Proximity, Reality, and Poetry in Brian Turner's Phantom Noise
by Michael Broek
from American Poetry Review, September / October 2011
It might be somewhat embarrassing to suggest that I could write about Brian Turner's Phantom Noise (Alice James, 2010), not being a veteran myself, and this book and his previous, Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005), are certainly the chronicles of a veteran, with all of the horrors and mysteries that implies, but then this is no more potentially embarrassing than the thesis suggested by the books—namely that the writer can go to war, an anthology of Iraqi poets in his pocket, and return with a work of art, even before that war has come to its conclusive "end." It's a notion highly problematic from the outset, and it presents a set of unique problems for the reader—the potential simulacrum of the "embedded poet" (Turner's phrase), whereby the poet's proximity in space and time to the events that triggered these poems renders them somehow coexistent with or even co-creative of the war itself. Imagine trying to write about a car crash from the driver's point of view while the car is still on fire.
Here, Bullet was largely written, according to the author, while he was still in the war zone, and yet the book does not seem dashed off, displaying rather a heightened sense of itself as poetry interested in language and the clash of cultures. Epigraphs from the Qur'an, titles in Arabic, poems about rendering unreal experiences into language that "sounds true" all point to the craft of poetry, the craft of the MFA. These poems are full of details, observations, and first reactions. These are poems of the outsider, the invader, shocked by a new land, a new language, and new experience. In a sense, Here, Bullet is ironically a provocative study in post-colonialism and its aftermath, multiculturalism. These are bloody poems, to be sure, but where they succeed they do so because they discover something about the "Other," not necessarily about the speaker.
Of course, we write in the immediate moment all of the time. One might as well ask the poet to refrain from writing poems about death until actually being dead: "And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier," but really, how was Whitman to know? So Turner can perhaps be forgiven for writing these poems with almost no space intervening between the war and the books. War is just such a catastrophic event—or rather a series of complex catastrophic events—that we expect anyone who has experienced it to require the space of years in order to be able to render anything resembling "truth." If war is a kind of horrific birth, Randall Jarrell's "wet fur" hunched in the belly, then one doesn't expect the newly birthed to speak, at least not in any meaningful way.
Phantom Noise, however, reflects a sense of poetic maturation. Its prologue poem, "VA Hospital Confessional," begins to explore the personal nature of the war for Turner: "Sometimes late at night / I uncover rifles and bullets within me." These are poems of return, repatriation, and intimate relationships. Many are set in the United States, in the poet's childhood, or along the poet's native West Coast, and they commingle with poems set in Kuwait and Mosul. Distance may be important. Indeed our contemporary and arguably most successful American poets of war, Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl, both waited years to turn their Vietnam experiences into art—14 years and 8 years respectively—neither holding even a Bachelor's degree when they went to Vietnam. This is the model we have come to expect, though other 20th-century poets of war, such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (who did not even survive the war), composed while still in the midst of their experiences. Similarly, Jarrell, who entered his war in 1942, composed a book of war poems that was published while he was still in the Army in 1945. Much more recently, Semezdin Mehmedinovic's illuminating Sarajevo Blues (City Lights, 1998), was written and originally published during the war in the former Yugoslavia while the author was still literally under siege in Sarajevo.
So the need for distance may seem like a red herring, since there are plenty of successful models of poets writing and publishing in the midst of war. And yet, in the 21st century, given the ever-increasing number of ways in which we mask ourselves, the prevalence of electronic media that rides the surface of the "real" like a wave about to crash onshore, presenting whatever simulation is most salable, then the nature of the "truth" of books such as Turner's should be interrogated. Baudrillard's critique of the representations and realities of the first Gulf War are even more apropos of Iraq today, given the false "intelligence" used to justify its launch. As the risk of being duped into "feeling" rises, then so must our caution, if we are interested in the authentic.
Phantom Noise takes this into account. There is still the sense of craft at work here—the sense of multiculturalism, the play of languages—but there is also a more deeply held sense of the hyperreal present, as opposed to a flirtation with the romantic and romanticized language of classical Arabian poetry:
Each dead Iraqi walks amazed
by Tiffany posts and Bavarian pole lights.
Motion-activated incandescents switch on
as they pass by, reverent sentinels of light,
Fleur De Lis and Luminaire Mural Extérieur
welcoming them to Lowe's Home Improvement Center,
aisle number 7, where I stand in mute shock,
someone's arm cradled in my own.
(from "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center")
Here, the contrasting claims of violence, consumerism, and intimacy are placed against each other so that what arises is a sense of bewilderment and awe. In Phantom Noise, the speaker recognizes the degree to which language is co-creative of reality,
a recognition in the centers of the brain
where language composes the syntax
of pain, the lung's breath given a transformative speech,
what the doctors call a necessary intelligence.
(from "Chinese Ink Brush Painting")
and as such, these poems begin to interrogate the speaker's entanglement in acts that he had heretofore largely only recorded.
Moving from childhood outrages ("The Whale") to the seduction of technology ("Viking I") and the strange ritual violences of fatherhood ("Homemade Napalm"), these poems locate the speaker in an authentic American landscape: the bar where the speaker's mother worked and he drank "pale-green Grasshoppers" ("Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon"), or the damp kitchen of "Willie Lum's Hong Kong Restaurant" ("Lucky Money").
Yet these poems also open out into the historical, the mythological and the ironic, as in the breathless "Al-A'Imma Bridge," which imagines what falls into the water during a catastrophic stampede of religious pilgrims across the Tigris:
whiskey and vodka, pirated Eastern European porn videos
the kids hawk to soldiers—the freaky freaky they call it,
and foil-wrapped packages of heroin, heroin
thrown to the river;
the year 1956 slides under, along with '49 and '31 and '17.
[ ... ] the snowfall in Mosul, the photographs a family took
of children rolling snowballs, throwing them
before licking the pink cold from their fingertips;
The children in this poem now have a sense of immediacy because they are related to the speaker's own childhood, his sense of wonder gone awry, just as in "White Phosphorous," the catfish nailed to a tree reflects the violences that are everywhere, even in "that low vowel of pain / stretching out over the Arkansas River."
The genre of "war poetry" is a special genre, since it involves the speaker as both actor and acted upon, implicating poetry in a much more directly public and political context than most poetry assumes. Turner was 30 when he joined the Army and had already earned an MFA from the University of Oregon, not 18 and largely uneducated like Komunyakaa and Weigl. Turner's choice to enlist (recognizing that the "choice" to enlist for many is really a factor of economics and opportunity) and to remain in the Army during the Iraq War, unlike poets such as Fred Marchant (a soldier who became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War), renders Turner's actions eminently political.
And the recent history of federally sponsored "creative writing" in response to the war compounds the issue, the problematic "Operation Homecoming," which Komunyakaa cautioned against in a 2004 letter to Poetry. More to the point, in From the Fishhouse, Turner refers to himself as an "embedded poet," which immediately raises questions of proximity and inflection, though Turner qualifies this to suggest that we are all "embedded" in our own lives.
Yet in Phantom Noise, there is the decoding of the speaker's paradoxical attraction to the war, as in ".22-Caliber"—a conflation of his gunsmith father, "[m]agazine racks carry[ing] Guns & Ammo, Penthouse, Hustler, Shooting Times & Country Magazine," and childhood target practice: "I am learning how to connect / with the small dark silence / carried within the center of all things."
Is it unfair to view Turner's work through the lens of the political? The poet writes in "The Discothèque": "It was me, Sgt. Turner, / who cracked the night open with explosives / and wrote it all down, word by word." Speaking in response to the uproar over Laura Bush's invitation to attend a symposium on "American Voices" in the months before the invasion of Iraq, the poet Li-Young Lee said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, "The way I understand poetry, all poems are anti-war poems" insofar "as the underlying order of a poem, regardless of its subject, proposes universal harmony." Similarly, the poet Philip Levine, in a 2003 interview on NPR, said, "It's almost impossible not to write a poem that is political if you are a person who loves." In that year, Levine and hundreds of other poets participated in the Poets Against War project organized by Copper Canyon Press founder Sam Hamill, just as Turner was presumably getting ready to "ship out," pad and pen in hand. Everything about this time period is political—the choice to enlist, the choice to protest, the choice to do or say nothing.
Of course, however, Turner is not really in literary left field. He follows in the footsteps of Hemingway, though in fiction there is at least the appearance of narrative distance. Turner's speakers do not pretend to distance themselves from Turner the poet. And Jarrell could be said to have had something like the training an MFA provides—a Master's degree from Kenyon and a thesis on A. E. Housman, a friendship with Robert Lowell, and a book of poems published the same year he entered the war. Jarrell was an academic and poet before he became a soldier. But then again, whereas it would have been difficult for Jarrell to avoid his war, unless, like William Stafford, he chose the path of a conscientious objector, it is certainly feasible that Turner could have avoided service in the Iraq War. The danger here that I am pointing to is appropriation. If one can avoid a great tragedy and chooses not to, then to what degree is our empathy curtailed? Do we trust the poet? If Lee and Levine are correct (and I think they are), then one does not need a war in order to be a war poet.
Phantom Noise is a more affecting book than Here, Bullet because it hews more closely to what Lee and Levine established as the anti-war, political poem—the poem concerned with underlying harmony, the poem concerned with love. "Despair, when not the response to absolute physical and moral defeat, is, like war, the failure of imagination," writes Adrienne Rich in What Is Found There. Insofar as these poems are concerned with the whole of the poet's life and with his relationships that precede and follow the war, then Phantom Noise aspires to an aesthetic sensibility and an imagination that is at times missing from the "embedded" poems of Here, Bullet. In the pair of poems "Jundee Ameriki" and "American Internal," the speaker has the debris of war removed from his body at the VA hospital in the former, while he unearths the bodies of executed Iraqis in the latter. The metaphor of excavation is clear in both, and it is because the poet situates himself in both worlds that he earns the imprimatur of the authentic.
About the Author
Michael Broek's chapbook, The Logic of Yoo, is forthcoming from Beloit Poetry Journal this fall. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in APR, Literary Imagination, Pif, MiPoesias, Fourteen Hills, The Cimarron Review, The Sycamore Review, Parthenon West, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a New Jersey Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry and a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He is also the Editor of Trans-Portal (www.transtudies.org) and holds a Ph.D. in Literature from the University of Essex in the UK and an M.F.A. in Poetry from Goddard College.
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon