Thursday, 27 March 2008

Brian Turner and the Price of a Combat Game

I am still fielding phone calls and e mails from people saying how moved they were by the reading Brian Turner, the American poet, gave in Cambridge on Tuesday night. I am also fielding e mails and phone calls from people saying how sorry they were to have missed the reading as they had heard how fantastic it was, I think the jungle drums work quickly around Cambridge and East Anglia, it may be because there are no hills to get in the way of the sound waves.
I had the pleasure and worry of introducing him. I say worry because when you are in the position of introducing a poet whose work is as powerful and as moving as Brian’s any introduction, other than a brief biog for those who may not know it, is probably always enough. As Brian’s collection Here, Bullet, which is about his experiences as a soldier in the Iraq conflict, has won many awards in the States he must have heard endless introductions and listened to his CV emanate from the mouths of far grander and more erudite people than myself. However since it is the month that sees the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq I felt the introduction demanded just a little more context. I’m going to post up that introduction here followed by a link to some of Brian’s poems, which has recently been published by Bloodaxe in this country I urge you to follow the link, I urge you to look out for the book and it can be yours for a quarter of the price of Battlefield 2: Modern Combat for the Xbox (‘This game brings the over-the-top action and excitement of the Battlefield series into the modern era with a bleeding-edge arsenal of vehicles and weaponry allowing for the most extreme "Battlefield Moments" yet and it can be yours for just £39.99’) Again this is not a flog blog but I hope the above puts something into perspective.

Brian Turner received his Masters Degree from the University of Oregon and lived abroad in South Korea for a year before joining the army. He served for seven years in the US Army In 1999 he served for a year in Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. In 2003 he was sent to Iraq where he served as an infantry team leader for a year with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. His poetry was included in a feature-length documentary film, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was recently nominated for an Academy Award. Here, Bullet (Bloodaxe, 2007) was first published in the US in 2005 where it has earned Brian nine major literary awards and it has recently been published here by Bloodaxe.

Poets have always had a role in bearing witness to the important things, the small and immense things that allow us access to what it feels like to be fully human. It has been said that the War poet has the particular role, perhaps the word might even be ‘burden’ of bearing witness to the big questions of life: identity, innocence, guilt, loyalty, courage, compassion, humanity, duty, desire and death. Their response to these questions, and its relation to immediate personal experience and to moments of national and international crisis, gives war poetry an important place not just in literature but in our view of history, society and importantly ourselves.

This month marks the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. Driving home this week end I listened on the car radio to a report coming in about yet another bombing in Mosul and Bagdad and the numbers injured or killed, I caught myself consigning this to the background wallpaper of similar incidents I have heard or read about over the past few years. It is this that the war poet can perhaps fight against, this diminution of the immense importance of each and every life; they bear witness to the individual in a situation where each life may begin to become a blur.

Looking round I am sure there are many in this audience far better equipped than I am to place Brian’s collection about his experiences as a soldier in Iraq in a literary and historical context I therefore will not even attempt it, instead by way of introduction I will read you a short extract from a letter sent by an ordinary working class young private in the Korean War to his elder sister. He was a regular soldier, not a conscript, who joined up to see a bit of the world rather than stay at home and work down the local pit. He was reported missing in action and presumed dead and this letter by the vagaries of the military postal service was received a month after he was believed killed.

Dear E,
I was glad to get your letters, three came altogether yesterday. The post round here is like the number 47 bus, none for ages and then three all at once. I was sorry to hear about Bess, she was a grand dog I know you will miss her.

I am keeping ok but will be glad to get home to some decent grub, I keep thinking about your rice pudding. We tried to tell a young local nipper that hangs around the camp about what our rice pudding was like. A week later he turns up with some his Mam made in an old mess tin. It tasted awful not like ours but we ate it as we didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He wasn’t asking for money or anything; it was just an act of kindness. It was good of him as the locals have a tough time as it is getting enough food for themselves, let alone for us strange foreign blighters turning up on their doorstep.

That’s what it’s like here, the locals and the soldiers doing kind, funny, daft or wonderful brave things and then there are the cruel and terrible things. I haven’t learnt yet how to get them out of my head, I just try to keep myself busy to stop them coming in at me. It all makes you wonder what god is playing at sometimes but then he might be thinking the same about us.

You say you have been following the war there on the radio and in the papers. I expect they all have something to say about it all but you know me I never was one for speeches or writing much; I’d rather be out fishing or mucking about with my pals than doing my schoolwork. Still I hope someone says something about it all. There are things people should know about how it feels like to be in the middle of all this. I expect that is too hard or complicated for any one body to write. There must be something worth saying to people about how it all is though, that won’t be a waste of breath or ink.

Dear reader, I know you won’t find Brian’s poems a waste of breath or ink.

Here is Brian reading the poem Here, Bullet

Here is the text of that poem and the poem Ashbah

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