Read This Book: Phantom Noise by Brian Turner
In honor of Veterans Day, I’m posting a book review that I wrote when Brian Turner’s 2010 book of poetry, Phantom Noise, was published by Alice James Books. My review first appeared in the print edition of ForeWord Reviews.
Alice James Books
Brian Turner’s inventory of a year in Iraq includes : smoke grenades, desert boots, body armor, “nights spent staring for heat signatures through the white-hot lens”. Also: dead infants, boredom, fragments of torture, “A bullet carrying the middle vowel of the word Inshallah,” glaring, otherworldly, next to Sgt. Gould “sucking a woman’s nipple in the cuddle room at the rave party.”
Such is the soldier’s life, such is this poetry of contrapuntal details. By staring hard through a calibrated sight, this former infantry team leader reports what he has witnessed. This is Turner’s second book— his bestselling 2005 release,‘Here, Bullet’ was also about his Iraq experiences—and this collection shows a deepening sensibility. Turner understands that his job is to illuminate harrowing events and muster some kind of meaning in a world that is far from the daily life of most readers; to reveal the particular music of death and violence and military service. His poems unfold with the effort to be decent, helpful, and alert to suffering of all kinds.
The book’s title poem, “Phantom Noise”, eloquently explains, like phantom pain, an irrational ache felt in a limb even after is has been severed from the body, that there is a noise behind the language, a sound for what he’s seen and what it is to be at war. “There is this ringing hum this/ bullet-borne language ringing/shell-fall and static this late night/”. No propaganda, no talking points. Instead, here is a grown man and tenderness toward what is hurt, what is destroyed, whether an American or Iraqi, whether it is the unidentified woman he digs out from a mass grave.
There are a number of non-war poems too; poems about growing up in the 1970’s with karate movies, recipes for homemade Napalm, and watching a beached sperm whale get dynamited on the Oregon coast. There are even some poems in which the soldier returns to being a man among women, a lover, a reader. But he is mostly a warrior beset with ambivalence because “it’s all bullshit: . . . / driving until I finally understand/ who it is I’m supposed to kill.”
The men who appear in these poems are not heroes; they are more complicated than that. Private Reynolds, six weeks shy of deployment, “white knuckles the cord” that will kill his wife. Stoltman dips his wrists in fuel and lights a Zippo when paperwork arrives asking for a divorce. A Sergeant haunts the night hours of the female soldier he sexually assaulted, and a V.A. doctor removes shrapnel from an old wound, “fragments/ of the war inscribed in scar tissue,/ a deep, intractable pain, the dull grief of it/ the body must learn to absorb.”
And, since this landscape is already inconceivable in so many ways, Turner will wipe sweat from the brow of a laboring woman because “She is giving birth in the middle of war—/the soft dome of a skull begins to crown/ into our candlelit mystery.” In a similar way, Turner’s eloquent, human and painful poems appear.
—Holly Wren Spaulding
*For those of you living in northern Michigan, Brian Turner will appear at The National Writers Series in Traverse City on November 19th.