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Journal, Day One

By Brian Turner

While walking in Chicago recently, I spoke with a friend about some of the difficulties of writing from within a combat zone . . . Poems were written quickly—most took no more than two or three days at the most. This is because I felt I had to capture them quickly—who knew if I (like anyone else in Iraq) would be there the next day. . . .

Still, I think much of the study and writing I had done prior to deploying to combat helped me when I needed it most. Deeper structures had rooted themselves inside of me. Here’s an example:

In the Leupold Scope

With a 40x60mm spotting scope
I traverse the Halabjah skyline,
scanning rooftops two thousand meters out
to find a woman in sparkling green, standing
among antennas and satellite dishes,
hanging laundry on an invisible line.

She is dressing the dead, clothing them
as they wait in silence, the pigeons circling
as fumestacks billow a noxious black smoke.
She is welcoming them back to the dry earth,
giving them dresses in tangerine and teal,
woven cotton shirts dyed blue.

She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind’s breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon’s curving lens.

I wrote this poem from Tower #2, from a small firebase located southeast of Mosul (in the small village of Al Ma’badi, just off the Tigris River). Of course, in the poem I mention the Halabjah skyline—I took the leap to say that I was viewing the Northern city where years before a chemical weapons attack had taken place. One of my questions to you is if you think this has been navigated right. That is, can we write dispatches from the front, poems from the front lines of the war, and have them take leaps/liberties such as this one?

But I stray from my intent. If you look at the poem above, it might appear a fairly simple poem. I wanted that. I wanted most of these poems to work very directly and to mirror what I saw happening, as if I were an ’embedded poet’ while there. However, as a poet, I wanted deeper structures to thrive as well. I wanted the line itself to have integrity (something I’ll get back to more in subsequent postings). In this particular poem, I wanted an Ode structure. I didn’t realize this as I first began writing the poem. I didn’t sit there in the guard tower and think, “I want to write an ode, today.” However, as I began to shape the draft there in the tower, I do remember realizing that an ode was coming out on the page. The first stanza sets up the throw of the line, the breath, and the narrative situation—we have a very rough idea of the strophe. The second stanza takes a decided turn (“She is dressing the dead . . . “)—a definite antistrophe. In the final stanza, the poem shifts to a new place; the dead are revisiting the earth—we now have an epode.

I’m curious to learn if others find this true in their own works. I think it’s important because, for me, I learned that when times get hard, and intense, and when I most need to write poetry, deeper structures and learned craft knowledge are there to guide me.

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, February 27th, 2006 by Brian Turner.