Warrior poet speaks at Norwich © Oct. 27, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications
The hushed silence was shattered with the first words like a still night ruptured by the crack of a bullet exploding from a muzzle.
“If a body is what you want, then here is bone and gristle and flesh.”
So began two hours of powerful poetry and gripping remembrances as told by Brian Turner, an Iraq War veteran and poet who visited Norwich on Oct. 24, 2007 to read from his widely acclaimed poetry collection, Here, Bullet. A California native and now a former Army infantryman, Turner served as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade in Iraq in the recent past. His experiences around Baghdad, Mosul and other areas of the war–torn Middle Eastern nations have formed the basis of his most recent work, a collection of poems selected as a New York Times Editor’s Choice and one that has earned him numerous awards including the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award.
Before a crowd of more than 80 students, staff and faculty packed into the Milano Ballroom, Turner alternated between explaining the inspiration for a poem and then reading the piece itself. His voice couldn’t have been more different between his remembrances and his readings. A sincere tone punctuated with off–the–cuff remarks set the audience up for the subsequent reading. Then, as if another person were at the microphone, the voice would take on an inflection so powerful one could almost feel the scorching desert heat, hear the deafening staccato of automatic gunfire and smell the acrid scent of scorched flesh and exploded roadside bombs.
After reading his first poem of the day—for which the collection is named—Turner explained how he’d written the poem on a slip of paper within days of going boots–on–the–ground in Iraq. He then folded that piece of a paper up, put it in his pocket and carried it with him for the rest of his deployment. The poem, “Here, Bullet,” he said, has much to with the psychology of knowing that he was amidst the enemy and that there could be a bullet out there with his name on it. The forceful tone he uses when reading the poem, though, comes from a very different place, he said.
“At some point when I’m honest with myself, I say to myself, ‘I want to know what’s going on,’” Turner said. “When I say that, what I’m saying is that there’s this bravado in my voice that you hear when I read that poem, but I think that’s just covering up the 80–percent of me that’s trying to admit that I really don’t want to meet that bullet.”
Speaking before the late afternoon reading, Turner said he felt that there was a need to bring more of a human element to the war for the people in the United States. Radio broadcasts and newspaper articles about the current situation are certainly needed, he said, but simple numbers and facts fall short in depicting the human side of war in many ways.
“For me, and this may seem odd, but this is not a book about war, it’s about love and loss,” Turner said. “Journalism is needed, we need to know that there was a bomb in someplace that went off, we need to know the events of the day, what’s happening, what may happen after this, what happened before and whose involved…we need that. But at the same time there’s an added element that is poetry, and one of its domains is the emotional content.”
Prof. Lea Williams understood this point and recommended to her students they attend the Wednesday afternoon reading. She described Turner’s work as “extremely well written poetry” and said that the topics covered in Here, Bullet were fascinating. Given that, it’s no wonder that she offered extra-credit work for students who chose to attend the reading and complete a subsequent assignment. For any student’s education, she said, it would be an important and valuable experience.
“I think it’s important because, well, as a literature professor I think that any chance students have to hear a poet or writer speak about their writing is truly valuable, especially for those students who are vets or who are just interested his experiences,” Williams said.
Sophomore Charles Coolidge clearly saw the importance of listening to Turner read. Standing in the rear of Milano Ballroom in his winter grays, Coolidge said he had read some of Turner’s work and was looking forward to hear the poet read from the collection.
“I have a couple of buddies who are in Iraq right now and so this seems particularly poignant,” he said. “I picked up the book a while ago and have been reading it here and there over the past few weeks and I really enjoy his perspective…it has a very raw nature to it.”
That raw nature certainly came through loud and clear on Wednesday, particularly when Turner read “16 Iraqi Policemen,” a rather graphic poem detailing a suicide bomber attack in Mosul.
“…for the dead policemen cannot be found,
here a moment before, then vanished.”
With the conclusion of the poem, the bear-like Turner scanned the room and quietly counted off 16 audience members in the front rows.
“There are 16 of you,” he said, pointing at the group. “Here a moment before, then vanished. Think about it.”