Brian Turner’s Act of Habib by Mary Pacific Curtis

When a poet goes to war….

When a poet goes to war he has chosen immersion in the things of war, destruction, death, splintered families, unfamiliar landscapes, languages and customs.  The volunteer soldier has chosen, for reasons known only to him, the great incongruity of facing each day knowing that if a bullet doesn’t find him, it will most assuredly find someone known to or near him.  For reasons known only to him, he has chosen to live facing death at every turn.  Facing death in threat and fact is life on the blade of a razor, a sharpening of nerve, heart and vision, a seemingly unnatural endeavor strangely suited to the poet’s instinct to mine chaos and impose the order of language, cadence and image.

When this poet goes to war, he finds himself at the Highway of Death searching for the way home to Najf, Kirkuk, Mosul,  and KanniAl Saad.  He searches through the Leupold Scope finding the woman who dresses the dead.  He is in the land where voices issue from minarets, eucalyptus trees sway over bodies – a land where American soldiers are living ghosts wandering nighttime streets as the Iraqi dead watch from rooftops.  It is the geography of elephant grass, the Tigris River, oilfields, a tracery of lights seen from a rooftop of Al Ma’badi, camel caravans transporting the dead, mosquitos and malaria, grasshoppers flaring out in front of soldiers, a  terrorist bomber massacring a crowd in Ashur Square, mosques, the blossoming Garden of Eden, white-ochre salt flats north of Babylon, an old Sumerian epic/reinventing the city of Uruk, of cowbirds resting in the groves of date palms, cowbirds sitting on the shoulder of a yak, container ships at anchor in the Persian Gulf, bombs and more bombs killing crowds, and sand – everywhere, sand.

When this poet writes of war, he writes of people who have names and dreams.

The arms dealer, Akbar, carries his four-year-old son, Habib, to bed.  Stricken Thalia Fields …closes her eyes,/ [and] the most beautiful beautiful colors rise in darkness,/ tangerine washing into Russian Blue,/ with the droning engine humming on/in a dragonfly’s wings, island palms/ painting the sky an impossible blue/ with their thick brushes dripping green…/a way of dealing with the fact / that Thalia Fields is gone, long gone…  Hasan jumps two stories in a suicide attempt finally ending his life with the knife of the American soldier who tries to save him.  Private Miller takes brass and fire into his mouth in the poet’s “Eulogy.“   “Kirkuk Oilfield, 1927” unfolds through the eyes of Ahmed.  Hussein and Abhid stir a muddy paste; Staff Sargeant Garza performs an autopsy in Camp Wolverine, Kuwait, holding the dead soldier’s heart in her hands.  Doc Lopez pauses to catch his breath before bandaging the side of a face gone missing in a suicide bombing.  Malaria dreams conjure images of Idn Khaldun’s classic Islamic history; Bosch burns his chest like a savannah in a delirium dream.

When this poet goes to war, he does his job as soldier and poet.  He lets the scene draw the reader to his own conclusion.  There are not two sharply drawn sides.  There is the suffering of the soldier, the suffering of the people who have inhabited this land for centuries and the shadow of terror – war and terrorist as co-conspirators mutually undermining humanity.

“A poet goes to war” sounds like an oxymoron, but is not. The poet laces the delicate trill of centuries throughout current day scenes of suffering and horror.  The poet at war studies the people and culture, immersing himself in the rooted past as surely as in safety for the moment.  The poet at war lapses into the native language out of a love of the lyrical, the authentic, the strangeness that might order the chaos of war into a cadence of heart –  Ashbah for ghosts, Mihl for salt, Jameel for beautiful, Sadiq for friend become poem titles.  “Gilgamesh, In Fossil Relief” harkens to the ancient poet chiseling lines into stone tablets.  “Alhasen of Basra” contemplates the light within us, the shadows that daylight brings –  a counterpoint to the work of this ancient physicist is a lens on the inherent causes of war lodged at the core of people with agendas.

Archaeologists posed over a form with their brushes inspire the question from Gilgamesh,  “these are the questions we must answer/by war and famine and pestilence and again/by touch and by kiss because each age must learn/ this is the journey of sun’s journey by night.”

Light plays heavily in Turner’s poems, and war is the darkness against light.

Voice plays in Turner’s poems.  In other poems as in “Sadeq,” Turner’s voice has Middle Eastern authority.

Reading Turner is a beginning after a beginning.  Perhaps it is fitting to look to lines in the opening poem, “this is a language made of blood/it is made of sand and time/to be spoken it must be earned.”

The soldier/poet has earned the right, to speak, he wages verse as an act of Habib – love – in a book that is filled with humanity.

Mary Pacific Curtis – Her poetry and prose have been published in LOST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Boston Literary Magazine, the Naugatuck River Review, the Pitkin Review, Calyx and The Crab Orchard Review amongst others. Also, included in the Las Positas Literary Anthology, The Times They Were A’Changin’ and The Widows Handbook. Her chapbook titled Between Rooms was published in May 2016 by Turning Point Books. A second chapbook titled The White Tree Quartet is forthcoming in February 2018 from the same publisher. She received an MFA in Creative Writing from Goddard College. When not writing, she leads a Silicon Valley life in PR and branding, and as an angel to technology startups.

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