War & Peace in 14 Lines

brian turner

Sometimes I don’t pull books off the shelf to read in the conventional sense. Sometimes I pull them to simply read a page or two, an essay, a single poem. This past weekend, the one we designate to gratitude, I happened to pull Brian Turner’s 2005 book of poems, Here, Bullet.

Opening the book randomly, my eyes fell on page 47 to the poem, “Curfew.” Reading it, I found a study in contrasts–if Tolstoy will forgive me, the stark difference between war and peace.

But the contrast doesn’t work unless you live in a war zone.  As Turner served as an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq, he could see more clearly what folks back home could not. Blinded by peacetime, it’s more difficult to see the beauty in a policeman enjoying the sun, a child helping his mother hang clothes, the faithful going to prayer. See what I mean:

 

Curfew by Brian Turner
                                               The wrong is not in the religion,
                                                                       The wrong is in us.  — Saier T.

A dusk, bats fly out by the hundreds.
Water snakes glide in the ponding basins
behind the rubbled palaces. The mosques
call their faithful in, welcoming
the moonlight as prayer.

Today, policemen sunbathed on traffic islands
and children helped their mothers
string clothes to the line, a slight breeze
filling them with heat.

There were no bombs, no panic in the streets.
Sgt. Gutierrez didn’t comfort an injured man
who cupped pieces of his friend’s brain
in his hands; instead, today,
white birds rose from the Tigris.

 

The poem’s effectiveness derives from the shocking imagery of stanza three–specifically the idea of a man holding pieces of his friend’s brain in his hand. Also bombs, panic in the streets–the stuff war zones are made of.

Then, with his reader dismayed, Turner turns back to a peaceful image: “instead, today, / white birds rose from the Tigris.” The transition word “instead” followed by another two-syllable word, “today” (each in rhythm with the other, each slowed by a comma) work perfectly before the idyllic image of white birds rising from the river.

This is what normal looks like. This is what most people fail to observe while normal plays out around them in peacetime. But there’s no taking it for granted in countries torn by war. By contrast, the beauty and the stillness and the ordinariness of what life is supposed to be practically leap out at the observer–in this case the observer, the recorder, the poet.

I closed the book and gave thanks for both poem and peace. And I vowed again to observe the little things that are so immense: dusk, bats, white birds rising for the heavens. War, after all, can visit any country….

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