By Brian Turner
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.
(Brian Turner wrote this poem while he was in the Iraq war, fighting, often writing the book when he took a break)
How is it that poetry can do what a bullet cannot do? How is it that a soldier who has been on the other side of the fence where war separates the civilian from the soldier, the unarmed from the armed, the fighter of the war from those who cannot explain why there is even a war, can teach us all in simple poetry that war is bitter and bloody and painful and sad and complex and angry?
Brian Turner, the poet turned soldier and then poet again was the guest we brought to our campus at Penn State Altoona in Altoona, Pennsylvania this week Thursday. At first, when I heard that a former soldier was coming to read his poetry on our campus, I said to myself that I could not attend, could not sit through the reading of poetry by a soldier who had been on the other side of the issue of what we human beings call war. I felt in myself that I would end up crying or that I would scream or become angry or pity him, the soldier, so I did not want to go.
I also thought maybe I wouldn’t like him, wouldn’t like his poetry or his point of view or maybe, maybe, I thought to myself, I would not think his poetry was good enough. After all, I am a poet too, am I not? Am I not one writing also about war, about pain, about my own war, the Liberian civil war that many people in the world may not really care to know about as they do the Iraq war, about a people who the world forgot even while they died for fourteen years, hundreds of thousands died without the world blinking? So, I thought maybe my own ability to appreciate and also interprete poetry and be critical like my professors and fellow students taught me to do, I, knowing who I am, was afraid that I would not like Brian’s poetry and his place as a veteran simply because it is easy for one who has survived the carnage of war to hate the entire art of warfare.
So I was afriad. But somehow, I decided to attend the reading. The reading was after all, sponsored by my department and my university and since I wanted my students to attend, I needed to attend as well.
But I was surprised by what I experienced that night as Brian Turner began to speak.
First, I attended the dinner and met him- a real living person, a soldier who was also a human being, a wonderful individual who has not yet been corrupted by fame, a fellow poet who seemed to really care about the world from first meeting him. At the dinner we faculty were encouraged to bring one of our students to, here we were, meeting a soldier who indeed had seen war and had really survived partly because he was writing poetry. I felt connected to the poet in Brian and to his spirit of survival.
Now you must understand that as a survivor of the Liberian war, I do not have many reasons to care about a soldier or a fighter. I do not have many good examples of soldiers to recall, and you better not blame me unless you too have seen what innocent civilians suffer as a result of wars fought by soldiers, and most often, all that we see in a war is destruction at the hands of one group of fighters against the others. Sorry, if I disappoint you, but when one has seen such carnage as wars impose on us humans, it is very likely one will care little about soldiers or the art of warfare.
My own memory has nothing to do with any one country since wars anywhere will always have the same outcome. It is my first hand experience. Experience that is based on watching soldiers kill innocent people, burn down whole families and destroy one’s own country does not distinguish any soldier from the other, no matter the country. Experience is experience.
But again, I was wrong to think that I would not like the poet/soldier coming to my campus to read from his beautiful book, “Here, Bullet.”
The reading was electrifying, powerful, painful, filled with images of death, of suffering, of the reality of war, and at the end, one knew that the poet reading was not just a soldier who had survived war, but that he was a human being who cared for not just his battalion or his group of fellow soldiers, but also about the people, the ordinary people he had come to help, but could not really help as much as he wanted to.
For me, it was the poetry first, that toughed me, that made my heart bleed, that made me see that yes, here was another fighter for peace who knew how to take the pen and tell the world the truth that we had not been told in all the thousands of stories we’d heard so far. I connected to Brian because I believe that the poet can tell the war story just as if it were happening here to us.
If you do not believe me, just read that last line of the poem: “here is where the world ends, every time.”
Yes, the bullet ends the world for somebody, for hundreds of thousands of people around the world every time, and if you do not know it, Brian says that too.
When Brian Turner said, “Bombs are dropping in Iraq; are they dropping here too?” I looked at him with much admiration and hope. “If they are not, why not?” He answered his own question.
I felt hope because so many people I know do not care that the wars raging around the world are not just those people’s wars, but also ours. And if we do not feel their pain, then something must be wrong with our heads.
Bombs are dropping in Iraq, yes, they are, and if they are, we need to feel those bombs just as though they were falling in our own backyards. This makes us human beings. I understood him to mean so many things. I understood him to say that we must all feel the pain of both the soldiers and the civilian because it is a very painful thing to be in a war. And if we feel, we must end the fighting because it is too costly to fight such a war.
Bringing home a far away war is not an easy thing. The images on the web of the war are too horrifying to even view. The book Brian read from are filled with so many terrible images, one cannot sit through a reading of his without shuddering. For once, I told myself that night, I was sitting through an experience that I often give my audiences whenever I read about the horrifying details of the Liberian civil war. Poetry is indeed relevant to history, to politics, to war, to peace, to bringing an end to conflicts. For me, Brian’s reading was a validation of what I always knew: that poetry can be both a witness and a powerful tool against war.
Poetry in the hands of a soldier can be a powerful reality.
Maybe someone will listen someday and bring an end not just to the Iraq war, but also to all of the other wars that plague our world today–Maybe, someday, we will all drop our weapons and talk peace, maybe someday.