Authors | Brian Turner

Where We Might Begin: On Brian Turner United States of America    PWF 2020

Brian Turner


The war poet today holds a tenuous grip on popular nobility, the stock jammed tightly back against the shoulder, the barrel presumed by most readers to point in any possible direction. It comes as no surprise that readers often identify the threat, preferring instead to opt for cover or concealment. The battlefield today continues to be one of moral uncertainty, as the same extended crises are evolving in the Middle East.


November 2003. US infantryman Sergeant Brian Turner is deployed to Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, part of the highly controversial American-led invasion of the territory in response to the atrocities committed by the Hussein dictatorship. 


But to refer to this decade-defining occupation of Iraqi territory as highly controversial is surely an understatement. The world’s largest anti-war protest takes place in Rome over the deployment, involving some three-million individuals, and the British Stop The War Coalition march on London also stands as the largest ever protest in the United Kingdom, estimated at some seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand individuals in attendance.


Turner draws no conclusions on the ethics of the war. Neither does he flinch at displaying the gory realities. His memoir of this time, My Life as a Foreign Country, published in 2014, fits into the breed of self-reflection as fragment on fragment, of neo- (or perhaps hyper-) impressionism, each image as it was seen, each memory as it is remembered, each fact or fiction it produces, left to stand more or less by itself. Turner carves so many monuments, the rhetorical face of war paled to its chalk-dust state. 


            To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.

            To sand the green smoke goes.

            Each finned mortar, spinning in light.

            Each star cluster, bursting above.

            To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year.


This extract, taken from the poem, To Sand, is from Turner’s 2005 collection, Here, Bullet, similarly focused on his experiences of deployment in the Iraqi theatre of war.


It would be hard to identify the doomed youth of the First World War in Turner’s contemporary poetry, though in his prose he flicks back through the images of history to this very date, as well as to the Pacific of World War II, to the battlegrounds of the American Civil War, among others, tracing the ancestry of his family presence in modern combat. 


His is a poetic style more prone to the starkly postmodern, in parts surreal in its flights of homeric pathos and awe, closer to the strategic detachment of Keith Douglas, than the romantic humanism of Wilfred Owen. But then Turner’s is a different age, with a different cynical understanding of what it means to be engaged on the battlefield, of what is fought-for, with a video-game, youtube-ready knowledge of the soldier’s horrors.


At the firebase on the outskirts of Mosul, surrounding a table on which torn MRE packets represent the houses they are set to raid, Turner’s squad prep for strategic operations:


They crackle in nerve and flame. The gas stations and Laundromats and unemployment lines and hardware stores of America disappear. For now they are soldiers. They stand over the model of someone else’s life.


And the reader stands beside them, Turner stands beside them, peering in.


            Nothing but hurt left here.

            Nothing but bullets and pain

            and the bled-out slumping

            and all the fucks and goddamns

            and Jesus Christs of the wounded.

            Nothing left here but the hurt.


All is excoriated but for moral absolutes: imagery, memory, history are all exposed to a certain tactical light, at no point with the intention of delineating who is right or who is wrong, but who is there, who was, who will be. It is possible, as Turner describes in the dream that opens his memoir, that the contemporary war-poet, at least in America and Europe, is closer to a drone aircraft, unmanned, unprejudiced, observing with its eyes of black heat.


            Believe it when you see it.

            Believe it 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

            to shower the street in brass

            and fire. Open the hurt locker

            and see what there is of knives

            and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn

            how rough men come hunting for souls.


Unofficially lending its name to the eponymous 2008 war film, this is Turner’s poem, The Hurtlocker. Once opened, it seems to contain the spirit of war in the new millenium, of confrontation, confusion and grief.


Despite the ethical quagmire of the invasion, or perhaps because of it, Turner writes history, personal and global, the act of every historian one of hope, hope that the future can live with the trauma of the continuous present, of war that stretches through collective memory, over continents, over seas. Memory goes beyond history as a sequence of memorials, towards war as a lived, inherited state, a monument in the form of the poet. His is a writing that could only ever be a soldier’s and speaks for those with whom he belonged.


The wind at their backs pushing them into the quiet spaces of history, where names and lives and moments and words and hopes and all manner of human beings are pulled down, sand and water and the hard weight of what they’ve done eventually turning them to stone.


The last question to ask, then, is where the stone ends and the monuments begin.


Brian Turner

Brian Turner

07.07.2020 Authors

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