2005, Bloodaxe Books, Brian Turner, David Finkel, Evan Wright, Generation Kill, Here Bullet, Iraq, Operation Iraqi Freedom, poem, Poetry, The Good Soldiers, The Hurt Locker, verse, What Every Soldier Should Know
It was the embedded reporters who grabbed my attention during Operation Iraqi Freedom and its aftermath. Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, an insight into equipment shortages and poor leadership at every level was compelling but polemical, with former members of 1st Recon distancing themselves from his presentation of their officers in the DVD extras for HBO’s spinoff series, his angle was questionable. In David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, the US military was presented sympathetically, as it mounted a futile struggle to improve sewerage for the inhabitants of the Baghdad suburb, Rustamiyah. No matter what your view of the conflict and its aftermath was, it became clear that Operation Iraqi Freedom produced superb non-fiction.
As Brian Turner served as a soldier during the conflict, one might think that his collection of poems, Here, Bullet, would be less interested in an agenda and more interested in coming to terms with soldiering itself. At one level this is true: Here, Bullet is a visceral, personal, adrenaline pumped encounter with sand, rockets and blood. However, Turner’s decision to add an epigraph from the Qur’an to each section and to engage with the great works of Mesopotamian culture reminds us of Colonel Tim Collin’s eve-of-battle speech: ‘Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there‘. Turner is well read and can see the repetitions and ironies in events. In Hwy 1, we read that the highway runs ‘Past Marsh Arabs and the Euphrates wheel, / past wild camels and waving children / who marvel at the painted guns, the convoy / pushes on, past the ruins of Babylon and Sumer, / through the land of Gilgamesh where the minarets / sound the muezzin’s prayer, resonant and deep’. It is believed that water wheels were operating on the Euphrates thousands of years before the birth of Christ and, in Haditha today, the hydroelectric dam is the largest generator of electricity in Iraq. Taking a historical view, Turner’s perspective on Iraq celebrates the antiquity and continuity of its culture and technology.
As well as engaging with Mesopotamian literature and history, Turner’s poetry nods to the Western canon. In What Every Soldier Should Know, he demonstrates exquisite control of the couplet, his aphorisms referencing William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’. ‘Small children who will play with you, / old men with their talk, women offer chai – // and any one of them / may dance over your body tomorrow’. Turner’s decision to run this contrasting set of couplets over the stanza break emphasises the contradictory responses that the soldiers faced. His poem treats it with a stoicism and dignity echoed in The Good Soldiers.
At the heart of this collection lie some important, violent poems. As well as having the power to provoke, Turner’s poetics is one of sensation and The Hurt Locker (the title of Kathryn Bigelow’s film was taken from this poem) and Here, Bullet are outstanding examples. Turner does violence to language itself, tearing sentences into shrapnel: ‘Nothing but hurt left here. / Nothing but bullets and pain / and the bled-out slumping / and all the fucks and goddams / and Jesus Christs of the wounded’. Here, Bullet is a travesty of a love poem: ‘If a body is what you want, / then here is bone and gristle and flesh’.
Turner’s feels like an important voice. Much of the recent war poetry available online vents private grief and suffering. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it feels private rather than public. Here, Bullet, on the other hand, is a collection of poems in contact with Western and Eastern culture and history, its synapses twitching with pain, sacrifice and brotherly love.
- War poetry is central to UK schools’ English poetry teaching, with poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon at the hub.
- Do you think that war poetry should be taught in schools and, if so, should we still be teaching WW1 poets, or something that speaks of the experiences of the current generation and their families?