25 September 2014

Book Review: 'My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir'

"My Life as a Foreign Country: A Memoir" by Brian Turner

Reading in front of an audience, from behind his fighting-position podium, the poet-turned-veteran surges, then retreats, transitioning back and forth between gritty words and pithy, almost light-hearted insights. Brian Turner, who fought as an infantry NCO in the Iraq War, always seems to have a serious glint of good humor in his eyes. He's aiming for something, peering through his optics, and wants you to see it, too.

With his much-cited war poems, such as "Here, Bullet" (read it here) and "The Hurt Locker," Turner was one of the first writers to take literary point for his generation of 21st century troops. Through words and deeds, Turner has led the way for other veterans to share their own wars, while encouraging civilians to look at conflict with new eyes.

Turner is a force of nature, a learned army of one. Spitting bullets of wisdom, Turner is like the Dalai Lama with a machine gun.

Turner is full of surprises. His memoir is one of them.

Those who have read Turner's poetry collections (2005's "Here, Bullet" and 2010's "Phantom Noise") may hear echoes of familiar stories in his new memoir, the 224-page "My Life as a Foreign Country." There are, for example, downrange suicides, nighttime house raids, and piss bottles chucked at kids. There are also new connections, however, to stories of Turner's family and personal history. These events are woven into a complex and artful narrative, something like a prayer rug, one that invites the appreciation of pattern, as well as parts.

The book's format nearly defies description. Indeed, to label it "memoir" seems almost too workaday, too pedestrian, for the fluid, dream-like quality of it all. This is not some run-at-the-mouth, just-the-alleged-facts war story, the kind that predictably begins "there I was ..." and ends with tall tales of deeds, whether heroic or inhumane.

Field-stripping it down into its component parts is also equally unhelpful: The book is constructed of 135-plus present-tense fragments—some only a few lines in length, others more than a few pages—numbered and grouped into ten chapter-length, untitled sections. Such a description does not make it sound very accessible. Its reality is just the opposite.

Indeed, reassembled as read, the sections link into chains that deliver belt-fed, continuous fire. For example:
There is something in the landscape itself that makes me circle back to it, whether it's jungle or the American West, the woodlands of France, the American South, deserts, rivers, beaches—all perceived, in some ways, as wild spaces, where the architecture of civilization is not at play, the context of human society somehow absent or suspended. A space where the rules are upended. The theater of war, some call it. [...]

To be a man, I would need to walk into the thunder and hail of a world stripped of its reasons, just as others in my family done before me. And, if I were strong enough, and capable enough, and god-damned lucky enough, I might one day returned clothed in an unshakable silence. Back to the world, as they say. [p. 103-104]
Turner's memoir is poetry for people who don't read poetry, non-fiction for people who don't read the news, and "fictional" enough (at least in technique) to fill in the narrative cracks.

This last point is important, given Turner's careful construction, creation, and continued consideration of his own wartime persona. Don't act surprised. All writers do this, filtering narratives and details—even non-fiction ones—to create story and character.

In 2003, Turner deployed to Iraq armed with an MFA and poems already in his pocket. And, in preparation for that deployment, along with the last wills and testaments familiar to all soldiers, he also specified a literary executor. Turner, in short, was not an everyday infantryman. Turner went to war with a mission, primed to observe and report not only on what he saw and experienced, but also on himself, placed in a particular time and terrain.

Now, time and terrain are shifting, and it will be interesting to see what happens next in Turner's poetic life. "Sgt. Turner is dead," he writes toward the end of his memoir. "Some nights he walks the streets and alleys of Mosul, in the company of the dead. Others, he steps in to the homes of the living, perches on the beds of lovers, and considers the world as it continues on." [p. 199]

Even committed to the page, then, a personal history can change, in the telling and re-telling ... or in the re-reading. In this, one is reminded of an anecdote earlier in Turner's memoir, in which a family member is caught on black-and-white film during a beach assault on World War II Guam. Turner writes:
I never considered the cameraman because I have become the camera—its images preserved through the words with which Papa and my parents created the story, the words I've shifted and reshifted, viewing the scene over and over as the years go by. When it comes down to it, we are the camera. [p. 96-97]
As always, Turner is aiming for something, peering through his optics. He wants you to see it, too.

Because you are the camera.

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