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America at War

The Brutal Poetry of the Iraq War

Suzie Lechtenberg

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Brian Turner
(Brian Voight)
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There's a whole group of Americans who won't be home for Christmas, Hanukkah, or anything else this year. Over 140,000 US troops are in Iraq right now. Along with about 31,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. And holidays at war can be strange times. Poet Brian Turner served in the army for seven years, including as an infantry team leader in Iraq. One of his jobs was to drive around in Humvees with his men and look for trouble, whenever anyone reported anything amiss. Brian says there are a few things you can do to survive when you're away from home so long, especially around the holidays. The most important: Don't think about home. It was only on his last night in Iraq that Brian finally dropped his guard.

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My name is Brian Turner and the poem is "Cole's Guitar." It was written while I was an infantry soldier in Iraq. I was in Al Ma'badi, which is a bit south and to the east of Mosul, in the north part of the country. And I wrote the poem, we were in a small building that used to be an agricultural college, and it had been converted under Sadaam's rule into an officers' college.

And very late at night one time, I remember waking up, just before we were about to go home, I heard down the hall, through the hallways of this building, this guitar. Which I didn't even know anyone there had a guitar, but our medic, Doc Cole, had a guitar. He and I actually didn't get along very well until this time. And I found out he had this guitar, we started talking about it. And then it sort of, I don't know, it was sort of like a bridge, so we became friends after this. And so I wrote this poem after that, and it's a rare poem of mine, where I'm thinking back about home, and about being nostalgic and missing home.

Cole's Guitar

It's the sound from the aid station
that wakes me, thin steel
from Doc Cole's six-string,
a 4 a.m. sound of sour whiskey,
heroin and sex and dying,
that's the sound I'm hearing now,
slow as smoke from a factory
in Pittsburgh, slow as a needle
in the vein, slow as steam off the bath
or a lover with only the blues to sing.

I'm hearing America now.
I'm hearing jake brakes off the Grapevine,
county highways with wheat shocks
and Indian summer grass whispering,
foghorns under the Golden Gate bridge,
Ella Fitzgerald from a 4th floor window
in Birmingham, the handles of a suitcase
swinging on the downbeat of a man's footsteps
walking out from a Greyhound in Sante Fe.

I'm in Wyoming. I'm in New York.
I'm leaning in to kiss a woman
in the cornfields down by the river.
I'm with children drawing portraits
in the sand, old men watching fireflies
the way Muhammad Ali lay on canvas
and dreamed. That's what I'm hearing,
the wind on the redwood coast,
old as the ocean and hushed
by sheets of fallen snow.

Palm-mute the strings, Doc,
strum that song until I can see
the breath on a bus window, the faces
of strangers in the rain, my own hands
tracing the features of every one of them,
the way ghosts might visit the ones they love,
as I am now, listening to America,
touching the cold glass.

When I wrote this poem, my unit had been, in-country for nearly a year. And we were just about to go home. As the poem says, it was near Al Ma'badi, Iraq. Which is south of Mosul. And it was in this one building, and it was sandbagged all the way up from the ground to the top floor. And it had sandbagged machine gun emplacements up on each corner of the top. And, in fact, there were black snakes that would nest in those sandbags, so sometimes, we had a little weight room in one of the rooms inside, and baby snakes would get in there. They were very dangerous because they were very poisonous.

And the hallways in there, there was a tile floor. And so the acoustics are very good. And I think that's what helped me to hear the guitar off in the distance, as it was sort of echoing down the halls. And that's when I wrote this poem, my squad was in the room, and I had all my gear. But I could take my helmet off, I could take off my flak vest because we're inside and it's sandbagged. And we were shelled there quite a bit. But being inside there felt a little safe, so I could - you know, you'd read. I could, I would read. Guys would play cards or go work out or something. There wasn't much else to do.

I remember, it wasn't very often that I did this, but I knew that home was approaching. It was sort of on the horizon. It was beginning to be much more possible. So I think I was beginning to allow myself little avenues into kind of nostalgia for home. Sort of flashing images of America were kind of going through my head. And I was missing home. I don't know if anyone's ever been on a bus when it's cold, and there's that sort of frost on the windows, and when you wipe it away you can see people on the sidewalk as you're passing by. And that was the image at the end that I was trying to sort of think about and get at.

More stories from our America at War series

Comments

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  • By Vicki Morgan

    From Saint Petersburg, FL, 12/28/2009

    This poem is very vivid. I'm especially moved by the introduction to the poem, letting us into your world. Often we believe that thinking of home is what gets troops through the experience of being away. You have shared with us how difficult it truly can be.

    By Nancy Brunswick

    From Peninsula, OH, 09/17/2009

    I am using this poem in a unit on war poetry in my Advanced Placement English class (for seniors) at a high school in the Cleveland suburbs. The imagery is so clear and the flow so smooth. Reading it aloud sounds like guitar music. I thank Brian for his poignant rendering of a soldier's moment.

    By Nancy Brunswick

    From Peninsula, OH, 09/17/2009

    I am using this poem in a unit on war poetry in my Advanced Placement English class (for seniors) at a high school in the Cleveland suburbs. The imagery is so clear and the flow so smooth. Reading it aloud sounds like guitar music. I thank Brian for his poignant rendering of a soldier's moment.

    By Bob Pearson

    From Auburn, WA, 12/21/2008

    Very moving. The everyday still life that surrounds us means very little to those here. But to a soldier thousands of miles away, it speaks of home. For another view from a soldier's perspective, check out soldier/singer/songwriter Josh Morrison.

    By jo vatin

    From hanalulu, HI, 04/30/2008

    im 11 yers old and i dont understand it

    By anne nelson

    From WA, 04/18/2008

    Brian's poem/story resonates ... and as he let down his guard to "feel" sentimental, we too, were able to feel and be present. Thanks for sharing your heart and for your service to our country.

    By Martha Bruno

    From Orlando, FL, 04/13/2008

    Thank you so much for the wonderful story. It proves that the human spirit can construct incredible beauty even in the most terrible of circumstances. We owe Brian Turner not only for his service, but his eloquent humanity.

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