here, Bullet. For example, all of the Iraqi translators are mentioned only by their first names. This is done to protect them and their families. In "AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem)," Thalia Fields is a fictitious name given to a soldier that I served with in Mosul. I wanted to avoid hurting a close friend or family member who might come across this work.
AJB: In poems like "Into the Elephant Grass," "Trowel" and "Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927" you step outside the soldier’s point-of-view and look at events through the eyes of Iraqis. Why was it so important for you to try expressing that point-of-view? Were there any poems in which you tried one perspective and ended up switching to the other?
BT: In the summer of 2004, I had several long conversations with Louie (one of our Iraqi translators). It’s very likely that he has been killed since we last spoke. He was an ex-Iraqi Special Forces soldier who had been captured (in 1986) during the long war with Iran. He spoke of the snow on the mountainsides in Tehran and of his twelve years in the Iranian prison system. He’d lived an amazing life… I knew, while conducting patrols through Mosul and convoy operations through Baghdad, that I was surrounded by an amazing and storied humanity. There were people with incredible stories, like Louie, on every street. I did not want to give in to the process of de-humanizing the Iraqi people so that I could get on with the job at hand.
AJB: The poem "2000 lbs." is about a suicide bombing in a bustling Mosul square. You devote a stanza to the bomber, and among the more powerful lines are "he is obliterated at the epicenter,/ he is everywhere, he is of all things,/ his touch is the air taken in,...." Many of the other poems deal with this anonymity and omnipresence of death and fear as the common Iraqis try to go about the simple daily business of work, play, love. How did this affect you as a soldier and how did you, as a poet, manage to capture that sense and get it onto paper?
BT: My squad would often set up an observation post atop an apartment building in Mosul. At first, we would talk with the children who lived in the building and they would run errands for us (to get blocks of ice, canned sodas, and plates of chicken and rice, for example). After a couple of weeks, one of the fathers very gently tried to persuade me to move the squad to a nearby vacant building, as this would lessen the danger of his children being killed in a firefight. It’s one thing to be a soldier among soldiers and to try to live in a combat zone knowing that there are people who are actively out trying to kill you. It’s an altogether different thing to be a mother or a father simply trying to raise their children and put food on the table in that very same war zone.
AJB: In "Night in Blue," one of the book’s final poems, you ask yourself questions about the things you experienced. Have you yet been able to answer them?
BT: History may prove me wrong, but at this point in time I cannot say that the lives lost have been worth the cost. As a country, are we learning from this experience? In regard to love and relationships and personal development, I think it worth noting that there are many returning veterans who will need help for PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. There are many organizations which are trying to bridge the divide and offer assistance to those who need it.
AJB: In that same poem, you say, "I have no words for war." It may have been how you felt at that moment when you were flying out of Iraq but, clearly, you did have words for this war. What were some of the difficulties you came across in writing Here, Bullet? Are you still writing poems about the war? Here, Bullet is incredibly powerful and will surely be widely discussed. Where do you see your writing going from here?
BT: I realize that the line "I have no words to speak of war" may appear coy on a literary surface. However, the line must be said. I felt I owed that to those who saw and experienced war in a much more devastating way. Some lost their homes. Some lost their family. Some lost limbs or came back to America with horror embedded within them. I was fortunate. Also, there are millions of stories needing to be witnessed and told. More needs to be said. Perhaps an alternate line might have read: We haven’t enough words to speak of war.
One of the biggest challenges I faced with this book involved discovering order among the poems. That is, when compiling the manuscript after returning home, I still didn’t have nearly enough distance from the material to be able to see a wider arc of meaning. I had no sense of cohesiveness and progression. It may take years for me to understand some of the deeper ramifications of what happened and why it happened. I have a feeling that the same can be said of America, as well. That is, what does this war mean to our national consciousness? How does it change and add to the idea of America? Of Iraq?
Of course, there is much more to be said about what has happened and what continues to happen in Iraq. I might write more on the subject, but I don’t see myself using poetry as the medium at that point. I’m currently finishing up a screenplay. For the future, I have two projects which I want to follow up on. One is set in Russia and the other is set in China. I’m looking forward to 2006.