2010, 2012, At Lowe's Home Improvement Center, Bloodaxe Books, Brian Turner, Hamadou Djibo Issaka, Here Bullet, Iraq, London Olympics, Mohammed Trains for the Beijing Olympics 2008, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Phantom Noise, rower, rowing, The Whale
Today, the Nigerien rower, Hamadou Djibo Issaka, dubbed ‘the sculling sloth’ by the UK’s press, rowed the 2000 metre course a full 28 seconds slower than in his previous race, finishing last. He has been learning to row for the past three months, starting in a wooden fishing boat. Many athletes’ first victories are against the adversities of local conditions and there was nothing patronising about the applause which greeted his completion of the race. Indeed, his very presence at the games felt true to the Olympic spirit.
In his poem Mohammed Trains for the Beijing Olympics, 2008, Brian Turner‘s gaze is trained on the weightlifters: ‘In the 69 kilogram weight class, / the Bulgarian, Boevski, is the world / record-holder. He cannot be beaten. / At least, not by Sawara Mohammed. Mohammed, at 26, has shoveled cement / longer than he cares to remember’. Turner’s line break after the word beaten, coupled with his use of blunt statements shows just how pointless Mohammed’s participation is. However, he is also straining to lift ‘the Euphrates and Tigris both, mountains / of the north, deserts of the west, Basra / Karbala, Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul, / three decades of war and the constant suffering / of millions – this is what Sawara lifts, / and no matter what effort he makes, he will fail / completely, and the people will love him for it’. There’s a pop culture reference here, as the poem’s final line carries echoes of Proximo‘s (Peter O’Toole) words of advice to the clinical killer, Maximus (Russell Crowe) in Gladiator. This macho reference to a fabulous underdog injects a note of optimism into the poem. Yes, Mohammed will lose in Beijing but, as a torch carrier for the hopes and dreams of the new Iraq, he will succeed.
In Phantom Noise, Brian Turner’s second collection of poetry, he explores the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom and his title suggests that, as an ex-serviceman, he still experiences flashbacks. Like his first collection, Here Bullet, many of these poems are unflinchingly visceral in their recreation of the mental anguish suffered by those who have served. However, a poem like At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center uses different strategies to present the military as life-changing. ‘Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle, / I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails / open by accident, their oily bright shanks / and diamond points like firing pins / from M-4s and M-16s’. Iraq is everywhere, carried inside the soldier’s head. Time suddenly collapses and the hallucination begins in earnest. Turner’s chosen language is simple and makes you think that if Andy McNab published poetry, then it would read something like this. Turner’s voice feels authentic, trustworthy.
In The Whale, Turner flashes back to 1970, where even his childhood has been polluted by Iraq. 500 pounds of explosives will be necessary to dispose of the carcass of the beached whale, whose flukes are described as ‘wide as the tailfins of bombers / overhead’ while ‘engineers argue / blasting caps and stand-off distance’. The reader might be prepared to accept that everyone present knew the weight of explosives used and a boys’ own sort of a boy may well have viewed the whale’s flukes in militaristic images but the final details of ‘blasting caps and stand-off distance’ are certainly post Iraq pollutants of childhood memory, throwing everything else into uncertainty too. We often think of soldiers as people prepared to sacrifice their futures but Turner’s poem shows that they are required to sacrifice their pasts as well. The whale, that all-American symbol of adventure, is detonated ‘in jets of tissue and meat’.