#Reviewing Here, Bullet: Turner’s Trinity of Love, Death, and Poems

Here, Bullet. Brian Turner. Farmington, ME : Alice James Books, 2005

Without poetry, the experience of war defies articulation and explanation of what it meant to be there, in those conditions, with that mindset, and fighting them often eludes analysis. Not because war is indescribable, but because it requires a translator—a native speaker who can write to the combat-deaf, -dumb, and -blind. As a U.S. Army soldier of the conflicts in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq, Brian Turner has been that translator both in prose and poetry. His lyrical memoir, My Life As A Foreign Country, describes war as the “extension of an idea expressed in the physical language of shrapnel.”[1] But it is through poetry, specifically Here, Bullet, that Turner distills this experience of war into his own elemental trinity—“projectiles filled with poems and death and love.”[2]

Brian Turner, author of Here, Bullet. "I have no words to speak of war.” (Kevin Coughlin)

Here, Bullet transports us into the dust and sand surrounding the Iraq War, and into the emotional labyrinth left unprotected by kevlar. Turner spins reason, chance, and uncertainty into a collection that provides an opportunity to encounter the moral forces found in war. Moral forces, as Carl von Clausewitz’s On War highlights, “form the spirit which permeates the whole being of War.”[3] Moral force animates physical force. Clausewitz continues, “Unfortunately [moral forces] will escape from all book-analysis, for they will neither be brought into numbers nor into classes, and require to be both seen and felt.”[4] Book-analysis is a descriptive summary where “merely knowledge is the object.”[5] But to pinpoint what happened—what was seen and felt—“when doing is the object,” requires art, requires poetry.[6]

By capturing emotions (the ‘doing’), Turner’s poetry colors facts, textures actions, and gives us a way to approach war. Here, Bullet, lets us see and feel these otherwise ethereal moral forces lurking in the depths of each soldier’s soul.[7] His poem “A Soldier’s Arabic” is not only a language guide to help the combat-deficient understand these forces, but also acts as an informative guide for the entire poetry collection. Here, Bullet is divided into four sections, but “A Soldier’s Arabic” falls within none of them. Instead, the poem is presented first—not quite prologue, but more a translator’s introduction, summoning the rest of the collection. In the poem, Turner develops what a soldier’s Arabic is and what defines it as a language. Thus, the content of “A Soldier’s Arabic” becomes the lens through which the other poems are considered, magnifying the possibility to see and feel the conflicting emotions brewing in war.

Poetry strives to achieve description of the indescribable. J. Glenn Gray, in The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle, writes, “War compresses the greatest opposites into the smallest space and the shortest time.”[8] Poetry creates contradictions in an equally small space and an equally short time. To pique our emotions, poetry surprises us with the unnatural and uncanny bridge between matter and form. War surprises, too. Gray explains, “War reveals dimensions of human nature both above and below the acceptable standards for humanity.”[9] The death in killing coupled with the love in living. Poetry, like war, thrives in death, just as much as in love. To speak a soldier’s Arabic is to produce “cursives of the wind.”[10] To let tracers flow through the sky inking the words to follow: the Arabic words for love and death that Turner transliterates as “habib” and “maut.”[11]

In The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner defines poetry as “a word for the meeting place of the private and the public, the internal and the external,” of love and death.[12] Poetry bridges the public reality of a support by fire position with the private sense of security provided by the ratatatat of a M240B chewing its way downrange. Rather than just examining the exterior form of war, poetry enables us to penetrate into its interior matter. Moreover, Lerner continues, “Poetry arises from the desire to get beyond the finite and the historical—the human world of violence and difference—and to reach the transcendent or divine.”[13] Is that not the goal of the war poet? To, quite literally, transcend violence with language? To combine sentences of love and death into missives of ecstatic heartbreak. To write in “a language made of blood.”[14]

Consider the sound a soldier’s rifle makes when fired. The sound depends on where you stand. From behind, it’s a pop! pop! like popcorn. When it’s whizzing overhead—snap! cr-ack! While pulling the trigger, your finger and ear hear a smooth bang! But what does it sound like as the round rips towards impact? The eponymous poem of Turner’s book considers the bullet as it’s “hissing through the air.”[15] Turner beckons the bullet:

If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.[16]

He goads the bullet:

And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started.[17]

But it is not until Turner continues, 

Because here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring[18]

that we can begin to identify a bullet—the comma—as a symbolic vessel spilling out its own language. In each arc, the round carries its echo that, upon impact, is translated into this language of blood. Each fired bullet carries a word, and the collision is the physical manifestation of each word’s sense and referent. “Here is where I complete the word you bring.” Each squeeze is an incomplete word until impact, after which destruction makes real thoughts and ideas in the “physical language of shrapnel.” And yet, with it, the word carries a finality, a period, after which one can understand no more,

because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.[19]

Mere description cannot approach the inner essence of the experience of war, but poetry can. Clausewitz comes close in his chapter “Of Danger in War,” writing that, upon hearing the shrieks between the whizzing and bursting of cannon balls, “the seriousness of life makes itself visible [to one] through the youthful picture of imagination.”[20] “Projectiles filled with death, love, and poetry.” Rather than attempting to bridge this insurmountable gap, Turner leads us to the edge, pushing us there without pushing us off. Turner later contends, “I have no words to speak of war.”[21] Instead, he translates bullets, moving from Bismarck’s blood and iron to ink and lead. What follows is a collection of poems infused with “the language of blood,” endowed with experience, taking us to edge, showing us what otherwise cannot be seen, and leaving us there to reflect.

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. She has an MA in War Studies from King's College London. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: American soldier writing a letter home while sitting on a mound near his front line bunker on a battle free Sunday, 1951. (Joseph Scherschel, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image)


[1] Brian Turner, My Life As A Foreign Country (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2014): 15.

[2] Turner (2014): ix.

[3] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Colonel J. J. Graham (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2004): 143.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] Ibid.

[7] In fact, my interest in poetry bloomed as a result of this poetry collection—perhaps because I have read many “book-analyses” of wars and battles that this collection filled a vacuum of understanding just by providing insight into the moral forces of war.

[8] J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections On Men In Battle (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970): 12.

[9] Ibid., 242.

[10] Brian Turner, Here, Bullet (Farmington: Alice James Books, 2005): 1.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016): 12.

[13] Ibid., 7-8.

[14] Turner (2005): 1.

[15] Ibid, 13. [Italics mine.]

[16] Ibid. Read by the Brian Turner.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Clausewitz, 55.

[21] Turner (2005): 64.