A Witness to Life

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No bullet found Brian Turner in Iraq, but his book of poems hit the mark as this year’s Orientation read.

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By John Syme

Here, Bullet

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 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 wrote the poem “Here, Bullet” in about 15 minutes in February 2004 in Iraq, as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division.

“I was listening to Queens of the Stone Age to block out the sound outside on a base in Mosul,” Turner told a Davidson audience during a three-day visit to campus in September. “I folded the poem up, put it in a Ziploc bag, and carried it in my chest pocket the rest of the time that I was in country. It seemed sort of like a taunt, and a recognition that loudness is really in a lot of ways driven by fear—and a recognition that I don’t actually want to know that bullet, or meet it.”

No bullet found Turner in Iraq in 2003–04. Rather, the poem gave its name to his first volume of poetry, published in 2005 by Alice James Books. The book won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award and went on to be named a New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection for 2007 and win the 2007 Poets Prize, among others. Here, Bullet was chosen as the Orientation discussion book for Davidson’s Class of 2014, as well as the inaugural selection featured in the college’s new online book club.

During his visit, Turner met with students in small groups.

“There’s something about the aggregateof the questions they asked that gave me a sense of the tenor of intellectual rigor that is here. A lot of them were freshmen, and others, too. Professors have to come with their A-game!” said Turner.

The soldier’s-eye poetry that Turner brought to campus tells of bullets that did end lives, roadside bombs in the land of Gilgamesh, love made and ruined by war, cultures clashing in the “cradle of civilization,” the dreams and nightmares of war Dream imagery figures prominently in Turner’s poetry.

“Dreams are an inroads into a more imaginative landscape than the literal one that I was dealing with all the time,” Turner said in an interview in the parlor of Carnegie Guest House. “For example, if one of us here were to look out a window and try to memorize the details of what we see, almost like a painting, and then close our eyes, if we concentrate maybe we can see it very clearly. Which is real? Where is the landscape? Is it in our heads or is it outside? Or is it both?”

Turner stressed that in Iraq, he was a soldier first, last, and always. He is scrupulous, even wary, about presenting the smallest detail of his experience, out of a clear and abiding respect for those who lived through it, and in some cases died because of it, alongside him. He said he did not speak about his writing while he was there, lest it detract in any way from the exigencies of the moment.

But he wrote.

“Poems were written as soon as we were back in the wire,” he said, referring to the base, “and I could think about what had happened outside the wire.” Sometimes he only had time to scratch notes into a journal.

“The journal was a place where I could sort of witness my own life. Especially in the beginning, the pace of our missions was very fast, very little sleep, it was kind of a blur and I knew it was a blur, so even when we’d have who-knows-how-much time to sleep, maybe an hour or something, I’d try to take five or 10 minutes and write some notes on what had happened. I’m glad I did. It’s difficult now to get the timing right, because I have some things mixed up in my head.”

Fellow veterans have told him he gets it right. For Turner, that matters most.

Sadiq

It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.

—Sa’di

It should make you shake and sweat, nightmare you, strand you in a desert of irrevocable desolation, the consequences seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline feeds the muscle its courage, no matter what god shines down on you, no matter what crackling pain and anger you carry in your fists, my friend, it should break your heart to kill.

Here, Bullet

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