Poetry about war is difficult to write for publication, despite the fact that both established news media and social media are able to get war reports to a much wider audience. Poetry has to do more than just report and record, it has to communicate and transform eye-witness reports and the experience of living through a war into poetry. To do less is to do a disservice to the very people whose own lives were brutalised and transformed by war. If you were not actually present and are writing from second hand sources, questions are raised about the authenticity of your work. If you were present, you have the weight of the canon of war poetry pressing down on your own work. The writing’s the easy bit, shaping that writing so it is both about your experiences and also able to stand up for itself alone from you in a published book, is fraught with difficulty. It’s easy for armchair generals who weren’t there to criticise and diminish your experiences as inauthentic, easy for others to suggest your writing may by authentic but isn’t good enough as poetry.
Brian Turner’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off both critical arrows. He writes directly from experience but that experience is tempered by a knowledge of the culture of the people from which his enemies come. “Al-A’imma Bridge” is about an incident in 2005 but sweeps back through history to 1258, giving the incident a context and understanding. A rumour of a suicide bomber in a crowd of worshippers triggered a stampede, no shots were fired, no bombs went off yet 965 people died and a further 400 were injured,
“the pregnant woman who twists
in a corkscrew of air, flipping upside down,
the world upended, her black dress
a funeral banner rippling in the wind
her child never given a name;”
The awkwardness of consonants in “twists” and “corkscrew” echoing the awkwardness of the witness, watching and knowing what will happen but unable to do anything and the sense of initial disbelief. The unborn child can’t yet be named, can’t yet live independently from its mother but its death is recorded too. The poem ends, “unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers/ that might light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.”
In the next poem, a women does give birth, “Helping her Breathe”
“In the slow beads of water sliding
down the skin of her temples –
the hush we have been waiting for.
She is giving birth in the middle of war.”
The susurrus of “s” sounds and the long “w” sounds slow the rhythm of the first stanza quoted as labour is a long slow process. It shows the cycle of life and death against a backdrop of war. Brian Turner is non judgemental: there’s no evil here, just a recording of life amongst war. He acknowledges war brutalises people, yet humanity can still survive in a theatre of atrocity. Enemy too is not a word you can simply pin on “the other side”, but, for female soldiers, the enemy can be in a friendly uniform, in “Insignia”,
“If she makes it out of this country alive,
which she probably will. You will be the fire and the hovering
breath. Not the sniper. Not the bomber in the streets. You.”
“You” is her sergeant. Like her fellow soldiers, she won’t be able to leave her experiences in Iraq but will bring them home. “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center”
“the forklift driver over-adjusts, swinging the tines
until they slice open gallons and gallons of paint,
Sienna dust and Lemon Sorbet and Ship’s Harbor Blue
pooling in the aisle where Sgt Rampley walks through –
carrying someone’s blown-off arm cradled like an infant,
handing it to me, saying Hold this, Turner,
we might find who it belongs to.
Cash registers open and slide shut
with a sound of machine guns being charged.
Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers,
on black conveyor belts,
and people in line still reach
for their wallets.”
Brian Turner is an Iraqi war poet and has earnt the right to be called so.