Andrea Porter reviews Brian Turner's TS Eliot shortlisted 'Phantom Noise.'

Phantom Noise by Brian Turner,  Bloodaxe Books £8.95  1 85224 876 9.  80pp. 2010

Phantom Noise has just been short listed for the T.S Eliot Award. It has received many accolades in the United States, as did his first collection Here, Bullet. Much has and will be made about the fact that these poems are gleaned from Turner’s experiences as an Infantry Team Leader in Iraq where he spent a year out of his seven years in the American Army. The word glean is carefully chosen, the experience of being in that war is accumulative in its effect. Experiences both after and before his year in Iraq become something gathered from the strange and terrible harvest of each moment spent there. For instance in 'The Whale' he writes about his three year old self seeing the body of a huge sperm whale washed up on the beach in Oregon being blown up with explosives and his mother shielding him from the blast:

…and I remember everyone smiling/afterwards, laughing, each of us amazed/the day a god was blown to pieces on the beach/and we all walked away from it unscathed.

Turner juxtaposes a poem for his own unnamed, unborn daughter against a poem written in the voice of an Iraqi father for his son killed by shrapnel. This happens throughout the collection; here, then and now are spun past you to as if  in some way to mirror the surge of flashbacks and intense connections life, post Iraq, has been for him. Nothing escapes this constant surge of images flickered through the brain by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, even a trip to a hardware store.  In one of his most powerful poems, at ‘Lowe’s Home Improvement Center’, a broken box of nails become firing pins, the sound of them falling, shells in Bagdad. He sees an ex soldier in the aisles in full combat gear with a ten year old Iraqi boy he has saved from the devastation. An army doctor sets up a casualty centre in another aisle full of wounded Iraqis on IV drips He turns a corner and a sergeant hands him a severed arm to look after in case they find the owner: The Iraqi boy beside me/reaches down to slide his fingertips in Retro Colonial Blue, an interior latex, before writing/T, for Tourniquet, on my forehead.

This collection is devoid of sentimentality; it does not eulogise the dilemma of the ordinary soldier just trying to ‘get by’ when a war is not of his making. Most of the time it manages to present poems that have the cold blue eye of the neutral observer whilst at the same time the precise and unsentimental nature of the language draws you into the horrifying living pulse of the experience. Many poems speak with great compassion of the ordinary Iraqi people suffering in the war, the legacy of nightmares many of the children will be left with. He also explores the wealth of Arabic and Iraqi history and literature to add another dimension to the poems.

I marched against the war in Iraq, I wrote letters, I wore badges denouncing it and it would be all too easy to point to this collection as some sort of justification for the fact that it has wrought horrors on a nation and on individuals who have been caught up in the turmoil of our decision to invade Iraq. American soldiers of course chose to join the army knowing that they could be asked to fight in wars, but that choice in itself is often the outcome of many complex, social, economic and personal histories. Modern warfare has few soldier poets, perhaps the nature of modern combat and the grey moral judgements that surround the decisions that drive men into combat have made the ‘soldier poet’ a difficult thing to be. However Youtube abounds with film clips made by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, personal attempts to make sense of it all, to show what it is truly like, how war can still at times be as bloody and as confusing as it was when Owen or Sassoon wrote.
I have seen criticisms leveled at the current choice of some collections on the TS Eliot short list that seem to imply that sometimes there is a publicity driven cult of extreme experience that makes it impossible to truly evaluate the craft and strength of poems those experiences generate. All I can say in answer to that is that Turner understands his craft, he writes poems that are at times staggeringly beautiful in their language and in their intensity of focus. This collection offers the reader a poet who refuses to turn his head away, who looks and continues to look into the depths of something almost unbearable both in himself and in what he has seen.

The current furore around the leaking of American Military documents and the issues that has raised comes just as this collection is published in the UK. Mistakes by the military, acts generated by fear and wrong decisions, the refusal to bear witness to all manner of acts of savagery and torture by Iraqis upon other Iraqis is just another reason why this collection is important. Turner takes responsibility for what he has seen  and done and what has haunted him ever since, he engages us in one kind of witness that allows us to not to turn our heads as well. Poetry at its best changes us, maybe only a little, but none the less it can create a place from which we can never quite return as the same person. The language and the images contained within this collection has taken me to that place.

…..reviewed by Andrea Porter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *