Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army. This included a year spent as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq from November 2003. Here, Bullet comes from that experience on the front-line in the Iraq war and subsequent occupation.
I first encountered Turner’s poetry at a Tongues & Grooves reading in the Florence Arms pub in Southsea. Here, Bullet had recently been published in the UK by Bloodaxe, and Brian Turner was giving readings around the country. It’s a powerful book, and the reading did it justice (this is not always the case – I’ve seen some pretty well known poets perform poorly). I bought my copy at the event.
As an aside, a lot of the poetry collections on my bookshelf have been bought at readings – it’s one of the main ways that poets get to sell their books – about 80% of my book sales have come from events where I have read. Quite a few have been bought on the spur of the moment – if the reading has been good, or if there is a particular poem I wanted to read for myself again. Now I have my own experience of having to shift copies of my own collection, it’s a rare event where I don’t buy, or swop, at least one book.
Back to Here, Bullet. It comes across as being truly authentic, a book that , as with David Jones’ In Parenthesis, ( which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago), could not have been written by someone who did not have direct experience of this particular conflict. Yet there is much more to it than just being a poetic chronicle of one man’s experiences in Iraq.
Here, Bullet is in four sections, with the exception of the first poem, A Soldier’s Arabic, which stands alone as an introduction, both for the soldier in Iraq, and the themes that run through the book. A Soldier’s Arabic begins as follows;
The world for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.
Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.
As Sarah Brown in the Guardian review states; Turner proves himself an ideal chronicler, eloquent and detached. He avoids the twin pitfalls of embellishment and identification, allowing the particulars of warfare – the “bled-out slumpings / and all the fucks and goddamns / … of the wounded” – to speak for themselves, offsetting and deepening them with descriptions of the “vines of wild grapes”, “shimmering” Eucalyptus trees and minarets against which they’re played out. Above all, he affords dignity to the participants through acknowledgment of their individuality, giving names, recognising relationships, delineating histories. The power of this collection extends far beyond its harrowing subject-matter.
You can read four of his poems on the Poetry Foundation website, including 2000 lbs, a visceral description of the impact of a Mosul bombing on some of its victims.
You can also watch and listen to Turner reading 2000 lbs online here;
When people say that poetry is dull, or too highbrow, or has no contemporary relevance, I want to show them poems like this, and other poems in the book, such as AB Negative (The Surgeon’s Poem), What Every Soldier Should Know and Observation Post #798. Despite their sadness and sometimes harrowing subject matter, they are full of humanity, whether it be for Iraqi civilians, American soldiers, or the history of the country itself. There are no easy answers offered in Here, Bullet , and no easy enemies either.
Whether or not your only experience of war poetry is the work of the World War One poets, then this is a book that is worth exploring. It’s still available to buy – from Amazon of course, alternatively at Bookshop.org here (and yes I do make a few pennies here from any purchase through this link – not a fortune but a little something to help with the running costs of the site!).
I’ll leave you with the title poem of the collection, which I hope is OK to reproduce in full – it is pretty widely shared online;
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.