26 May 2014

Poem of the Week 2014/22


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.

Brian Turner

The sense of dislocation in this poem begins immediately: the title of this English-language poem is not an English-language word. Ashbah, we are told in an endnote, is Arabic for ghosts. This poem presents a haunted world, lacking in palpable physical presence: there are the ghosts of American soldiers we hear of in the first line and the Iraqi dead we hear of later (just as many of us think first of our own dead, later of those killed by us), and also the disembodied voice from the minaret, the soulful call, the desert wind and then the dawn wind; even the date palms are seen only in silhouette. The physical place is described in general terms, mostly lacking descriptors that might give us a vivid visual sense of this foreign (to most of us) but very specific place: Balad. Turner mentions the desert, streets, narrow alleys, a minaret, rooftops. But I think most of us will have a sharp awareness that we can supply no concrete mental image here, outside of a generic "middle eastern" stage set. (The possibility that we will come up with a "colorful" moonlight-on-the-minarets image is undercut by one of the few concrete details: what the desert wind blows down the narrow alleys is random trash, just as in any run-down section of any city.)

But Balad, in Iraq, is the location of a major American military base, a central hub for US military operations in that country. There will be exceptions, but most of us readers will feel a further sense of dislocation, between what the Iraqi inhabitants know, and what US military personnel active in the area know, and the little most of us know about the place, despite its importance in our lengthy invasion of that country. A strength of this poem is that, no matter what your opinion of war in general or the Iraq invasion in particular, it concentrates on (and therefore you are forced to see) the sorrows, the spiritual devastation, of war – it is about suffering rather than policy, soldiers and citizens rather than generals and presidents, swept away by larger currents.

We hear nothing in this poem of those living in Balad, outside of the unseen muezzin whose cry is a reminder to the Americans of their alienation from this culture. The ghosts of dead American soldiers wander the streets, deracinated, trapped far from home, exhausted, uncertain. The Iraqi dead feel a bit more present there on their native soil (that's the slight difference in weight between the terms used: ghosts for the Americans, the dead for the Iraqis); they look on in silence, feeling – what? Are they judging the lost Americans, pitying them, feeling contempt for them, or anger, or merely looking on in indifference? All of those things? We can only guess. The poem insistently reminds the reader (again, there will be exceptions to my generalized "reader") that this is an alien culture, with different beliefs and customs: the minaret, the soulful cry (soulful, meaning not just filled with deep emotion but literally a call to fullness of the listener's soul; the call from the minaret is the daily reminder to faithful Moslems to turn to Mecca and pray). But even more, cultural conditioning aside, even if we were there, immersed and aware, the essential mystery in each person would cause him or her to react differently, individually, to this scene of disruption and loss. We know a bit more about the American ghosts (we can see that they would be exhausted, alone, and lost in a land where they are ashbah), but we cannot know for certain about any of them. The mention in the last line of the trees leaning towards the holy city of Mecca and of the dawn wind suggests a different world, one renewed and based on a sense of sacredness, but it is too late for these unknown and unknowing dead.

As in a scene drawn by Goya, we are wrenched out of the familiar and into a strange, eerie landscape with a slightly fantastical vision, both intimate and distant, of the ordinary, largely anonymous soldiers and citizens whose lives were cut short by war. I find a great and even-handed sense of compassion rising from this poem.

Brian Turner is a contemporary American poet. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, and Infantry Division. Before that he had been deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division. In the United States today is Memorial Day, an annual commemoration of the military dead that began after the Civil War. This poem is for that occasion. I took it from Turner's first collection, Here, Bullet.


Unknown said...

I was very moved by this poem, and not at all surprised to read that the poet was a soldier, but he is far from the first poet to have also served in the military, isn't he?

Patrick J. Vaz said...

There's actually a long tradition of soldier-poets, dating back to Aeschylus (and King David). Quite a few of the British poets of World War I were soldiers (many died in combat, in fact). Sir Philip Sidney also died in combat, and I believe Camoes was also a soldier. I'm sure there are others. Maybe there's something about the concentrated intensity of both experiences?

I'm very glad you liked the poem.