Modern Warfare Poetry
Unless this is your first time reading Monday Poetry Corner, you will be familiar with Captain Keith Douglas.
He was a war hero, I wrote; of the old Errol Flynn stock. He famously escaped from hospital and stole a truck to get back to the front; he was that kind of guy.
And when we look back at the first or second world war, it is unavoidably through a filter of countless books, films, songs, poems, propaganda posters, and whatnot; an enormous amount of cultural bric-a-brac that we just can’t get away from. And it will give the stories of the Great Wars a kind of romantic shimmer. The “good old Wars”.
Brian Turner wasn’t supposed to be a soldier, he was supposed to be a teacher. But because of base poverty he found himself in the Army, then later in Bosnia, and then after that in Iraq. Unlike Douglas, Turner did live to see the other side of War, and what he saw when he got back home was that the War wouldn’t let go of him. He didn’t quite know who he was anymore.
Turner wrote poetry in Iraq, but he was careful not to let anyone else know. He didn’t want them to think he was weak in some way. I find it hard to respond to that in some meaningful way, except saying it happened.
This is the first poem by Turner I read:
There is this ringing hum this
bullet-borne language ringing
shell-fall and static this late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet ringing
hiss and steam this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks broken
bodies ringing in steel humming these
voices of dust these years ringing
rifles in Babylon rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy their limbs gone missing their
static-borne television their ringing
this eardrum this rifled symphonic this
ringing of midnight in gunpowder and oil this
brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone this ringing
hum this ringing hum this
– Brian Turner
That wasn’t about storming the beaches of Normandy, it’s about things that happened maybe a little more than fifteen years ago.
Turner, by his own slightly shameful admission, wanted to be a warrior; go through their rites of passage, and be branded in fire. But he also wanted to be a poet. He studied Iraqi poetry while he was there, wanting to see how the landscape and culture expressed itself, through poems, the people who lived there; who came from there.
He still writes poems about his experiences. He says he tried writing something else, but it just wouldn’t work. Douglas knew he was branded by war, and Turner knows it too. He does the only thing that is possible: trying to tell people about it.
And maybe the very thing that attracts me to tank poetry is the thing Brecht didn’t like about it; the immediacy, the veracity, the will to try and conceive of something unimaginable, and turn it into rhyming words. War poetry is unlike other poetry, I will give him that.
But also; like Turner, I feel the same warrior poet fascination that make people like him and I join armies and fight wars agains our own better judgement.
Turner knew he was a tank poet. He was overseeing his men on the rifle range one day, and wandered off a little ways to get a break. Before him was a tank graveyard; old Iraqi tanks just thrown together in a huge pile with weeds growing among them. The weeds had flowers. So there he was, in his uniform, with the sound of gunfire behind him, looking at flowers growing among dead tanks, and he also saw himself, standing there and doing just that.
That’s when he knew.
The Hurt Locker
Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain
and the bled-out slumping
and all the fucks and goddamns
and Jesus Christs of the wounded.
Nothing left here but the hurt.
Believe it when you see it.
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
deep into someone’s skull.
Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
and fire. Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.
– 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