This essay was in response to Brian Turner’s chapbook, Here, Bullet. I encourage everyone to go over their own writing and resist the urge to edit. Enjoy.
Dr. Gailmarie Pahmeier
March 25, 2009
Response: Here, Bullet by Brian Turner
War is ugly. War is pain. War covers you in dirt and ancient history, forever grasping for meaning in the tornado of gunfire. War blurs lines that used to be sharply divided when men used chain mail and broad swords. This what I learned about from authors like Assia Djebar, recounting hundreds of years of French-Algerian fighting, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, recounting the cultural war against women. Both authors write from the body – the sweat of each soldier, the shame of each captive. Their war has grave and complicated consequences. There are no sides in the war, just consequences.
In Brian Turner’s “Here, Bullet,” the same is true. Writing carefully about what he sees through his scope and under eucalyptus trees, Turner takes great pains to strike a neutral but honest tone. People are shooting and bombing him, shooting themselves and he has them in his sights.
In his poem, Eulogy, Turner recounts a fellow soldier committing suicide on a bright, cloudless day. He uses words that make us sympathize with PFC Miller, like “Private Miller has found what low hush there is down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.” It’s an interesting angle for a deed most military men find incredibly selfish. It is considered reckless abandonment, offing yourself. Suicides rarely ever get honorable funerals. And those that attempt it receive dishonorable discharge. It’s interesting that Turner would choose to eulogize someone the army considers an abandoner.
Looking at Turner’s rank and division, it’s hard to imagine a man who would sit down and write beautiful poetry about anything. His identity in the army and as an MFA are in conflict. Infantrymen are, and I mean this academically, hardcore. They train hard and live hard. They are on the front lines. Which is what troubles me about a lot of Turner’s poetry.
Save for one poem where he has a man in his sight, Turner never really takes ownership of his gun. He places it others’ hands. “Here, Bullet” is about being wounded by war. But as an infantryman, he has probably wounded plenty. But “Here, Bullet” is extremely passive.
“Eulogy” is also passive. Another soldier is taking ownership if his weapon and pulls the trigger. Throughout Turner’s narrative, others are being shot, but by whom? Not by Turner, apparently.
This mystery about who is aiming what and shooting what at whom could reflect the ambiguities of war – right and wrong, good and evil. Turner does take care not to place any particular blame on who sent him to Iraq, which I appreciate. But, at the same time, he doesn’t take responsibility for joining a service and continuing in a division that deals in killing other people. It was clear Turner hadn’t done this for very long and truly had a choice to join, unlike so many of our enlisted men. He had a choice to be an officer, but chose to be enlisted. He could have chosen his branch, but went with the bloodiest of them all.
Turner has a voice that is precise. It’s in stark contrast the heaviness and complexities of war. Turner shines a very clear light on what’s going on, but leaves too many ambiguities for it to be the shining light of truth.