The ghosts of American soldiers

I am a firm believer in the capacity of literature to enable and ennoble human being, and also to accommodate complexities that other kinds of discourse don’t or won’t make room for. So, alarmed by the spectre of soldiers counselled into resilient optimism, I am reassured by the spate of poetry produced by US soldiers active in the middle east across the last decade. The AFR today has a review by New Yorker Courtney Cook of Brian Turner’s collections Here, Bullet (2005) and Phantom Noise (2010) that concludes thus: “Turner shows us soldiers who are invincible and wounded, a nation noble and culpable, and a war by turns necessary and abominable. He brings us closer to our own phantom guilt and speaks the words that we both do and do not want to hear.” Far more than fixed smiles and trauma resistance, such ambivalent writings are to me indicative of humanity flourishing in the most inhospitable of soils. Here is Turner’s poem “Ashbah”:

The ghosts of American soldiers
wander the streets of Balad by night,

unsure of their way home, exhausted,
the desert wind blowing trash
down the narrow alleys as a voice

sounds from the minaret, a soulful call
reminding them how alone they are,

how lost. And the Iraqi dead,
they watch in silence from rooftops
as date palms line the shore in silhouette,

leaning toward Mecca when the dawn wind blows.