Introduction to Brian Turner Reading at Framingham State University

Below is the introduction to a reading Brian Turner gave at Framingham State University. The introduction was written, but never delivered, so I thought I would include it here.

Brian Turner Reading at Framingham State University

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Introduction written by Sam Witt

It’s my privilege to introduce to you a remarkable presence in American poetry this evening, poet, soldier and teacher Brian Turner, and we are very lucky to have him here tonight, and to have him visiting our classes in English and Sociology this week.

I won’t read a list of Brian Turner’s accomplishments, which are many, and in a short period of time, except to recount one story. I read about Brian Turner’s first book, Here, Bullet in the pages of the Economist, of all papers, and I remember thinking, at the time, What’s a poet doing in the Economist? How did he pull that off? Well, in order to find an answer to that question, all you have to do is to read just a few of Brian Turner’s poems. You will find them, of course, in his two books, Here, Bullet, and Phantom Noise, both of them nationally recognized, both published by Alice James Press, both of them gripping and unforgettable portraits, snapshots, psychodramatic, Hieronymous Bosch like composites of not just a war, the men and women who were sent over by our government to fight it, the victims of it—many of them children—but a country, seized in the midst of a series of catastrophic, almost seismic changes.

Turner is an imagist of the purest sort. His task, to bear witness imaginatively, personally, intellectually, to a very complicated set of circumstances—being deployed in a war in a distant desert country and coming back to this country—takes what Ezra Pound defined as the cellular makeup of a poem, the image, which Pound defined “as an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”  What Turner does is to invite us irrevocably into those instants, however painful they might be to witness. What Turner does in these poems, is to dare the reader to touch something she shouldn’t touch, or can’t—the sands of the desert, a severed arm, traceries of light, the green night vision scope of a rifle. In order to witness, with a capital W, and I mean in the Old Testament way, the reader has got to join Turner in an exceptional act of courage, to look through the rifle scope at night and see laundry hanging on the line on a city rooftop, and a woman gathering it. In the reader’s experience of the poem, that imagistic flight is going to be deployed again and again in her imagination, and like the men and women and children so effected by this war, American, Iraqi, to know what it’s like to be haunted by them, not to be left alone, right away.

In that sense, there is something profoundly moral about this poetry, even as it strikes one as indecent, off-limits, something that should be turned away from—and that’s true of all real poetry, I believe.

One of the poems from his first book that I simply can’t forget, which I must have read last week in each of my classes, even in composition, to give students a sense of what language can accomplish, is called “2000 lbs.” It’s breathtaking, literally; it’s a breathtaking description of a car bomb going off in a city in Iraq, and I defy anybody who reads it to try to forget the way Turner slows down an instant of time and forces us to look at the blast radius of this bomb on a street in Mosul: “The civil affairs officer, Lt. Jackson, stares/at his missing hands.” Just think about that line for a minute. Hold your hands up, for a second, and consider the need for us, whatever your politics might be, to engage in such imagistic, imaginative compassion, morality, I would call it. That’s what I learn from Turner’s poems: how insanely, inventively, cognitively, ethically demanding poetry can and should be, how important it is to wonder what it was like to be the man who triggered that bomb, “obliterated at the epicenter,” or Sefwan, dreaming of Shatha’s hair just before he dies. Consider what it might be like for your last thoughts to be of somebody else, “summer, 1974, lifting/pitchforks of grain high in the air,/the slow drift of it like the fall of Shatha’s hair.” It’s beautiful poetry.

And in Phantom Noise, Turner brings the war fully home with his lyric speakers, as we see the terror of combat imagined and hallucinated at a Lowe’s home improvement center, in one poem, or in the backyard of a soldier who has returned from the war only to dig graves for the bodies of the war dead in a waking dream, during which that soldier’s wife “with a gentle hand/stays the shovel I hold, to say—/We should invite them into our home./We should learn their names, their history.” In poem after poem, Turner dares us to look, at ourselves, at what we’ve made of the world, in poems like “Homemade Napalm,” and “Zippo,” about a newly divorced soldier back in Iraq who lights his hand on fire while other soldiers watch, “just to see if Stoltman will burn.”  It’s clear from these stupendously well-made poems that Iraq, along with Stoltman, is still burning.

We need poetry to learn those difficult histories, histories that our government set in motion, and that our guest tonight has witnessed—personally, yes, but also in that most vibrant and impossible way: through art.

Please join me in welcoming Brian Turner to Framingham State University.

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