“I embrace the frightful and the beautiful.”–Al-Bayati
Great war poetry has a profound tension between two fundamental sets of drives; the creative and empathetic drives of poetry and the destructive and divisive drives of war; it has a parallelism with the beauty and lyricism of the language and poetic structure existing with but never becoming one with the gore and horror of being in a WWI trench, for example. As the romanticizing of war faded in Western culture, so did this tension and more often than not when poetry dealt with war, it only condemned war. But war is not totally composed of atrocity, and to understand war and eventually eradicate it, means grappling with the complex effects of strife on human relationships and emotions and poetry has the conceptual flexibility needed to contain all those concepts and contradictions.
Furthermore, the experience of American war has changed and Brian Turner, who served in Iraq, is our first poetic chronicler of the new American war. His previous book, Here, Bullet, (one of the finest collections in recent memory) dealt exclusively with his time in Iraq. Phantom Noise is a broader examination of the new American war. Soldiers now spend much more time identifying enemies than fighting enemies, they are on patrol through marketplaces more than they are on point in combat, and their mistakes lead to the deaths of innocents instead of themselves and their comrades. Death is still the primary experience but American soldiers have a new relationship with it. Contemporary war, in America at least, is now defined as much by coming home as it is by shipping out.
In Phantom Noise, Turner creates a technical definition of the “embrace” in his epigraph included above, by showing the impossible, yet constant, juxtaposition of “frightful” memories of war with “beautiful” experiences of human existence. As in war poetry in general, the two are present but parallel. In “The Inventory From a Year Lived Sleeping with Bullets;” Turner twists that parallelism, “The conceptual and the physical given parallel structure,” to create another pair constantly present without intersecting. Phantom Noise is both the first collection of poetry dealing with the soldier returning from Iraq to a life constantly between the parallel forces of war and domesticity, and Turner’s creation of an embrace that encloses them both.
The embrace begins with the brilliant “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.” This poem is the most direct exploration of those impossible juxtapositions as “a 50 pound box of double-headed nails” turns into “…firing pins/ from M-4s and M-16s,” “Wounded Iraqis with IVs/ sit propped against boxes as 92 sample Paradiso fans,” and “Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers.” Though the images share physical space with the home improvement center, their concepts never mix; the ideas of a home improvement center and a war are kept separate. One never becomes a metaphor for the other. In poem after poem, Turner sets the memories that give him nightmares against the present that gives him comfort.
Along with poems of war and poems of returning from war, Turner bravely includes poems without the specter and spectacle of war. With the assertive visuality of short art films, Turner shows a series of formative moments; a young boy caught asleep next to the daughter of his baby sitter in “Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon,” “…the old man strangling the dishes,” and “…a boy of four with a pot of tea/ for an old woman buried in afghans, lit by Chinese lanterns,” in “Lucky Money,” and the closing image of “The Whale;” “and I remember everyone smiling/ afterward, laughing, each of us amazed/ the day a god was blown to pieces on the beach/ and we walked away from it, unscathed.” Though these poems are naturally overshadowed by the poems of war, they are all excellent works that reward scrutiny.
The politics in this collection is subtle, culminating in “Al-A’Imma Bridge;” a mini-epic of war death in Iraq. It is a scene of Iraqis falling off a bridge while, “years unravel like filaments of straw.” Iraqis die from the efforts of “Alexander the Great,” “F-16s,” “the German Luftwaffe,” and others. Turner’s collection is filled with dead Iraqis; poem after poem in a catalog of slain enemies. But there is nothing victorious in this catalog. Turner sees not thousands of war deaths, but one war death shared by all, American and Iraqi, soldier and civilian, endlessly iterated. He writes, “Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world/ dying anew,” and concludes with resignation, “..give daisies and hyacinths/ to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips/ unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers/ that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.” The collection’s political statement is one of empathy; a declaration that death, regardless of nationality, ethnicity belief, or anything else, is always death.
In “Phantom Noise,” Turner comes the closest in anything I’ve ever read to transferring an experience of the soldier to the civilian; to telling us in a way we can meaningful empathize with, what it feels like to be a soldier coming home. The “Noise” is a “ringing” created by “bullet-borne language ringing,” “shell-fall and static,” “brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing,” and other sounds. In a brilliant display of sophisticated poetics, Turner recreates that “ringing” in the ears of the reader; a “ringing” that reappears whenever the poem is read or remembered. The effect is powerful enough that I can almost see “Sgt. Rampley walk[ing] through–/ carrying someone’s blown-off arm cradled like an infant,” at my local hardware store parallel to the grills and gardening supplies and enclosed by Brian Turner’s embrace.