brian turner: three poems

By Brian Turner

Helping Her Breathe

Subtract each sound. Subtract it all.
Lower the contrailed decibels of fighter jets
below the threshold of human hearing.
Lower the skylining helicopters down
to the subconscious and let them hover
like spiders over a film of water.
Silence the rifle reports. The hissing
bullets wandering like strays
through the old neighborhoods.
Let the dogs rest their muzzles
as the voices in telephone lines
pause to listen, as bats hang
from their roosts pause to listen,
as all of Baghdad listens.
Dip the rag in the pail of water
and let it soak full. It cools exhaustion
when pressed lightly to her forehead.
In the slow beads of water sliding
down the skin of her temples—
the hush we have been waiting for.
She is giving birth in the middle of war—
the soft dome of a skull begins to crown
into our candlelit mystery. And when
the infant rises through quickening muscle
in a guided shudder, slick in the gore
of birth, vast distances are joined,
the brain’s landscape equal to the stars.
Sleeping in Dick Cheney's Bed

It's unnerving how comfortable this is:
NORAD watching over the bedroom, Colorado
mule deer chewing the dawn outside as I dream
I'm wading thigh-high into the North Platte River,
wearing rubber waders, casting a handmade fly
with a whip-like, graceful sling of the line
until I fall back, plunge into the cold rushing
white water, my eyes blurred hard
under the sun's interrogations--Cheney's hands
like a preacher's delivering me deeper into the truth,
with a gasp of air, a flash of light, to be plunged back down
the way he offers midges and blood worms and rusty scuds
to the cloudy river, running 1400 cubic feet per second,
until I cough up the fictional and beg for the heartland's
fluid clarity, salvation, the charity of forgiveness, anything
to unravel the dream and return me back my California bed,
my lover beside me and not this stale man's breath
clinging to the Egyptian cotton sheets, the hanging curtains,
the flaring light of Colorado Springs where Cheney slept
in this very bed, both of us held by the same coiling
box spring, goose down pillows cupping our heads
gently into sleep, the reddening glow of Mars
rising over the horizon, dead skin sloughed off
to coat my own skin at an invisible level, and still--
what does it say about me, that the Pinot Grigio
tasted so good on my tongue, and that
I struggled to be a sergeant tonight,
speaking to the officer corps in a theater
filled with 1600 listening faces--as I spoke
about rape, death, and murder--what does it say about me
that I can return to Cheney's room after midnight,
strip my clothes off to curl in the bed
where he too has slept, the sheets a sublime reprieve
for my tired frame, the night a perfection of sleep.

It begins as the Highway of Death.
It begins with an untold number of ghosts
searching the road at night
for the way home, to Najaf, Kirkuk,
Mosul, and Kanni al Saad. It begins here
with a shuffling of feet on the long road north.

This is the spice road of old, the caravan trail
of camel dust and heat, where Egyptian limes
and sultani lemons swayed in crates
strapped down by leather, where merchants
traded privet flowers and musk, aloes,
honeycombs, and silk brought from the Orient.

And the convoy pushes on, past Marsh Arabs
and the Euphrates wheel, past wild camels
and waving children who marvel at the painted guns,
past the ruins of Babylon and Sumer,
through the land of Gilgamesh where the minarets
sound the muezzin’s prayer, resonant and deep.

Cranes roost atop the power lines
in huge bowl-shaped nests of sticks and twigs,
and when a sergeant shoots one from the highway
it pauses, as if amazed that death has found it
here, at 7:00 A.M. on such a beautiful morning,
before pitching over the side and falling
in a slow unraveling of feathers and wings.


Brian Turner’s poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, National GeographicPoetry DailyThe Georgia ReviewVirginia Quarterly Review and other journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His book of poetry, Here, Bullet, is a first-person account of the Iraq War by a solider-poet, winner of the 2005 Beatrice Hawley Award. Phantom Noise, was short-listed for the T.S. Eliot Prize in England. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Here and Now, and on Weekend America, among others.

Turner earned an MFA from the University of Oregon before serving for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000). Learn more about him, HERE.

Excerpted works and photograph of Brian Turner courtesy of Alice James Books

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