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Soldier-Poet Brian Turner, Framing War In Verse


After that interview, we set up an interview with poet Brian Turner, whose poems took Nagl back to his days fighting in Iraq - back to the ghosts he tried to put away. Turner was a team leader for the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. It was the first Stryker brigade to be sent into the combat zone in Iraq in 2003. Turner's book of poems about Iraq is called "Here, Bullet."

Let me ask you to read the title poem from your collection "Here, Bullet."

BRIAN TURNER: Sure. (Reading) Here, bullet. If a body is what you want, then here is bone and gristle and flesh. Here is the clavicle-snapped wish, the aorta's opened valves, the leap thought makes at the synaptic gap. Here is the adrenaline rush you crave, that inexorable flight, that insane puncture into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish what you've started. Because here, bullet, here is where I complete the word you bring hissing through the air, here is where I moan the barrel's cold esophagus, triggering my tongue's explosives for the rifling I have inside of me, each twist of the round spun deeper because here, bullet, here is where the world ends, every time.

GROSS: When you wrote that poem, which side of the bullet did you think of yourself being on?

TURNER: It was coming towards me. And that poem has a lot of bravado to it, and I think that's really just the fear masking itself. I'd say about 80 percent of that poem is fear, and then there's 20 percent of sort of an ugly psychology of finally wanting to meet that moment - because so often, as an infantry soldier, what I actually experienced wasn't direct combat, but was indirect attacks against us: roadside bombs, snipers, mortar attacks, those types of things.

GROSS: Did you write that poem while you were in Iraq?

TURNER: I did. I wrote this book while I was in Iraq, except for two or three poems.

GROSS: What's the closest you came to the bullet actually hitting you?

TURNER: One of the times I remember, for example, is going around a traffic circle in Mosul, and the vehicles have to slow down to make the circle. And as we were going around this, there's many streets, of course, that sort of spiral out of those circles, and from one of them, a guy fired a rocket-propelled grenade, an RPG, that slammed in the back of our Stryker, an event that made me think about people that might be trying to kill me. And I remember writing in my notebooks that night, questioning whether or not, if I could meet that person tomorrow and if we could break bread and sit down at a table and eat lunch together and eat and talk, would he still fire at me the day after that? Or would I fire at him, you know? And I still don't know the answer to that.

GROSS: Was it after that that you wrote the poem?

Yes, it was, actually. There were a few events. There were two or three different rocket attacks in the space of about a week, and I think it was shortly thereafter that I wrote that poem. I wrote it in about 10 to 15 minutes. It's one of the fastest poems I've ever written, if you discount like 20 years of study prior to that. But I wrote it while listening to the Queens of the Stone Age, this rock band, and as sort of wallpaper music so I couldn't hear people outside. And I wrote it, and it's verbatim what it was when I wrote it. And I took it, and I folded it up and I put it in a Ziploc bag and I carried it in my chest pocket the rest of the time that I was in country. And it seemed sort of like a talisman, an acknowledgment of where I was.

Forgive me for bringing this up, but had a bullet or an IED found you that would have been with your remains.


GROSS: And if it was legible, it kind of would have been your epitaph. Were you thinking that when you carried it with you?

TURNER: I can't really remember exactly what I was thinking, as far as that goes; but prior to going over to Iraq, I was chosen, my company did it, to take this one class with the mortuary affairs specialist. He was a sergeant first class. He taught me, if they're on a battlefield, for example, if there were, say, 40 people killed and we came across the scene, and I was supposed to come out.

And they would secure the area, and then I was trained on how to mark the area and to properly bag the remains of people and body parts and things like that. And I saw him again in Kuwait, and then I saw him again in Mosul in the dining facility.

And I remember, it felt sort of like death was following me. Because I knew that if I did die and that poem was with me in my pocket, then my body would be processed through him, and he would maybe read it somehow. You know?

GROSS: I'm going to ask you to read another poem from your collection "Here, Bullet." And this is called "What Every Soldier Should Know."

TURNER: This poem begins with a quote from Rousseau, which says: To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will. It is at best an act of prudence. "What Every Soldier Should Know." If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon, it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you. Always enter a home with your right foot; The left is for cemeteries and unclean places. O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.

It means, stop! Or I'll shoot. Sabah el kahir is effective. It means good Morning. Inshallah means Allah be willing. Listen well when it is spoken. You will hear the RPG coming for you. Not so the roadside bomb. There are bombs under the overpasses, in trash piles, in bricks, in cars. There are shopping carts with clothes soaked in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals. Graffiti sprayed under the overpasses: I will kill you, American. Men wearing vests rigged with explosives walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah. There are men who earn $80 to attack you, $5,000 to kill. Small children who will play with you, old men with their talk, women who offer chai. And any one of them may dance over your body tomorrow.

GROSS: GROSS: Brian, I know you're completing a new book now. Are you still writing about combat in Iraq?

TURNER: I'm actually writing about what I feel is missing back here. I was trying to write poems that were in Iraq, the poems that I'd started over there but never were finished, and I found that they weren't working. And I realized that, you know, of course I'm no longer there, so I can't write those poems.

But I started looking around and seeing that, you know, we're a country at war, but disturbingly, I don't see war like in Marfa, Texas, or Fresno, California, where I'm from. I'm not seeing it in my daily life. I'm not experiencing. And yet there are these sort of imagistic rhymes all around us.

I went into Lowe's Home Improvement Center, for example, and I was buying some nails. I started looking at them, and I realized that there was a type of scaffolding nail, double-headed nail, that looks a lot like the firing pin inside my weapon that I used to carry.

And then, like, when you go to the register and you pay for the cash, and the register slides open, that shuh-shuh, that sound when it slides, sounds a bit like a machine gun being charged. And the fan blades above, you know, they're imagistically rhyming a bit with the rotors of a helicopter, for example.

So these are the poems I'm writing now. I'm writing about the soldiers that have come back. What is that experience like for us, as we come back? And then, what is experience like as a nation? It seems to me a bit obscene that we can bury so many people in the earth and yet know so little about them. And that's what I'm writing about now.

GROSS: Brian Turner, thank you so much for talking with us.

TURNER: Oh, no, it's an honor. Thank you.

GROSS: Brian Turner, recorded in 2008. He's the author of the poetry collections "Here Bullet" and "Phantom Noise." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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