Unlikely soldier Brian Turner emerges as gifted poet, teacher

Of his poems, Brian Turner says: "Their landscape is war. … Their subject is love and loss."

The Sacramento Bee
By Carlos Alcalá

It is not unusual for infantry soldiers in Iraq to don headphones to listen to music in their off time.

While Brian Turner rocked out during his 11-month tour, however, he was doing something few soldiers do.

He was writing prize-winning poetry.

Turner turned the house raids, shootings and moon-suited bomb squads that he witnessed in Iraq into the indelible poetic images of "Here, Bullet," his 2005 collection.

The title poem was written listening to the tunes of Queens of the Stone Age. Another poem, "The Hurt Locker," came years before the 2008 Oscar-winning film of the same title.

Turner's work is widely praised.

Most recently, he was honored in January – along with two Nobel laureates – as a finalist for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England.

His poems neither glorify the war nor demonize America's presence. And while Turner will own up to being a soldier poet, he said his poems are not war poems.

"Their landscape is war," he said. "Their subject is not war. Their subject is love and loss."

"I love Brian Turner's poems," said Tobias Wolff, the author of Vietnam-era classics who teaches at Stanford University.

They are, Wolff added in an e-mail, "just the bedrock truth, as well as it can be expressed."

Now, Turner is far from the Iraq war and Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he also served during his Army stint of seven years.

"And one month, 29 days," he adds.

Turner is now at Sierra Nevada College at Lake Tahoe.

Surrounded by the Sierra snow outside – in a library where students study, chat and Skype – Turner appears more professor than soldier.

Or, as a Washington Post critic put it, "less warrior than observer."

"That's true," he said. "I wasn't a very good soldier."

A good soldier, he said, combines common sense and quick decision making under stress. He wasn't so good at the latter.

"I'm more of a processor," he said.

He saw enough conflict to have hearing loss caused by gunfire, but he did not experience the worst of Iraq.

"I didn't fight in Fallujah," he said. "Soldiers feel like that's deep in the (expletive)."

Turner was always an unlikely soldier, enlisting at the age of 30 after earning a master's degree in fine art.

He had been a machinist in Fresno, a student who didn't expect to finish college, a surprise convert to poetry and a wanderer in the Far East.

At the time he enlisted, he felt it was a practical way to pay off student loans and get his life in order.

"The longer I've been thinking," he said in retrospect, "there were other jobs I could've got."

"Here, Bullet" and his 2010 book "Phantom Noise" are filled with suicide bombers, helicopters, patrols, sand, skeletons and violence.

They also feature nuanced views of Iraqis and glimpses of a deeper history than most Americans understand.

Turner remembers seeing the castle of Saladin, who fought the crusaders around 800 years ago.

"(Iraqis) can physically touch the Crusades," Turner said. "Here the Crusades are nothing but conceptual."

Turner read up on the history. "If I was going to die (there), it seemed like I should know where I was," he thought.

He didn't die.

Instead, he wrote out his poems and shared them.

A friend paid the $25 entry fee for the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award, which he won, setting him firmly on the poet's path.

"I owe her dinner," Turner said. "Continually."

He wound up in Incline Village because June Saraceno, Sierra Nevada College's English chair, picked up "Here, Bullet" intending to send it to a nephew in Iraq.

"That night, I read it cover to cover," Saraceno said in an e-mail. "I never do that with books of poetry."

She was impressed by how deeply Turner engaged students at a reading.

He won another award – the $50,000 Amy Lowell Traveling Scholarship, which sent him back overseas, without a uniform.

Saraceno then hired him for a bachelor of fine arts program at Sierra Nevada College.

"He has lived up to every expectation." she said. "Actually, I'd say he has exceeded them."

It is the most recent twist in Turner's story, but twists are a signature of his poetry, too.

"I love poets who take (unexpected) turns," he said.

Like the soldier who became a poet.

In the Tannour Oven

Stitched into the gutted belly of the calf:
a fat young lamb, dressed and cleaned,
its organs removed from the cave of bone.
And within the lamb: a stuffed goose.
And in the goose's belly: a mortar round.
And within the mortar round: a stuffed hen.
And in the hen's belly: a grenade.
And within the grenade: a stuffed thrush.
In the thrush: a .50 caliber bullet.
In the .50 caliber bullet: seasoned
with murri, oil, and thyme – a wedding ring.
Ah, love – when you undo the stitches,
take your time, I have love letters
stuffed inside of me, these tiny bodies
made heavy by their own labored breathing.

– BRIAN TURNER, from "Phantom Noise," 2010

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