‘Dulce et decorum est’

There’s something about being asked to surrender one’s life for the sake of national honor—the ultimate lie, “The old Lie” described in Wilfred Owen’s famed poem of the first World War, “Dulce et decorum est”—that leads the warrior poet, from Owen and his compatriot Siegfried Sassoon to the Vietnam War’s Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl, and now to Iraq’s poet-veteran Brian Turner to tell the truth.

Turner, of Fresno, spent a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, starting in November 2003. His other military experience includes a seven-year stint on active duty in the U.S. Army, with a deployment with the 10th Mountain Division in Bosnia-Herzegovina; his academic credentials include a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Oregon. But all it takes is to read a few lines from any of the poems in his new book, Here, Bullet, to know that Turner is the real deal.

Winner of the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, Here, Bullet chronicles Turner’s time in Iraq, though it is not strictly made up of poems about combat. Instead, Turner looks at the land, its people and its history, but always with his soldier’s eye. He disproves the myth of the ignorant brute armed with automatic weapons—as if any of us truly believed that true of our troops—in poems such as “Gilgamesh, in Fossil Relief.” Beginning with an account of a seventh-century poet carving his own version of the great epic into stone, Turner reminds us:

        It is an old story now. It was an old story then,
        full of gods and beasts and the inevitable
        point of no return each age must learn.

Then he turns to now, and the lessons of our age, as we attempt, however futilely, to remake the world:

        History is a cloudy mirror made of dirt
        and bone and ruin. And love? Loss?
        These are the questions we must answer
        by war and famine and pestilence, and again
        by touch and kiss, because each age must learn
        This is the path of the sun’s journey by night.

Turner’s poems are, as this small excerpt indicates, thoughtful, steeped in both the dry facts and the still-reeking guts of history, and as current as the nightly news. Critics have commented on the immediacy of the poems, in particular the way that so many of them sound as if they were scribbled in moments stolen from the day’s patrols.

At the center of the book, the poem “2000 lbs.” is, in its 100 lines, the horrific center of the Iraq war. It gives, in 360-degree vision and full detail, the scene of an IED bombing, from the bomber’s “fist, white-knuckled / and tight, glossy with sweat” to the daydreaming of an Iraqi taxi driver. Then, the explosion: the National Guard sergeant, who sees the carnage in complete silence because his eardrums have ruptured; the destroyed bridal shop; the grandmother keening over the body of her dead grandson; the lieutenant holding up his arms, sans hands; and the vaporized bomber himself, “who may have invoked the Prophet’s name, / or not—he is obliterated at the epicenter, / he is everywhere, he is of all things.”

Brian Turner has given us the first real look at what the war means, for that is the business of poetry. It is respectful, beautiful and honest—all that we can ask of poetry and all that we will never get from war.