Brian Turner served for seven years in the U.S. Army beginning in November 2003. Turner was born in Visalia, California, raised in Fresno and ended up teaching English in South Korea for a short spell.
He joined the army when he was 30 years old because there was a lack of job opportunities and a viable career for him in the late 1990’s. Enlistment was generally for men in their early twenties and the late entry into becoming a soldier likely allowed him perspective he would not have had as a younger recruit. The Army gave him financial stability to continue being a father and a husband and carry out those duties responsibly. One other boon to the older enlistee was the military gave him the ability to pay back his school loans.
His family, the family who knew war laid the foundation for him and now it was Brian’s turn to do the same. The men in his family had served in WWI to the Cold War and it was Brian’s turn to learn the skills of war. His enlistment and career in the military was no easy thing and it would take him on a journey of questioning what it meant to be a man.
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In 1999 and 2000 he was with the 10th Mountain Division, deployed in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division as an infantry team leader.
War seems to run in the blood of many families and for Turner’s they knew much of it. From his great-grandfather to his father, and even to Brian Turner they passed along the torch to light the way for him into combat. But Brian did something particularly different in that he practiced writing poetry in private when he was deployed. He kept much of his feelings and thoughts to himself-an audience of one. From the many brutal moments he and his men suffered through Brian was able to craft long lines of script. Today, those poems he wrote in secret have become well known to audiences. His poem the Hurt Locker is one of many that continue to resonate with vets years after they have left the service.
Of his many experiences overseas he was able to put them into three books about his time in the war. Phantom Noise, Here Bullet and My Life as a Foreign Country have been very successful. Phantom Noise was short-listed for the T.S Eliot Prize in England. He lives in Orlando, Florida and continues to have a successful career as a writer. The below poem the Hurt Locker is shared in its entirety and there is cursing in it for those who may be offended.
The Hurt Locker
Nothing but hurt left here.
Nothing but bullets and pain
and the bled-out slumping
and all the fucks and goddamns
and Jesus Christs of the wounded.
Nothing left here but the hurt.
Believe it when you see it.
Believe it when a twelve-year-old
rolls a grenade into the room.
Or when a sniper punches a hole
deep into someone’s skull.
Believe it when four men
step from a taxicab in Mosul
to shower the street in brass
and fire. Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.
“This will leave a scar in our souls…”
—President Jalal Talabani
They fall from the bridge into the Tigris—
they fall from railings or tumble down, shoved by panic,
by those in the crushing weight behind them,
mothers with children, seventy-year-old men
clawing at the blue and empty sky, which is too beautiful;
some focus on the bridgework as they fall, grasp
the invisible rope which slips through their fingers,
some palm-heel the air beneath them, pressing down
as their children swim in the oxygen beside them;
lives blurring with no time to make sense, some
so close to shore they smash against the rocks;
the pregnant woman who twists
in a corkscrew of air, flipping upside down,
the world upended, her black dress
a funeral banner rippling in the wind,
her child never given a name;
they fall beside Shatha and Cantara and Sabeen,
Hakim, Askari, and Gabir—unraveling years
and memory, struggling to keep heads above water,
the hard shock sweeping them downstream
as Askari fights to gain the shoreline
where emerald flags furl in sunlight,
and onlookers wave frantic arms
at Gabir, who holds the body of a dead child
he doesn’t know, and it is only 11:30 a.m.,
And this is how we die, he thinks
on a day as beautiful as this;
and Shatha, who feels the river’s cold hands
pulling her under, remembers once loving
the orange flowers opening on the hillsides
of Mosul, how she lay under slow clouds
drifting in history’s bright catalogue;
they fall with 500 pound bombs and mortars,
laser-guided munitions directing the German Luftwaffe
from 1941, Iraqi jets and soldiers from the Six-Day War,
the Battle of Karbala, the one million who died fighting Iran;
and Alexander the Great falls, and King Faisal,
and the Israeli F-16s that bombed the reactor in ’81,
and the Stele of the Vultures comes crumbling,
the Tower of Samarra, the walled ruins of Nineveh;
the Babylonians and Sumerians and Assyrians join them,
falling from the bridge with Ibn Khaldun’s torn pages,
The Muqaddimah—that classic Islamic history of the world,
and Sheherazade falls too, worn out, exhausted
from her life-saving work, made speechless by the scale of war,
and Ali Baba with an AK-47 beside her;
whiskey and vodka, pirated Eastern European porn videos
the kids hawk to soldiers—the freaky freaky they call it,
and foil-wrapped packages of heroin, heroin
thrown to the river;
the year 1956 slides under, along with ’49 and ’31 and ’17,
the month of October, the months of June, July, and August,
the many months to follow, each day’s exquisite light,
the snowfall in Mosul, the photographs a family took
of children rolling snowballs, throwing them
before licking the pink cold from their fingertips;
years unravel like filaments of straw, bleached gold
and given to the water, 1967 and 1972, 2001 and 2002:
What will we remember? What will we say of these?
it awakens the dead from the year 1258
who cannot believe what is happening here, Not a shot fired—
our internalized panic deeply set by years of warfare,
the siege and adrenaline always at the surface, prepared;
the dead from the year 1258 read from ancient scrolls
cast into the river from the House of Wisdom,
the eulogies of nations given water’s swift erasure;
and the dead watch as they are swept downstream—
witness to the soft, tender lips of the river fish
who kiss the calves and fingertips of these newly dead,
curious to see how lifeless bodies stare hard
into the dark envelopment, hands
waving to the far shore;
the djinn awaken from their slumber
to watch the dead pass by, one fixed
with an odd smile, the drawn-out vowel
of a word left unfinished, and they want to hold these dead
close and tight, the lung’s last reserve given
as a whisper of bubbles for the ear held up to it;
the djinn swim to reach the bony ankles of Sabeen,
the muscled Askari, clasping to stop them
from this tragic undertaking;
and some are nearly saved by others diving in
to rescue the terrified and the stunned,
but drown beneath a woman’s soaked abaya;
and the Tigris is filling with the dead, filling
with bricks from Abu Ghraib, burning vehicles
pushed from Highway 1 with rebar, stone, metal,
with rubble from the Mosque bombed in Samarra,
guard towers and razor wire imprisoning Tikrit,
it fills with the pipelines of money;
marketplace bombs, roadside bombs, vehicle-driven
bombs, and the bombs people make of themselves;
Gilgamesh can do nothing, knows that each life is the world
dying anew, each body the deep pull of currents below, lost,
and lost within each—the subtle, the sublime, the horrific,
the mundane, the tragic, the humorous and the erotic—lost,
unstudied in text books, courses on mathematics,
the equations quantifying fear,
or the stoppage of time this eternal moment creates,
unwritten history, forgotten in American hallways, but still—
give them flowers from the hills, flowers from the Shanidar cave,
where mourning has a long history, where someone in the last Ice Age
gathered a bouquet—give daisies and hyacinths
to this impossible moment, flowers to stand for the lips
unable to kiss them, each in their own bright beauty, flowers
that may light the darkness, as they march deeper into the earth.
There is this ringing hum this
bullet-borne language ringing
shell-fall and static this late-night
ringing of threadwork and carpet ringing
hiss and steam this wing-beat
of rotors and tanks broken
bodies ringing in steel humming these
voices of dust these years ringing
rifles in Babylon rifles in Sumer
ringing these children their gravestones
and candy their limbs gone missing their
static-borne television their ringing
this eardrum this rifled symphonic this
ringing of midnight in gunpowder and oil this
brake pad gone useless this muzzle-flash singing this
threading of bullets in muscle and bone this ringing
hum this ringing hum this
At 17 hands, their high-traction shoes clatter on the asphaltas they canter forward, snorting, Perspex face shields a clear armor
for their wild-eyed vision of Molotov cocktails, stones, hurled debris,
the adrenaline of the boulevard ringing in the horns of their ears,
reflective shin guards glinting above mid-cannon and coronet, blare
of flashbulbs cracking the night open in a pure shock of light,
illuminating the signature of blaze and star on forehead and nose
as polycarbonate batons sing past their stiffened ears before they wheel
and turn, the boot heels of officers digging in, spurring their flanks,
the curtains of their lips pulled back by a cinching of the reins
at the bit, slobber straps wet and shining, their wide flat teeth
biting at the invisible before them as their nostrils fill with the fear
and smell of burnt exhaust, with the human calculations of misery
and pain, trajectory and loss, brokenness, ruination, the factory
of tears in its awful manufacture gone unbridled in civilization’s
rough shell, and still the officers urge forward as the missiles
trace a bright geometry, patient within the night’s
dark fabric, the obscene beauty of it lost on no one,
as the clarity of hooves hammers against the building facades
and rises to the upper stories, just as hooves have done for millennia,
clanging through Damascus and Prague, Vladivostok and Rome,
with hussars and Cossacks and mamluks, lancers and dragoons
forming up horses abreast, the psychology of muscle and height
joined by the long history of the cavalry in its relentless charge—
the defeat of Crassus at the hands of scale-armored Parthian cataphracts
at the Battle of Carrhae, in 53 BCE; Napoleon’s cuirassiers riding
headlong into the Highland squares at Waterloo; Shingen’s cavalry
overrunning arquebusiers on the snowy plains of Mikata in 1573—
and just as horses did in the days of old, these horses shove and shoulder
through the protestors in their human chicane, the trampled left
curled on the roadbed behind, wailing, as police lights strobe
the moment in a wash of red, color standard for the God of War,
the god of helmets and boots and stirrups and sweat-soaked horse blankets,
who promises steamed oats and top cut alfalfa at the road’s end,
god of the threshing hooves, the riot god, who quickens panic in the driven horse
by application of the baton to the curvature of the world in its bony skull,
the god who stirs their blood into action against the refutations of consent,
pressing them on, on into the valley of placard and protest, effigies
rising from the crowd as if their leaders had lost their footing in the world
and simply rose up in flame, up to the howling god, who calls on the horses
to do the same, exhorting each to ignore the monocular field within its crazed eye,
to view the crowd from those rare heights where flame burns free of its fuel,
to rise up on its hindquarters, as in a great statue of terror, its majesty irrefutable,
the god of the loudspeaker commanding them to spark pavement and stone,
saying—Bring your hooves down hard, my horses, bring them down.
“A Soldier’s Arabic”
This is a strange new kind of war where you learn
just as much as you are able to believe.
The word for love, habib, is written from right
to left, starting where we would end it
and ending where we might begin.
Where we would end a war
another might take as a beginning,
or as an echo of history, recited again.
Speak the word for death, maut,
and you will hear the cursives of the wind
driven into the veil of the unknown.
This is a language made of blood.
It is made of sand, and time.
To be spoken, it must be earned.
It is a condition of wisdom in the archer to be patient
because when the arrow leaves the bow, it returns no more.
It should make you shake and sweat,
nightmare you, strand you in a desert
of irrevocable desolation, the consequences
seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline
feeds the muscle its courage, no matter
what god shines down on you, no matter
what crackling pain and anger
you carry in your fists, my friend,
it should break your heart to kill.
A murder of crows looks on in silence
from the eucalyptus trees above
as we stand over the bodies—
who look as if they might roll over,
wake from a dream and question us
about the blood drying on their scalps,
the bullets lodged in the back of their skulls,
to ask where their wives and children are
this morning, and why this hovering
of flies, the taste of flatbread and chai
gone from their mouths as they stretch
and rise, wondering who these strangers are
who would kick their hard feet, saying
Last call, motherf*****. Last call.
“Two Stories Down”
When he jumped from the balcony, Hasan swam
in the air over the Ashur Street Market,
arms and legs suspended in a blur
above palm hearts and crates of lemons,
not realizing just how hard life fights
sometimes, how an American soldier
would run to his aid there on the sidewalk,
trying to make sense of Hasan’s broken legs,
his screaming, trying to comfort him
with words in an awkward music
of stress and care, a soldier he’d startle
by stealing the knife from its sheath,
the two of them struggling for the blade
until the bloodgroove sunk deep
and Hasan whispered to him,
Shukran, sadiq, shukran;
Thank you, friend, thank you.
“Observation Post #71″
Owls rest in the vines of wild grapes.
Eucalyptus trees shimmer.
And from the minaret, a voice.
Each life has its moment. The sunflowers
lift their faces toward dawn
as milk cows bellow in a field of trash.
I have seen him in the shadows.
I have watched him in the circle of light
my rifle brings to me. His song
hums in the wings of sand flies.
My mind has become very clear.
It happens on a Monday, at 11:20 a.m.,
as tower guards eat sandwiches
and seagulls drift by on the Tigris River.
Prisoners tilt their heads to the west
though burlap sacks and duct tape blind them.
The sound reverberates down concertina coils
the way piano wire thrums when given slack.
And it happens like this, on a blue day of sun,
when Private Miller pulls the trigger
to take brass and fire into his mouth:
the sound lifts the birds up off the water,
a mongoose pauses under the orange trees,
and nothing can stop it now, no matter what
blur of motion surrounds him, no matter what voices
crackle over the radio in static confusion,
because if only for this moment the earth is stilled,
and Private Miller has found what low hush there is
down in the eucalyptus shade, there by the river.
PFC B. Miller
(1980 – March 22, 2003)
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.