Sunday, 5 April 2009

Brian Turner @ The Whitworth

On Saturday 21st March, 2.30pm, I wait on a fold away plastic chair in the upstairs gallery in the Whitworth on Oxford Road.

I’ve never heard Brian Turner read neither have I read any of his poems. I’m here because of an email from poet Linda Chase, the driving force behind Poets and Players; an invitation to a reading by a soldier-poet whose debut collection is called Here Bullet.

I wait with 100 other people, mostly older than me, a somewhat familiar crowd of poets, writers, readers and other interesting folk. There is a hush as the event is introduced.
Thingumajig Theatre perform ten minute extracts from A November Day, a personal glimpse into WWI from the point of view of a girl whose grandfather fought at the Somme. It explores conscription, family left at home, and experiences in the trenches in a thoughtful way, magical because of the puppets, humorous due to the props (including a mask of the well-known poster ‘You’re Country Needs You’), and poignant.

But, I am here to see Brian Turner, a US soldier who has read the Koran and Iraqi poetry, who served in the US Army for seven years, including a year in Iraq. The first poem he reads is, Here Bullet. No intro. Straight into ‘If a body is what you want,/then here is bone and gristle and flesh.’ His voice is strong; his delivery direct. He has our attention.
Brian tells us he doesn’t know what this poem is about, still. He wrote all the poems in Here Bullet when he was in Iraq (except two, written very soon afterwards). He wrote them in his ‘downtime’ surrounded by barbed wire.

He reads HWY 1, a poem written about the day on 3rd December 2003 when he enters Iraq from Kuwait. He finishes the poem and says ‘This is how we entered this country.’ It is significant, poignant.

2000 lbs is a poem about a suicide bomb in Ashur Square, Mosul. It is about US soldiers and Iraqi civilians. There is silence when he reads it, this harrowing poem, beautiful in its empathy, shocking in its detail: ‘Lt Jackson stares/ at his missing hands, which make/no sense to him, no sense at all to wave/ these absurd stumps held in the air…’ It is difficult to take in these details - not fiction, not imagined.

Brian talks after some poems, gives us a little detail, asks us questions, tells us how difficult it is for soldiers to assimilate back into American life, how it is easy for us civilians to see the trauma of an arm blown off, but what about the trauma that is more difficult to find, that is even difficult for the veteran to find?

Eulogy is the poem I find most emotional, most difficult to hear, a poem about the suicide of Private Miller. The poem is such beautiful detail: eucalyptus trees, a mongoose pausing under an orange tree. But the incident is stark. It leads to another question: Is it possible for veterans to deal with what they bring back in their heads?

There are no answers, no easy answers. After the first half of his reading, there is a rush for the bookstall, as every copy of his book sells within ten minutes. Brian has time for everyone, shaking hands, signing books, answering questions.

We have more poems to hear, poems about bombs, nightmares, an Iraqi child outside the prison where his father is held, US soldiers (men and women) raped by fellow soldiers, M4 firing pins, post traumatic stress disorder, other people around veterans not noticing their ‘mute shock’.

The chairs are not comfortable, the gallery echoes so that at times it is a little hard to hear, probably none of us has been to Iraq or been in a war. Yet, we are taken there for a short time, witness to a brutal truth to which we were only partly aware: that the war continues long after the bullets stop firing.


Sarah Hymas said...

This is where I believe poetry really comes into its own, hey? What an experience. Linda is a real treasure to the scene, isn't she?

Megan said...

Sounds incredibly powerful Annie - thank you

Michelle said...

A beautifully written account, Annie.