February 23, 2009

Name: Brian Turner
Posting date: 2/23/09
Returned from: Iraq

Editor's note: The Sandbox appreciates having the opportunity to post six poems by Brian Turner, who served in Iraq for a year as an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. These poems are taken from his remarkable book Here, Bullet.

What Every Soldier Should Know
          To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will;
                                         it is at best an act of prudence.
            -- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

If you hear gunfire on a Thursday afternoon,
it could be for a wedding, or it could be for you.

Always enter a home with your right foot;
the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.

O-guf! Tera armeek is rarely useful.
It means Stop! Or I'll shoot.

Sabah el khair is effective.
It means Good Morning.

Inshallah means Allah be willing.
Listen well when it is spoken.

You will hear the RPG coming for you.
Not so the roadside bomb.

There are bombs under the overpasses,
in trashpiles, in bricks, in cars.

There are shopping carts with clothes soaked
in foogas, a sticky gel of homemade napalm.

Parachute bombs and artillery shells
sewn into the carcasses of dead farm animals.

Graffit sprayed onto the overpasses:
I will kell you, American.

Men wearing vests rigged with explosives
walk up, raise their arms and say Inshallah.

There are men who earn eighty dollars
to attack you, five thousand to kill.

Small children who will play with you,
old men with their talk, women who offer chai --

and any one of them
may dance over your body tomorrow.

Here, Bullet

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.

Observation Post #798
                               It is in the watches of the night
                       that impressions are strongest
                                       and words most eloquent.
                                            -- Qur'an 73:1

Tonight, we overwatch the Market District
by the ruins, where we know of a brothel-house:
green light above the door, windows shuttered
in French panels swung open, gauze curtains
hanging translucent in the heat.

It's over a hundred degrees, even at dusk.
I scan each story with binoculars
and a smile, hoping to glimpse the girls
drawing open the curtains,
their silhouettes edged in light.

When a woman walks out onto the rooftop
smoking a cigarette and shaking loose her long hair,
everyone wants what I hold in my hands,
but I am stilled by her, transported 7,600 miles
away, as a ghost might gaze upon the one he loves,

thinking, how lovely you are,
your pain and beauty a fiction
I bend into the form of a bridge, anything
to remind me I am still alive.

16 Iraqi Policemen

The explosion left a hole in the roadbed
large enough to fit a mid-sized car.
It shattered concrete, twisted metal,
busted storefront windows in sheets
and lifted a BMW chassis up onto a rooftop.

The shocking blood of the men
forms an obscene art: a moustache, alone
on a sidewalk, a blistered hand's gold ring
still shining, while a medic, Doc Lopez,
pauses to catch his breath, to blow it out
hard, so he might cup the left side of a girl's face
in one hand, gently, before bandaging
the half gone missing.

Allah must wander in the crowd
as I do, dazed by the pure concussion
of the blast, among sirens, voices
of the injured, the boots of running soldiers,
not knowing whom to touch first,
for the dead policemen cannot be found,
here a moment before, then vanished.

Ferris Wheel
    Al Sadeer Tourist Complex, Mosul, Iraq

A helicopter went down in the river
last night, hitting a power line slung
a few feet off the water. They were searching
for survivors and bodies from a boat
capsized earlier, Americans and Iraqis both.

It's dawn now, and the sky
drifts low and flat and cold
the way search-boats on the Tigris
drift further and further downriver.
When Navy divers bring up the body
of an Iraqi policeman, it will be a man
we weren't searching for, and still another
later in the day -- a college student from Kirkuk.

It will be a long week of searching
like this, every morning near the shoreline
restaurant, where open fires are fed
kindling and tinder, a cook's hands
lifting the silver bodies of fish,
weighing them on scales.

The history books will get it wrong.
There will be nothing written
about the island ferris wheel
frozen by rust like a broken clock, or
about the pilot floating unconscious downriver, sparks
fading above as his friend swam toward him
instead of the shore, how both would drown
in this cold unstoppable river.

Night in Blue

At seven thousand feet and looking back, running lights
blacked out under the wings and America waiting,
a year of my life disappears at midnight,
the sky a deep viridian, the houselights below
small as match heads burned down to embers.

Has this year made me a better lover?
Will I understand something of hardship,
of loss, will a lover sense this
in my kiss or touch? What do I know
of redemption or sacrifice, what will I have
to say of the dead -- that it was worth it,
that any of it made sense?
I have no words to speak of war.
I never dug the graves in Talafar.
I never held the mother crying in Ramadi.
I never lifted my friend's body
when they carried him home.

I have only the shadows under the leaves
to take with me, the quiet of the desert,
the low fog of Balad, orange groves
with ice forming on the rinds of fruit.
I have a woman crying in my ear
late at night when the stars go dim,
moonlight and sand as a resonance
of the dust of bones, and nothing more.

Poems copyright c2005 by Brian Turner. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Here, Bullet published by Alice James Books.


A stunning collection of poems, full of power and raw images. Think I'll buy the book.

Thank you for posting these. I am deeply moved, and grateful to feel the touch of truth through these poems, truth that gets obscured in newspaper accounts and thousands of miles of distance. I, too, will look for the book.


I'm writing a book on duty induced PTSD and I'm hoping to get permission to quote the last stanza of the "16 Iraqi Policemen" at the start of my 4th chapter on trauma based memories. I'm leaving you my website (my "Ready First" page since I've worked with them over in Germany in the past...great guys & gals).

Any help you can afford would be so appreciated...I'm going to be popping into this site a lot. It's exceptional...

Stay safe, stay strong, stay the course,

I write a book on the customs-induced PTSD and I hope to get permission to quote the last stanza of "Iraqi policemen" at the beginning of my fourth chapter on traumatic memories base. I'll leave my site. Any help you can provide would be much appreciated ... I'll be popping into this site a lot. It is rare ... Stay safe, stay strong, stay focused,

My husband was in Iraq last year. Reading these poems chilled me to the bone. He made it back in one piece, but I know it changed him in ways I will never understand. Thank you for allowing me to read this; I will definitely be buying the book.

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