Since the end of the Civil War, the last Monday in May has been set aside as Memorial Day, a day to honor all Americans who have died in military service for their country. There will be opportunities to celebrate by singing patriotic songs, wave flags in time with bands in parades, and eat barbecue.
There is, however, little to celebrate in the details of a death that occurs in military combat. The specifics in a soldier’s death are painful to hear or to read, but our discomfort should not prevent us from acknowledging the depth and breadth of each soldier’s sacrifice. Many of the returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are writing about their personal experiences and noting the sacrifices made by their fellow soldiers. These veterans write memoirs and include stories about friends who were killed. They recall their intimate thoughts when they themselves confronted death. They write about the grisly horrors they witnessed in war. Some write about people they killed in conflict. Some fictionalize accounts of their military experiences. Brian Turner writes poetry.
Brian Turner was an infantry team leader with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division from November 2003 where he served in Iraq. He already had an MFA from the University of Oregon before he joined to serve seven years in the U.S. Army. His first book of poetry, Here, Bullet, chronicles his time in Iraq. In the video below, he reads the title poem at Bowdoin College (November 29, 2005) in a film by documentary filmmaker Eric Herter, sponsored by From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of emerging poets, http://www.fishousepoems.org.
If a body is what you want
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable flight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood.
Our 11th graders review this poem and several other Turner poems when they read Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, another piece of literature that is dedicated to the sacrifices made by soldiers during war. O’Brien’s connected short stories about an Army platoon during the Vietnam War also comes from his personal experience. In both works, images are painfully raw; some of the language in each is vulgar. Our students appreciate the authenticity and the authority of these voices in capturing the images of war. In O’Brien’s stories and in Turner’s poetry, war does not provide reasons for celebration other than the celebration of war’s end and the return of soldiers to their homes.
Consequently, Turner’s poetry does not give the reader the parade, picnic, or flag waving poetry that people recall in images about Memorial Day. His poetry is a painful tribute; an agonizing truth that people must remember. His poetry reminds us that our freedom has been purchased at a cost, and that cost may be through another’s suffering. His voice reminds us why we should never forget that cost, why there is a Memorial Day.