The first time I was introduced to this book of poetry was in reference to a character in Virginia Woolf’s novel, Mrs. Dalloway. In the story, Septimus Smith is a returned World War I veteran that is clearly experiencing symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He hallucinates noises and images of war during mundane experiences that are entirely unrelated to warfare, as does the speaker, while in a department store, in Brian Turner’s “At Lowe’s Home Improvement Center.”
In the novel, Septimus hears the echo of gunfire in common noises, such as the cough of an engine, as he walks the park. In the poem, Turner hears gun shells falling when a box of nails spills onto the floor. Septimus frequently has hallucinations of his friend, Evans, who died in the war. He wakes in the middle of the night screaming his name, and sees him walking toward him in combat gear from behind a tree in the park. Turner sees a comrade, Bosch, walking down aisle 16 dressed in “full combat gear,” as Sgt. Rampley emerges from aisle of spilled paint cans (Turner 5).
Throughout the Iraq war, and especially during the presidential race that led to Obama’s election, America was concerned most with how to get the troops home. However, the struggle of war doesn’t end there; it doesn’t end with a tank of soldiers returning to their families in the States. The mental effects that continue post-war for these soldiers are something we don’t often talk about, unless our own families are directly affected. This is what literature, like Mrs. Dalloway and Phantom Noise discuss.
The effects of PTSD, how to recognize it, and how to treat it are all categorized on the website “National Center for PTSD” via the United Stated Department of Veterans Affairs. According to the site, about 86 to 87 percent of soldiers that were in Iraq relate their symptoms of stress to “knowing someone killed/ seriously injured.” Septimus’ frequent hallucinations of Evans are clearly linked to this type of stress. Also, 94 to 95 percent relate stress to “seeing dead bodies.” (“Mental Health”)
In the novel, Woolf explains that part of the reasons for Septimus’ stress is due to the fact that he felt nothing when Evans was killed, and therefore became terrified of his inability to feel. The relevance of seeing dead bodies as a stressor is that soldiers may become desensitized to death when faced with this stressor too often. Or to gore, for that matter. For example, the speaker of the poem is nonchalantly handed a “blown-off arm” by the hallucination of Sgt. Rampley, who says “Hold this, Turner, / we might find out who it belongs to,” as though they found a lost wallet or key chain (Turner 6).
What I find most interesting about Turner’s book of poetry is that it doesn’t just focus on the experiences he had while in Iraq, but also on the relived experiences, and all too terrifying symptoms of PTSD he has had now that he is home.
Turner, Brian. Phantom Noise. Farmington: Alice James Books, 2010.
Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press, 1963.
“Mental Health Effects of Serving in Afghanistan and Iraq – NATIONAL CENTER for PTSD.” NATIONAL CENTER for PTSD Home. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/overview-mental-health-effects.asp>.