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.
HWY 1 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 Geographic, Poetry Daily, The Georgia Review, Virginia 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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