TS Eliot ’11: Part 2: Brian Turner – Phantom Noise

There’s been a slight gap between reviews which I blame wholeheartedly on reading a few bad collections in succession, and a healthy desire not to louse it up so early with cynical ranting. I’m denying my true nature for you, dammit. I’m like the Bill friggin Compton of poetry critics. So you should already have a fair idea of what I have to say about Brian Turner’s Phantom Noise. Which is handy.

Brief bio: Turner is a former sergeant in the American army and served a year’s tour in Iraq. Authors’ biographies are (usually) distractions at best, stalking horses at worst, but Turner’s being part of the history we have watched from a distance for almost a decade lends his work an immediacy that ignites many of the pieces in his collection.

In a recent SPL podcast Muldoon pointed to the lack of quality work regarding the attack on the World Trade Centre – while an isolated and reasonably glib comment, it does draw attention to poetry’s perceived reticence (not poetry’s of course, but poets’, and perhaps not unadvisedly) to engage directly with political events – look at CA Duffy’s GCSE assault on the expenses scandal. We’ve been on this merry-go-round before, with Muldoon himself and his contemporaries fingered for ‘fiddling while Belfast burned’ (I can’t remember who said it, and I may be paraphrasing) through the worst years of the Troubles. Heaney and Longley found perspective in Homer, while Muldoon arguably summed it up best in his poem “Trifle”, in which the conflict is reduced to the eponymous dessert. When Heaney drew his battered corpses in “Tollund Man” and “Punishment”, the accusation that he was aestheticizing the dead and legitimising cyclical violence was not wholly unfounded – he found the violence at once impossible to turn away from and impossible to render in poetry without some act of restoration.

How does Turner play it differently? For one thing, he is not burdened with trying to speak from both ‘sides’ (maybe ‘both’ should be in inverted commas): when the stampede at Al-A’imma Bridge or the character of Sawara Mohammed (more on him anon) appear, they are from an outsider’s perspective, which is another issue entirely, but we’ve digressed enough as it is.

The collection functions admirably as a coherent work, sustaining a submerged narrative from start to finish: the first two poems, “VA Hospital Confessional” and “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Centre” establish early on the idea that war has followed the soldiers home, an idea that infects even the collection’s closing pieces that propose some relief from violence, some escape into the organic growth and flux of civilian life that is denied to the patient in “VA Hospital”, who relives the same nightmare every time he sleeps. The trauma that denies the writer their capacity for change, and by extension the capacity to make sense of their experience, is placed front and centre. That the collection should begin in a place of recovery is clearly calculated.

(This approach to Turner’s work is probably too clinical. The unflinching sense of humour that surfaces repeatedly is one deeply aware of his own situation, perhaps without the imaginative ebullience of Heller and Vonnegut but no less powerful for it.)

I hope that it’s testament to the relevance and depth of Turner’s poems rather than my own distractability that it’s taken to the sixth paragraph to actually talk about his quality as a lyric poet, a matter often left on the cutting-floor when poetry gets newsy. Let’s get some focus here. The collection is divided into seven portions of five to seven poems with intervening blank or epigrammed pages, a breathing space that’s often literal. Some of the finest pieces, and perhaps this is not surprising, are the poems that act as counterparts to the violence, like the piece that follows “Illumination Rounds” and “Al-A’imma Bridge”: “Helping Her Breathe”. In this, the poem actively calms its surroundings: ‘Subtract each sound. Subtract it all. / Lower the contrailed decibels of fighter jets / below the threshold of human hearing.’ Reading it back, the poem reaches toward the sentimental at its close, ‘in the gore / of birth, vast distances are joined, / the brain’s landscape equal to the stars’, but considering what preceded, who wouldn’t? It feels like the poem is playing by a different set of rules when it comes to dealing its emotional hand, and that it overreaches so rarely is a remarkable act of restraint.

His time in Iraq unfolds in a casual tenor not dissimilar to Joe Sacco’s comic book Palestine, its regular refusal to inflate its events far from the casual, relying on the reader to filter in the absurdity on their own terms. Look at “Zippo”: a serviceman named Stoltman (who appears to have a solid knowledge of the mechanics of combustion) has dunked his arm in diesel, ‘and when he strikes the thumbwheel to flint the wick’s naphtha, / nobody moves, nobody stops him, nobody says a word, / because we all want to see if Stoltman will burn.’ The poem’s other elements are left implicit – what happens next, why he did it, the background that would contextualise his decision – Turner does not guide the reader’s critical hand, and neither passes nor invites moral judgement.

I was going to write something here about “Mohammed Trains for the Beijing Olympics”, but it’s such a compact piece I’d have to quote the whole thing (happily, you can read it here). This is a place to consider the temptation to report (retell what the reader might not know but is freely available) rather than analyse (adding my own stone to the cairn of what a poem already says). Pedestrian stuff, I know, but when a book does something this right it is very tempting to just relay the torch without adding fuel. In this case I’m going to dodge the procession entirely and recommend you read the book. I won’t say that often, so enjoy it.

The second half of the book changes tack somewhat in that it starts to draw some distance from Iraq, temporally – his poems of childhood are not the best in the collection, but give the reader some welcomed (almost relished) context to the poet’s chosen career in the military (is that where he differs from Edward Thomas, Sassoon and Owens? A career soldier rather than a volunteer? What difference in the writing?) – and geographically, with an increased number of poems taking place outside of the central violent loci. Several call into direct question the capability of the lyric poem (and by extension the lyric poet) to make some order out of the violence. Take “Madinat Al-Salam”, which recounts the slaughter of Baghdad by the Mongols: ‘if we could stand / in the House of Wisdom as the invaders // darken the river with texts and scrolls […] what would we have to say of loss? // Maybe we’d begin to question the word / beauty, no matter what form it is recorded in – / cuneiform, papyrus, stone.’

This notion of loss is very appropriately the stuff the collection is founded upon, and Turner has a sharp sense of the literal losses involved. “To My Unnamed Daughter” and “A Lullabye for Bullets” interrogate, respectively, the idea of a prematurely lost life restored and a potentially taken life spared, the reversal and avoidance of the ultimate loss. If the concept seems heavy it is executed with grace, as the bullet flies ‘so close [it] might hear / [its target’s] name, the humming of blood / over bone, the many voices / within, the years to come.’

As I mentioned, the closing poems and their sense of redemption or recovery are deeply compromised. “In The Guggenheim Museum” the poet and his partner walk in silence around the pieces on display, then he recalls having sex in the park the previous night, the ‘skeletons of art […] marvelling at these two lovers […] walking among them – alive.’ I’m drawn to the idea that on his work’s completion Turner is quite simply exhausted with writing, and sees in the exhibits, ‘staring at us from their fossilised stations / in the past’, shades of his own work, memories from which he is trying to awake. If what he says in the final poem (“The One Square Inch Project”) is true, that ‘there is not one thing I might say to the world / which the world does not already know’, then there’s plenty of which it needs reminding, not least that although we might appreciate and value our war poets, there is more than a passing chance that their ultimate goal is their own redundancy.

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