“The day of the first moonwalk, my father’s college literature professor told his class, ‘Someday they’ll send a poet, and we’ll find out what it’s really like.’ Turner has sent back a dispatch from a place arguably more incomprehensible than the moon—the war in Iraq—and deserves our thanks…” —New York Times Book Review
“In Brian Turner’s extraordinarily capable hands, language is war’s undoing, in the sense that his words won’t allow absurdity and terror to be anything less than real.” —Mark Doty
“[Turner] is a writer who is less warrior than observer, someone whose curiosity, knowledge and tenderness allow insight into landscapes and people that terrify the rest of us….Turner shows us soldiers who are invincible and wounded, a nation noble and culpable, and a war by turns necessary and abominable.” —The Washington Post
For Brian Turner, the landscape of his writing is war but the subject is love and loss. And healing.
Turner is the author of two poetry collections, Here, Bullet which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection, the 2006 PEN Center USA “Best in the West” award, and the 2007 Poets Prize, among others; and Phantom Noise, which was shortlisted for the 2010 T.S. Eliot Prize in Poetry. He is also the author of a memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, which made Powell’s Best Nonfiction of 2014 list. Turner served seven years in the US Army, including one year as an infantry team leader in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he was deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1999-2000 with the 10th Mountain Division. In his poetry and prose, Turner conveys both elegant and devastating portraits of what it means to be a soldier and a human being.
My Life as a Foreign Country (Norton, 2014) follows the experience of one soldier in one recent war—the preparations, actions, homecomings, and infinite aftermath—but then explodes from those narrow limits. Turner’s account combines recollection and imagination and leaps centuries and continents to seek parallels in the histories of other men. The result is an opportunity to enter the head of a man still stalked by war, to experience conflict with new definition and lasting effect. Benjamin Busch calls the memoir a “brilliant fever dream of war’s surreality, its lastingness, its place in families and in the fate of nations. Each sentence,” he says, “has been carefully measured, weighed with loss and vitality, the hard-earned language of a survivor who has seen the world destroyed and written it back to life.” Jen Percy in the New York Times Sunday Book Review declared, “My Life as a Foreign Country is a triumph of form and content, and a praiseworthy example of how the empathetic imagination can function beautifully in nonfiction writing…. History can only be served by this kind of attention.”
The poems in Here, Bullet (Alice James, 2005) reflect Turner’s experiences as a soldier with penetrating lyric power, compassion, sensitivity, and eloquence, while deploring the violence and acknowledging the grief and terror of war. One poem, “Eulogy,” was written to memorialize a soldier in his platoon who took his own life, as the military does not recognize such a death. The Franklin Journal wrote: “The poems on the pages of Here, Bullet, with their immediacy of impact, their universality of theme, their blend of cultural and historical insight, and their many tiered reverberations of the aftermath of gut wrenching violence, make for a powerful reading experience…. The relationship Turner establishes with the reader is not dialogue but a tidal insistence on reflection, that if there is meaning in loss, there must be meaning in what precedes loss, in what is related to loss. There is no harm in such reflection, argues Here, Bullet, but, rather harm stems from the lack of it.”
In his second poetry collection, Phantom Noise, (Alice James, 2010) Turner tells us what happens to a person and a culture when a soldier brings the war home with him. Poet Louis McKee wrote, “Turner’s intention is neither to romanticize nor to protest the war but simply to bring its ironies and madness, its sad and difficult truths, into the light—a light that perhaps will exorcise the demons.” Benjamin Percy writes: “There is the war we know—from Hollywood and CNN, about dirt-smeared soldiers disarming IEDs and roaring along in Humvees and kicking down the doors of terrorist hideouts—and then there is the battleground of the mind, the war that Brian Turner carried home with him like a rucksack full of dynamite…. We might be able to change the channel, to turn the dial on the radio, to skim past a disturbing article, but Brian doesn’t have that luxury: because the news is in his head, the ghosts of Iraq have followed him home and he brings them to life with a staggering arsenal of talent.”
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Turner’s work has been published in Harper’s Magazine, National Geographic, The New York Times, Poetry Daily, Shortlist (UK), and other journals, as well as in the Voices in Wartime Anthology published in conjunction with the feature-length documentary film of the same name. Turner was also featured in the Academy Award-nominated film Operation Homecoming, a unique documentary that explores the firsthand accounts of American service members through their own words. He earned an MFA from the University of Oregon and has lived abroad in South Korea. In 2009, Turner was selected as one of fifty United States Artists Fellows. He traveled extensively with an Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Scholarship, and to Japan in 2012 with a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship. Turner is the recipient of a 2016 Guggenheim and his poems have been published and translated into Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, and more.
Brian Turner is a poet and memoirist who served seven years in the US Army. He is the author of two poetry collections, Phantom Noise and Here, Bullet, which won the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, the New York Times “Editor’s Choice” selection, the 2006 PEN Center USA “Best in the West” award, the 2007 Poets Prize, and others. Turner’s work has been published in National Geographic, The New York Times, Poetry Daily, Harper’s Magazine, and other fine journals. Turner has been awarded a United States Artists Fellowship, an NEA Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Fellowship, and more. His recent memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country, has been called, “achingly, disturbingly, shockingly beautiful.”
MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY (Memoir, 2014)
“My Life as a Foreign Country is brilliant and beautiful. It surely ranks with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered—a humane, heartbreaking, and expertly crafted work of literature.” —Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried
A war memoir of unusual literary beauty and power from the acclaimed poet who wrote the poem “The Hurt Locker.” In 2003, Sergeant Brian Turner crossed the line of departure with a convoy of soldiers headed into the Iraqi desert. Now, each night beside his sleeping wife, he imagines himself as a drone aircraft, hovering over the terrains of Bosnia and Vietnam, Iraq and Northern Ireland, the killing fields of Cambodia and the death camps of Europe—a landscape of ongoing violence, revealing all that man has done to man. In this breathtaking memoir, Turner retraces his war experience—pre-deployment to combat zone, homecoming to aftermath. Free of self-indulgence or self-glorification, his account combines recollection with the imagination’s efforts to make reality comprehensible. Across time, he seeks parallels in the histories of others who have gone to war, especially his taciturn grandfather (World War II), father (Cold War), and uncle (Vietnam). Through it all, Turner paints a devastating portrait of what it means to be a soldier and a human being.
PHANTOM NOISE (Poetry, 2010)
“With courage and an uncommon willingness to see the world as it actually is, Brian Turner returns with a bullet-borne language in which helicopters hover like spiders over a film of water. His poem “Al-A’imma Bridge” alone proves his mastery, and joins him to the tradition of Wilfred Owen and David Jones, for he is their descendent, his poetic gifts detonated into a spray of lyric force that will mark what is possible in poetry for years to come, a chiseling of agony onto paper and a poignant cri de Coeur to the republic of conscience.” —Carolyn Forché
“Shaped by his time spent serving in Iraq, American soldier Brian Turner’s first collection, Here, Bullet, depicted combat with a mixture of bleak reality and disturbing surrealism. His second, Phantom Noise, also bristles with war’s devastations, but here conflict appears in flashbacks set against the backdrop of the poet’s Californian home. Turner’s is a world where even a visit to the local hardware shop opens on to artillery fire: a spilled “50 pound box of double headed nails” that pour on to the floor “constant as the shells / falling south of Baghdad.” The poems often read as an attempt to explain, understand and come to terms with the terrible things soldiers witness and are party to: the language sparse and precise, the tone questing and urgent. Yet the writing is rarely prescriptive, leaving interpretation open. Almost miraculously, there is also much sensitivity: “Al-A’imma Bridge” is a nightmarish account of the 2005 Tigris River disaster, yet finds “flowers that may light the darkness” to commemorate those who lost their lives. Turner’s resilient, humane poems remind us of war’s impact but also provoke and question.” —The Guardian
HERE, BULLET (Poetry, 2005)
A harrowing, beautiful first-person account of the Iraq War by a soldier-poet. The poems in Here, Bullet were written in his notebooks while he served in Iraq. Adding his voice to the current debate about the US occupation of Iraq, in poems written in the tradition of such poets as Wilfred Owen, Yusef Komunyakaa (Dien Cai Dau), and Bruce Weigl (Song of Napalm), Iraq war veteran Brian Turner writes powerfully affecting poetry of witness, exceptional for its beauty, honesty, and skill. Based upon Turner’s year-long tour in Iraq as an infantry team leader, the poems offer gracefully-rendered, unflinching description but, remarkably, leave the reader to draw conclusions or moral lessons. Here, Bullet is a must-read for anyone who cares about the war, regardless of political affiliation.
MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY (excerpt)
I am a drone aircraft plying the darkness above my body, flying over my wife as she sleeps beside me, over the curvature of the earth, over the glens of Antrim and the Dalmatian coastline, the shells of Dubrovnik and Brcko and Mosul arcing in the air beside me, projectiles filled with poems and death and love.
Each night I do this, monitoring heat signatures in the landscape, switching from white-hot to black-hot lenses as I bank and turn, gathering circuit by circuit the necessary intelligence, all that I have done, all that we have done, compressed into the demarcations in the map below.
If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.
—from Here, Bullet
The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,
unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice
sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,
how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,
leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.
—from Here, Bullet
A LULLABY FOR BULLETS
Tomorrow is made of shrapnel
and blood. There will come a time
when the trigger calls you out quickly
to the streets. And as you leave the barrel,
I can’t promise you won’t kill the man
who has waited all his life for the answer
to this moment, but if you lean to the right,
if you lean back and look as hard as you can
for that mountain you came from, sunlight
warming the pines, clouds approaching
from the north with a gift of silence,
if you do this you might just graze
the man’s temple, so close you might hear
his name, the humming of blood
over bone, the many voices
within, the years to come.
—from Phantom Noise
Down in the hole, down in the clay and mud,
we dig. The noon sun hot on our backs
as we bend to the task, as if digging
down into our own shadows
with the stained shovels of our hands,
digging until someone gasps-another,
they have discovered another; with pale eyes,
the dead faces rooted with worms and stone,
brassy shells of bullets in their mouths,
hands reaching for what no one else can see above,
as if desperate to embrace us. We raise each
carefully from the earth, the bodies of men
dressed in sandals and thawbs,
wet robes of cotton dyed by clay,
and women, like the one I lift now,
how her hair unravels in a sheen
of copper, cold as the water in my palms.
—from Phantom Noise
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