October 8, 2007
Two Poets of Interest

John R. Guthrie

Brian Turner's Iraq Experience as Expressed in Here Bullet

Brian turner’s poetry collection in Here Bullet contains an intensity of imagery that gives strength and verity. Among this reviewer’s favorites is the following, which serves as a metaphor for the entire tragedy that followed the American invasion:   

The Baghdad Zoo

Is the world safer? No. It’s not safer in Iraq.
Hans Blix

An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man
on a streetcorner, dragging him down an alley
as shocked onlookers cried for it to stop.

There were tanks rolling their heavy tracks
past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil.
One gunner watched a lion chase down a horse.

Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes
looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks
too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century.

Dalmatian pelicans and marbled teals
flew over, frightened by the rotorwash
of blackhawk helicopters touching down.

One baboon even escaped from the city limits.
It was found wandering in the desert, confused
by the wind and the sand of the barchan dunes.

As poet, Brian Turner’s strength is greatest when he provides vivid imagery, as in the above as opposed to delving into the abstract:

Rockets often fall,
In the night sky of the skull,
Down long avenues of the brain myelin sheathing over synapses
And the rough structures of thought

(Katyusha rockets, page 32)

Turner served seven years in the U.S. Army, including deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division, and a year spent as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team of the 2nd Infantry Division in Iraq. He begins after a prefatory poem, "This is a language made of blood. It is made of sand, and time. To be spoken, it must be earned."

His poems are titled so that the contents are described quite directly. "Hwy 1," which is the infamous “Highway of Death", "Body Bags," and "Dreams from the Malaria Pills," provide telling examples. Brian Turner earned an M.F.A. from the University of Oregon prior to his enlistment in the army.

War has often been the topic of poetry from Iliad to Doug Anderson’s The Moon Reflected Fire re the American debacle in Vietnam. Here Bullet is a valuable addition to that body of work.

On Meghan O’Rourke’s Halflife

Meghan O'Rourke: Her work has been described as “A spikey, cross currented style of poetry.” My first exposure to her work was “Descent” and “Epitaph for Mother and Child” on the Poetry Daily site.

I then purchased a copy of her recent volume Halflife. With its insomniacal urban narrators, and their earthy reality and gritty poignancy, the works in Halflife constitute writing that is both compelling and fiercely intelligent. “Descent” is but one example. 

I was born a bastard in an amphetamine spree,
lit through with a mother's quickenings,
burrowing into her, afraid she would not have me,
and she would not have me.
I dropped out down below the knees
of a rickrack halterdress,
sheeted, tented knees, water breaking, linoleum peeling,
and no one there to see but me,
I woke on the floor as if meant to
put her back together, to try to hold on to her
like a crate to a river, as if I'd been shipped down
to stand straight while in the misgiving
she said I had a dream of thirty-six sticks
floating down a river and a dog who couldn't swim
and I could not swim, I slipped from her grip
in a room where two orange cats stared
like tidy strangers at a world of larger strangeness,
and I had no name, I was there at her breast
and I thought I could see her, the swag of her hair, the jaw,
the fearing, but I barely saw, I went sliding down the river
from a house in which it was sweet to sleep,
and the cool of the sheets
was never cool enough, and the imprint of the bedded bodies
diving, at once, took the shape of two geese.

Imagery that burns itself upon one’s consciousness is characteristic of other works in this series: “I’m a princess with a hole in my heart/--all the plastic deer bend away from me--/and  you’ve got a melancholic bent./Where did you get the idea to live in a cathedral….”

“Epitaph for Mother and Child,” below, is illustrative of why Billy Collins would refer to Halflife as "Impressive. A box full of surprises and intense delights."

Epitaph for Mother and Child

I slept and dreamt and slept and dreamt—
I woke, the radiators banged and flaked.
I slept and dreamt, gnawing handkerchiefs
that turned out to be sheets—
my mother had tangled hair
dark and gray as an oak;
she was growing old. In the car
I slept and dreamt, then woke: the shocks were bad.
I woke: I stayed like that, before anything broke,
before she swerved off the shoulder of Route 9,
her hair like cotton in my mouth.
The length of her arm against my arm,
my leg along her leg,
shoulder to shoulder, the car's steel frame made a sound
like very young, very hungry
birds, her flesh drew away
and then pressed on me, as if we slept again together.
In a ditch along which a wire post fence ran,
keeping goldenrod from grass, keeping us
from the soybean field, we woke.
Along the post against which she'd fallen
she ran her fingers restlessly.
Lying next to her, I looked and saw
the letters of my name scratched in the hand of a child—
as if we had been here, years ago,
on an afternoon I do not remember, when
the air smelled of November smoke.
I took my hand like a handkerchief
and wiped her face. I slept, and woke.
The radiator banged, the clock was wet
with midnight sweat.

Meghan O’Rourke is the poet is the culture editor for the online publication Slate as well as being the poetry editor for the Paris Review.

Here Bullet
by Brian Turner
Soft Cover, 71 Pages
Alice James Books, 2005.
ISBN 1882295552

by Meghan O’Rourke
Hardcover, 96 Pages
W.W. Norton & Co., 2007
ISBN 9780393064759


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