Free verse poetry has always struck me as one of the most pretentious literary forms. The line breaks are so distracting and very rarely do much to add any sort of “extra” meaning. Just write a prose poem. Maybe some flash fiction or something. I don’t know. In Phantom Noise, Brian Turner includes one piece that reads like a prose poem: “The Inventory From A Year Lived Sleeping With Bullets.” I think this is one of the most effective pieces in the book, thanks almost entirely to its form. Stripped of the pretention of seemingly arbitrary line breaks, the reader is left with just the images, just the emotions of the moments Turner is describing. The language stands just fine on its own. Why dress it up, especially when the subject matter is something as primal as war? If it’s just for the sake of something like juxtaposing the form of poetry against “the chaos of war,” then it turns the work into one giant cliche and does more to detract from the quality of the work than add to it.
Consider this excerpt from “The Inventory…”:
“Put it all in the rucksack. Throw the rucksack on your back and call it your house. Do a commo check back home. Get your shit on straight. Stay Alert and Stay Alive. Drink water and conduct your PCIs. We’ve reached the Line of Departure. So lock and load, man. From here on out we are on radio silence” (81).
Is that somehow less poignant or less meaningful because it’s not metered? I mean, I don’t even think anything is lost in the way of rhythm; Turner has achieved a distinct rhythm just through his use of small words and short, simple sentences. Here, Turner demonstrates here his ability to let just his language do the talking on its own. That sounds really dumb — what else is he going to use, right? — but what I mean is, in this piece, Turner demonstrates that he doesn’t need to resort to any tricks or “gimmicks” (I hate that word) to write artfully and meaningfully. There are no crazy line breaks; no imbuing of artificial meaning by turning this into a traditional free verse poem. It’s just prose; it’s just the words.
The sort of “imbuing with artificial meaning” that I’m referring to is exemplified by a bunch of the poems in Phantom Noise, but here’s one of the more egregious examples (from “Jundee Ameriki”):
“At the VA hospital in Long Beach, California,
Dr. Sushruta scores open a thin layer of skin
to reveal an object traveling up through muscle.
It is a kind of weeping the body does, expelling
foreign material, sometimes years after injury” (74).
Why does that need to be metered? This is all getting a little redundant, I know. I’m just trying (and probably failing) to make the point that turning perfectly good prose into poetry by way of line breaks rarely seems necessary to me, and I get really annoyed reading it.
Turner’s subject matter is so rife with meaning on its own; I wish he would have just stuck with short prose. What I think is great about Turner’s work, though, is that it lends a voice to a demographic that we don’t get to hear from directly very often, particularly about subject matter as touchy as PTSD. I found an article published by USA Today that discusses the impact of PTSD on Iraq war veterans, and the veterans quoted in the article echo some of Turner’s sentiment almost exactly.
In the article, Lt. Julian Goodrum describes his experience with PTSD as follows: “It just accumulated until it overwhelmed me… The smell of diesel would trigger things for me. Loud noises, crowds, heavy traffic give me a hard time now. I have a lot of panic… You feel like you’re choking” (Welch n.pag.). That sounds very similar to the experience Turner describes in “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.”
Finally, I’m pretty sure Roland Barthes would be rolling over in his grave if he knew how much I let Turner’s background and biography inform my reading of Phantom Noise. But I think in this case, the author’s identity (at least, as an American veteran of the Iraq War) is important, even though I guess that does impose limits on the text that Barthes says can’t exist if the multiplicity of a text is to be fully realized. Or maybe my understanding of “The Death of the Author” is completely flawed. Either way, I thought this article that Turner wrote for The New York Times about his return visit to Iraq might be an interesting one to include.
Turner, Brian. “Checkpoints: A U.S. Veteran in Baghdad.” nytimes.com. The New York Times. 9 Nov. 2011. Web. 19 March 2012.
Turner, Brian. Phantom Noise. Maine: Alice James Books 2010. Print.
Welch, William M. “Trauma of Iraq war haunting thousands returning home.” usatoday.com. USA Today. 28 Feb. 2005. Web. 19 March 2012.