Iraq in Poetry: Brian Turner

April 4, 2012

Teaching his poetry was easy. There was never any doubt in my mind that it belonged in the course – along with Whitman on the Civil War; John Hersey on Hiroshima; Ha Jin on Korea; Michael Herr on Vietnam.

It is that good.

Brian Turner writes about human bodies as “bone and gristle and flesh” that “complete the word” brought by the bullet.   He writes about Private Miller, who “pulls the trigger/ to take fire and brass” into his own mouth.   He writes about Katyusha rockets that “just keep going,/ traveling for years over the horizon/ to land in the meridians of Divisadero Street” in Fresno.

He also writes about Alhazen of Basra who, back in the eleventh century, discovered analytical geometry and the laws of refraction.   And he writes about Gilgamesh, one example of a perishable – and purposeful – script that, somehow, manages to outlast millennia of war.

What would it be like to be in conversation with the poet, to have it as part of a conference at John Jay College of Criminal Justice?

Five minutes into the event, it was clear that the poetry didn’t need me to be there; maybe it didn’t even need Brian Turner.   No, a supporting cast is not crucial for something like this.   Even the Arabic words “habib” and “maut” — love and death — needed no mediation, suffering almost no diminishment in power even when, in this case, they were seen on PowerPoint, in a gleaming, airport-like environment.

The Gilgamesh effect, if you ask me.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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