by Brian Turner
Reviewed by John Bradley
Michael Casey. W. D. Ehrhart. Yusef Komunyakaa. Bruce Weigl. The Vietnam War produced many soldier-poets. So far only one soldier-poet of the Iraq war has come to the fore -- Brian Turner. His first book, Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005), revealed a strong new voice. "If a body is what you want, / then here is bone and gristle and flesh," he wrote in the title poem. Now, five years later, Turner finds a new focus -- a veteran trying to survive the war that continues in his psyche.
Phantom Noise, each section framed with black pages, opens with "VA Confessional," a grim demonstration of the endless war in the mind of one veteran:
Men are bound on their knees, shivering
in the animal stall, long before dawn.
I whisper into their ears, saying,
Howlwin? Howlwin? Meaning, Mortars? Mortars?
Howl wind, motherfucker? Howl wind?
That transformation of the Arabic language into English displays another form of aggression, one nearly as chilling as the physical brutality in the poem.
While some readers might find war poems about post-traumatic stress to be expected, this book often takes surprising turns. In "Sleeping in Dick Cheney's Bed," for example, the narrator doesn't rage at Cheney's untruths about the reason we invaded Iraq. Instead, we hear this quiet disclosure after a lecture at the Air Force Academy: "what does it say about me / that I can return to Cheney's room after midnight, / strip my clothes off to curl in the bed / where he too has slept . . ." Turner finds himself as complicit in the war as any politician, one of the ways this book distinguishes itself from lesser works.
Politics, in fact, do not overtly emerge in Phantom Noise
. Several of the poem titles here, however, carry political overtones: "Illumination Rounds," "Perimeter Watch," "Zippo," "White Phosphorus." Could Turner's use of Vietnam War language suggest that the Iraq War bears similarities to our previous war? That both wars were unpopular at home and in both a mighty nation found itself in a quagmire? Turner wisely leaves this answer to the reader. Instead, in "The Mutanabbi Street Bombing," he watches as the ash of a suicide bombing settles on "Couples / [who] lie in the spring fields of California, / drinking wine, making love in the lavender / dusk." There is no escape from the consequences of our acts, not even for the innocent.
These poems reflect a growing confidence and eloquence on the part of Turner. It can be seen in his long lines, in the unusual stanzaic forms and nontraditional left margins, and in the wide range of topics. Though war and its devastating effects always lurk nearby, Turner also writes about Iraqi history ("Ancient Baghdad"), his childhood ("Homemade Napalm"), and love poems ("In the Guggenheim Museum"). This soldier-poet is among our best witnesses of war and its consequences, unafraid to observe: "I am learning to connect / with the small dark silence / carried within the center of all things."