Saturday, 8 May 2010

Simon Turner - ‘I have no words to speak of war’: Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet, and the trouble with war poetry

I realize that The Editors have, collectively, been rather lax in their duties of late.  Two months is rather a long time to wait for a substantial post.  In our defence, April has been something of a difficult month for both of us.  I've been jetting around the country - and overseas - with a new book out, and George has just returned from a sojourn in the woods, where he goes to recharge his primitive batteries every now and again.  This has been compounded by the fact that I've been waiting to write a big review of Brian Turner's new collection, Phantom Noise, but Icelandic volcanoes and stock levels have slightly slowed my copy's arrival from the States.  As an interim, and just to prove that I've not been completely slacking off, here's the text of a paper I delivered at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference in April.  If it's a little drier than what I normally produce, apologies, but academic form necessitates a slightly more formal approach.  I still had more gags than any other paper I saw, though.  For which I deserve a pie. 

In a landmark essay on Robert Antelme, Georges Perec makes note of what he perceives to be an ambiguous attitude in critical responses to the literature of the Holocaust: “The literature of the concentration camps,” asserts Perec,

does not get attacked. The moment a book speaks of the camps [...] it’s more or less assured of being everywhere received with a certain sympathy. Even those who don’t like it won’t want to say hard things about it. At worst it won’t be spoken of at all.

However, this treatment of Holocaust literature with such critical kid gloves tends to place a value upon it solely in terms of its usefulness as historical documentation, whilst the question of literary merit is relegated to a secondary status. As Perec notes, “it’s clear that a careful distinction is being drawn between books like these and ‘real’ literature,” but whether this is due to a reverence for authentic historical experience as opposed to the potential inauthenticity of literature; or whether, conversely, it is Literature that is being elevated above ‘mere’ historical experience, remains uncertain.

Whilst Perec’s comments are specific to a particular body of work, and a particular political and historical moment – the early 1960s – they are at the same time more widely applicable to a critical attitude which pertains to the generality of various literatures arising from conflict and historical trauma. In his article ‘Combat Gnosticism: The Ideology of First World War Poetry Criticism’, James Campbell interrogates a tendency on the part of critical readings of WWI poetry to reinscribe the underlying ideological assumptions inhering in the poems themselves. Mainstream war poetry criticism, argues Campbell, “has formed around itself a certain set of aesthetic and ethical principles that it garners from its own subject.” Campbell reads this critical inwardness in relation to the phenomenon of ‘combat gnosticism’, which he defines as “the belief that combat represents a qualitatively separate order of experience that is difficult if not impossible to communicate to any who have not undergone an identical experience.”

Both Perec’s and Campbell’s observations remain relevant to the critical reception of the literature of historical trauma, and the ideology of ‘combat gnosticism’ that Campbell identifies has been nowhere more notable than in the ways in which Brian Turner’s debut collection, Here, Bullet, has been generally received by critics and reviewers. Here, Bullet was first published by Alice James Books in 2005, appearing in a British edition in 2007, and in both instances the book generated a great deal of attention, much of it emblematic of the critical paradigms detailed by Perec and Campbell. Much of this attention is due, in part, to Here, Bullet’s relative isolation in a literary field where memoir, journalism and political commentary have dominated in discussions of Iraq. It is easy to overstate the case of Here, Bullet’s cultural singularity: other poets, including the Iraqi Dunya Mikhail, in The War Works Hard, and the American Eliot Weinberger, in What I Heard About Iraq, have tackled the war from different perspectives to Turner; whilst the 2008 poetry anthology Language for a New Century, edited by Tina Chang, Natalie Handal and Ravi Shankar, necessarily expands the horizon of the west’s exposure to Middle Eastern war poetry through its inclusion of a number of contemporary poets from that region. However, it is undeniably true to say that Turner’s first collection is to date the most significant imaginative response to the war in Iraq written by an American serviceman. As such, Here Bullet has proven instrumental in a critical field that has placed a premium upon authorial authenticity, with Turner’s poems being read chiefly in terms of their ‘accuracy’ and utility as historical documentation, with matters of literary and aesthetic value being consistently relegated to a subordinate position. The concerns of this paper are, therefore, twofold. Firstly, I want to examine the ways in which this critical framework is expressed in a number of reviews and responses to Turner’s collection in the British and American press; but in addition, I will go on to examine the ways in which Here, Bullet, far from uncomplicatedly adhering to the ideological and aesthetic paradigms being erected around it, deploys a number of strategies and authorial modes quite at odds with a reading of the poems as pure, unfiltered documentary.


In 2007, shortly before the appearance of the British edition of Here, Bullet, the Guardian published an article by James Campbell [not the same James Campbell cited previously], in which the author repeated a question that C Day Lewis had first asked in the early years of the Second World War: “Where are the war poets?” Perceiving a comparable paucity of front-line poets from the contemporary conflict (with Turner providing the single notable exception) as Day Lewis saw during the earlier war, Campbell restates the cultural importance of the soldier-poet through a consideration of the work of Sassoon: “[W]e value [Sassoon’s poetry]”, writes Campbell,

as the work of a man who was there, as something beautifully crafted, coolly observant and morally irrefutable. [...] Two world wars, and the collective response in the face of danger abroad and hardship at home, have given us the nearest thing to a national myth. We continue to trust to the poets – good men writing honestly out of dire experience – because they cleanse and clarify the myth.

Campbell’s position is clear: war poetry – which Campbell defines as “writing that is intimate with the facts of battle” – is of value chiefly as an historical document, whilst the poets themselves (“good men writing honestly out of dire experience”, which would be an eccentric judgement of the greater proportion of poets considered in any other context than that of warfare) are reduced to the status of documentarians.

Whilst Campbell’s article is by no means the most egregious response to Turner’s poetry, it does set out the terms in which Here, Bullet has been read clearly and concisely. Praising Turner’s poetic “detachment”, Campbell notes that “the particulars are so shocking that they need no sentimental boost”. Content, here, is praised above form: the ‘shock’ of the poems derives not from any authorial intervention, but from the historical facts – the ‘particulars’ – to which they refer. Literary adornment – a ‘sentimental boost’ – is unnecessary, and might even prove detrimental to the material.

Joel Brouwer’s short notice in the New York Times in November 2005 expresses critical conceits similar to those found in Campbell’s article, but in a far less nuanced manner, framing his review in the following terms: “The day of the first moonwalk, my father’s college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they’ll send a poet, and we’ll find out what it’s really like.’” Which is, at best, a questionable statement: personally, should I wish to know what the moon was really like, I would be more inclined to send a geologist or a photographer, as a poet can rarely be trusted to truthfully describe the colour of the shirt on his own back. Moreover, Brouwer’s critical judgements swiftly transform into assertions of the autobiographical verisimilitude of Turner’s output: Brouwer draws attention to the “hurried quality” of much of Turner’s verse, but rather than providing a negative assessment of Here, Bullet’s compositional method, this becomes indicative of the “terrific immediacy” of the poems. Tellingly, the poems are praised above all for being “earnest and proficient”, adjectives which tell us far more about Brouwer’s own preoccupations with truthfulness and ‘accurate’ observation than about the poems themselves.

Imogen Robertson’s reading of Here, Bullet in a 2008 issue of The Wolf is more nuanced than Brouwer’s, but still falls foul of some of the same critical problems. Robertson is correct to assert that, whilst Turner’s work is valuable, at least in part, due to its status as a first-hand account of the war in Iraq, it is not necessarily any more ‘accurate’ in its portrayal of war than contemporary poetry of conflict, such as David Harsent’s Legion, composed at an imaginative distance from events by non-combatants. However, by situating Here, Bullet within the context of a “poetry of witness” – Carolyn Forché’s formulation from her landmark anthology Against Forgetting – Robertson, like Brouwer, suggests that the documentary elements of Turner’s poetry represent its most valuable component. As Robertson suggests, “Reading the collection is somewhat like looking through a book of war photography,” whilst the article closes with the assertion that Here, Bullet is “required reading for anyone who wishes to know about the current war in Iraq and its effects.”

Aaron Baker, in a long and considered piece from 2006, published in Contemporary Poetry Review, proffers one of the most sustained and even-handed responses to Here, Bullet to date. Baker, though his article is not entirely free of the restraints of the critical paradigms he interrogates, writes of the potential for the poetry of first-hand experience to deploy a “cudgel of authority” in its dealings with readers and critics. This seems to me a useful summation of the critical responses to Turner’s writing: whilst Turner’s poems, for the most part, refuse such a claim to culturally privileged authority, the critical idiom in which they are discussed tends to assume that same authority as a given. I would like to move on now to a consideration of a number of the poems in Here, Bullet, to give some indication of the narrative strategies and poetic tropes that Turner employs, and the ways in which his poetry upends the normative critical response it generates.

‘Ferris Wheel’, concerning a search along a river for survivors of a helicopter crash, seems at first glance to reaffirm the critical readings of Here, Bullet as chiefly a factually accurate documentary record by an experientially privileged witness to warfare. “The history books,” the poem asserts, “will get it wrong”: the implication being, of course, that the poet will get it right, or, at least, wrong in a more accurate way. It is not a new sentiment – the erection of a binary opposition between historical (inauthentic) and literary (authentic) representations of combat is central to the New Journalistic aesthetics of Michael Herr and Norman Mailer, in Dispatches and The Armies of the Night, respectively – but the images Turner deploys to make his case for poetry are very much his own:

There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above [...]

This is not a belligerent assertion of the soldier-poet’s elevated cultural position, his right to speak: it is a great deal quieter than that, presenting instead a strange, even surrealist portrait of the landscape which is more generally indicative of Turner’s eye for the incongruous detail, deployed throughout Here, Bullet.

If ‘Ferris Wheel’ is the closest Turner gets to beating us over the head with the “cudgel of authority”, then ‘Night in Blue’ represents a refutation of those same authorial claims. ‘Night in Blue’ is, I would contend, a key to understanding Here, Bullet. The poem is characterised by a startling degree of uncertainty on the part of the speaker as to the value of his experiences of combat, and this uncertainty is delineated through a series of binary oppositions. “I have no words to speak of war,” writes Turner,

I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend’s body
when they carried him home.

These, according to the schema of the poem, are ‘authentic’ moments of combat, whereas the speaker can only claim access to more conventionally ‘poetic’ memories and images:

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.

Traditionally, war has been seen as an initiation into manhood, something that the speaker reiterates in a series of rhetorical questions: “Has this year made me a better lover? / Will I understand something of hardship, / of loss . . . ?” Yet war – or rather, active combat – might also be characterised in terms of an alternative initiation: into authentic subjectivity. The speaker’s own assessment of his achievements in combat seems to suggest that neither of these initiations – into masculinity or authenticity – has been undertaken successfully.

If the subjectivity of the speaker seems uncertain in ‘Night in Blue’, this can be seen to become exacerbated when we consider one of the recurring poetic methods in the collection: the absence or erasure of the lyric ‘I’. This is often remarked upon in the reviews and critical responses cited previously, but has usually been read in terms of the author or speaker’s detachment from events: the ‘I’ recedes so that the speaker can reduce himself to the status of an observer, like Isherwood in the opening chapter of Goodbye to Berlin: “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” This is certainly a component of Turner’s authorial strategy, but I would contend that the removal of the lyric ‘I’ allows Turner freedom to play covertly with masks, narratives, and fictional constructs: to evade, that is, an overtly singular subjectivity. In ‘2000 lbs.’, for example, singular consciousness is exploded, much like the blast the poem describes, and what results is a series of micro-narratives, in which Turner engages with the thoughts and actions of a number of figures, both Iraqi civilians and American soldiers, including a portrait of the suicide bomber who triggers the explosion: “he is everywhere, he is of all things, / his touch is the air taken in, the blast / and the wave, the electricity of shock [...].” Turner’s portrayal of the ‘obliterated’ martyr as almost omniscient takes on an ironic component, given the speaker’s own suggested omniscience throughout this poem. Turner’s status as a privileged witness to events might well have played a part in the close observation of particular incongruous images – such as the American officer blowing bubbles “out the Humvee window [...] / filling the air behind him with floating spheres / like the oxygen trails of deep ocean divers” – but any easy identification between the author and the work in this instant is rendered problematic due to the strategies Turner employs.

The use of narrative as a means of disrupting individuated consciousness recurs in a series of poems entitled ‘Dreams from the Malaria Pills’. There are three of these poems in total, one subtitled ‘Barefoot’, one subtitled ‘Bosch’ and one subtitled ‘Turner’. In the last of these, Turner implements possibly his most radical departure from an expected autobiographical aesthetic, presenting an inner landscape wholly in the third person (accepting, of course, that there is a correlation between author and subject to be inferred), and is indicative of a tendency towards an almost visionary or surrealist vision in Turner’s work:

This time it’s beautiful.
He’s in the kelp beds somewhere
off the California coast, floating
where green leaves touch the sun,
as if he’s disentangled
from thought itself, up from the depths
to release him to the crests and shallows
drifting wave by wave back to shore.

The poet’s raw material – language – is also central to Here, Bullet’s engagement with the question of experiential authenticity. The collection opens with ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’, which posits a rhetoric of inclusion and exclusion as it pertains to Arabic, describing “a language made of blood. / It is made of sand, and time. / To be spoken, it must be earned.” Upon an initial reading, ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’ seems to be reinforcing the culturally privileged position of the soldier-poet as authentic witness to historical events: the speaker, it would seem, has undergone some kind of initiation rite that means he has ‘earned’ the right to speak. Yet Turner has himself, in an interview with The Wolf magazine, challenged the reading of ‘A Soldier’s Arabic’ solely in terms of an appeal to “the authority of experience”, urging “artists to write about the war”, regardless of whether they have served in the military or not: “One does not need to stand in the streets of Mosul,” attests Turner, “to engage the streets of Mosul in art.”

Elsewhere in Here, Bullet, language is portrayed in decidedly slippery, even dangerous terms, representative of forces beyond even the initiated soldier-poet’s control. In ‘Dreams of the Malaria Pills (Barefoot)’, for example, the poem’s epigraph – “Tamaghis ba’dan yaswadda waghadas nawfana ghadis” – is glossed by Turner as an incantatory phrase (possibly in Aramaic) to be spoken before falling asleep, which will “cause the dream vision to be about the things one desires”; yet in the context of the poem, the phrase becomes bitterly ironic when the dream consists of such undesirable images as these:

He’s coughing up shrapnel, jagged and rough [...]

He’s questioning why blood is needed, and so much,
why he’s wheeled through his hometown streets
on a gurney draped in camouflaged sheets.

Ibn Khaldun takes each piece of metal from him:
These are to be made into daggers,
precious gifts, the souvenirs of death.

Turner’s use of this epigraph suggests the capacity of language to go beyond its original meaning and function, escaping the speaker and the author to generate its own meanings and realities. In the context of a poetry consistently praised for its accuracy and truthfulness, such an engagement with language is, potentially, highly provocative and disruptive.

The tumbling imagistic rhetoric of ‘9-Line Medevac’, meanwhile, cannot disguise the essential linguistic futility underpinning it:

I can name this spot, but cannot make it real, cannot give it the crackling stress of the air here, how heavy and charged it is, or the smell of trashfires drifting noxious and sweet, or the position of the gibbous moon overhead [...]

Even death itself is characterised in linguistic terms in the collection’s title poem, in which the speaker implores the titular bullet to “complete the word / you bring hissing through the air” by entering his body.

Those poems published in the interim between Here, Bullet and Turner’s sophomore collection, Phantom Noise, suggest an expansion of the traditional parameters of war poetry – that is to say, poetry of front-line combat – with Turner returning to the States to investigate the aftermath of conflict upon veterans and civilians alike. In doing so, Turner is embarking upon an exploration of territory mapped out already by a number of his predecessors, including Yusef Komunyakaa, W D Ehrhart, John Balaban and Bruce Weigl. A certain degree of self-consciousness, too, can be detected in certain of the new pieces, though this is nothing unusual in follow-ups to debuts which have received as much attention as Turner’s has. Phantom Noise only appeared at the beginning of April, so it remains to be seen whether it will generate the same flurry of interest as Here, Bullet (which also means, sadly, that I have been unable to incorporate a discussion of its contents into this piece),[1] but one hopes that the facts of Turner’s biography will not prove such a draw for reviewers and critics second time around, and that a more nuanced picture of his achievements – and shortcomings – as a poet will emerge from the critical fog.


[1] Phantom Noise still hasn't arrived.  As soon as it does, the sequel to this article will wing its way with alarming inexorability towards these virtual pages.  You lucky people. 


Emily Hasler said...

Really interesting post, Simon. Are you going to be in the London/Kent area at all to promote the new book?
E xx

The Editors said...

Hi Emily,

Does that mean you've returned from Grasmere? No plans in the immediate future to give any readings in Central or Greater London, but I'm not averse to the idea, by any means. Any literature promoters reading this, my minimum fee is a potato pie and a butt of sack.


The Editors said...

Though Simon has also been known to read for a piebald spud and a sack of butts.


(Sorry, couldn't help it.)