STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The poet Wilfred Owen once wrote: `My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.' Owen's conflict was World War I, which he did not survive. The war in Iraq has now produced a poet who is winning widespread praise. His name is Brian Turner, and he was a sergeant in the US Army. He was part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade as soldiers moved about in armored vehicles. After he returned, Turner published a little book called "Here, Bullet." He says he joined the military because it was a family tradition.
Sergeant BRIAN TURNER (Poet): My grandfather was the Marines in World War II, and my father was a Russian linguist in the Cold War, when there was an Cold War, and he was flying over Russian air space and stuff like that. So I heard these stories, as I was growing up, that intrigued me and it was a life of adventure, it seemed to me. So there always sort of a pull towards that.
INSKEEP: But you went after poetry first.
Sgt. TURNER: I did. At first, I decided I thought I'd got to college, and it took me a while to get through both of those, bachelor's degree and then a master's degree, and at that time, I felt, no, it was a means of providing for my family very quickly. There was a lot of benefits that come with being in the military.
INSKEEP: When did you write these poems about Iraq?
Sgt. TURNER: I wrote them while I was there. There were two or three that I wrote afterwards, but the bulk of it, including 10 or 15 poems that never made it into the manuscript, were written while I was there.
INSKEEP: How were they written?
Sgt. TURNER: Just fleeting moments when I'd have time to write them, late at night with a flashlight if I had to, so I didn't want to wake up my buddies or whatever, I'd have the red-lens flashlight and write down my notes and my journaling and poems sometimes.
INSKEEP: I wonder if I could get you to read one of these poems on page 18. There's a poem...
Sgt. TURNER: Page 18.
INSKEEP: ...here called "Ashbah."
Sgt. TURNER: That's a transliteration of the Arabic and it's supposed to mean ghosts.
(Reading) "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. There's 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.
INSKEEP: Do you remember where you were when you wrote that?
Sgt. TURNER: I believe I was north of Baghdad and I was remembering a street where we had to go one night. We had to pull security while some Iraqi policemen were nearby, and they shot a couple gunshots at a car coming up to their checkpoint, and it just sort of triggered that poem. So--because death seemed so--it comes to each side to everyone there in Iraq. And also the soldiers who die there, there's a sense of place, and do they ever leave that place? I don't know.
INSKEEP: You mean the place where they died?
Sgt. TURNER: Yeah, yeah.
INSKEEP: You also write about a gigantic cemetery in Najaf, Iraq, one of the Shiite holy cities where people are brought to be buried from other parts of the country and, indeed, other parts of the Islamic world. Why don't you read that?
Sgt. TURNER: Sure.
(Reading) "Najaf 1820." Camel caravans transport the dead from Persia and beyond, the bodies dried and wrapped in carpets; their dying wishes to be buried near Ali, where the first camel dragged Ali's body across the desert, tied to the fate of its exhaustion. Najaf is where the dead naturally go, where the gates of paradise open before them in unbanded light, the blood washed clean from their bodies. It is November, the clouds made of gun powder and rain, the earth pregnant with the dead, cemetery mounds stretching row by row with room enough yet for what the years will bring. The grave diggers need only dig, shovel by shovel.
INSKEEP: Why is it called "Najaf 1820"?
Sgt. TURNER: I wanted to look back but, at the same time, actually be speaking about the present, because I was in Mosul when I wrote this one, and we were south of Mosul, and it was late summer. I remember seeing a cemetery and there were these black mounds, because they bury the dead oftentimes with mounds of dirt over the grave itself, and the earth was rich and black and fresh, and you could see so many of them. And that's what triggered it for me.
INSKEEP: Did you feel that you made a difference in Iraq?
Sgt. TURNER: Only for the people I worked with, the three or four on my team and then my squad. I don't feel like we did very much of that.
INSKEEP: You wrote a poem about a suicide...
Sgt. TURNER: Yeah.
INSKEEP: ...an actual suicide. You write, `Private Miller pulls the trigger to take brass and fire into his mouth.' Who was Private Miller?
Sgt. TURNER: He was in the 2nd Squad of my platoon, and he killed himself while we were there, March 22nd. And he was a really good kid, really good guy. We just--nobody really saw it coming. In the poem, I tried not to go into why he would do it. I tried to sort of do the opposite and look at that maybe now he's found some peace, and so that's why at the end, there's that--the idea that he's found what low hush there is, the sort of stillness and quiet down by the river. Because we were right by the Tigris River, like, you know, a hundred feet away from it. And I felt it important that it needed to be read by other people.
Because when we came back, we were on a parade field, and I remember the colonel gave a speech, and during the speech, he had a poignant moment where he paused and he said he wanted a moment of silence while he read the names of those that we'd left behind. And he read the names, but he omitted Private Miller's name, and he didn't say it. And that--it astounded me and it angered me. And I'd already written the poem when I was there a couple days after after the--and when it happened.
INSKEEP: I wonder if his family knows that a poem was written about him and it's in a book that's won an award and gotten a lot of attention.
Sgt. TURNER: I am concerned about that. I hope that if they do come across it, though, they'll find it respectful.
INSKEEP: Brian Turner is the author of "Here, Bullet." You can read the poem about Private Miller, called "Eulogy," by going to npr.org.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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