Sunday, November 16, 2014
A few weeks ago, My Life as a Foreign Country showed up at my door—a new war memoir by the poet Brian Turner. I had been living a long, solid stretch of distracting diminishings. I had been finding it nearly impossible to read—no time for it, or no energy when the hour was to be had. I had a mile-high stack of other books that had been sent my way, of requests I couldn't get to, of requests I was meeting instead of reading, but something about this one book commanded my attention. I kept clawing my way back to it, read it by half page and full page, by train ride, in a room brightened at 3 AM by a lamp.
Because My Life breaks the rules, I liked it. Because it reads more like a hallucination than a life. Because Turner doesn't set aside his poetry in writing prose.
Turner's memoir tells us something of his Sergeant years in Iraq, something of the wars his grandfather, father, and uncle fought. He slides in and out of what he remembers and what he conjures—taking the powers of the empathetic imagination to an entirely new realm. He sees the thoughts of the suicide bomber, sings the song of the bomb builder, lives for and maybe beyond the enemy. The dreams are feral and the details are specific, and Sgt Turner is dead, too, but he is writing his death down, he is writing himself into the final page and "there is nothing strange" in all of that.
Earlier this morning (it seems a year ago now) I was finishing a book of my own, responding to final manuscript queries. I was asking myself how one authentically renders shock.
My Life authentically renders shock. It reveals how the terror lives on, how it knocks on the door, how it enters the room, how it watches you sleep with your wife. Years on, the shock does that. The war, Turner tells us, is never done.
The language smears and catches. It sounds like this:
This is part of the intoxication, part of the pathology of it all. This is part of what I was learning, from early childhood on—that to journey into the wild spaces where profound questions are given a violent and inexorable response, that to travail through fire and return again—these are the experiences which determine the making of a man. To be a man, I would need to walk into the thunder and hail of a world stripped of its reason, just as others in my family had done before me. And if I were strong enough, and capable enough, and god-damned lucky enough, I might one day return clothed in an unshakable silence. Back to the world, as they say.This spring, my creative nonfiction students at Penn will assess and learn from the poetry of Sgt. Turner.