‘My Life as a Foreign Country’

MY LIFE AS A FOREIGN COUNTRY. By Brian Turner. Norton. 212 pages. $23.95,

To such defining works on the experience of war as Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” (1990), add the compelling, often lyrical “My Life as a Foreign Country” by Iraq veteran, poet and author Brian Turner.

Turner wields a poetic sensibility, by turns stark and surreal, in a attempt to make the reality of war comprehensible, with understanding his only agenda.

Home at last after service in the U.S. Army, each night Turner drifts to sleep imagining himself to be a drone aircraft surveying the killing fields of Iraq and Bosnia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Northern Ireland and all the places that the insanity of war has fastened its grip.

“Countries are touching countries and I cross them from one to another, trying to shake the past and find a world I can live in.”

As realistic violence find its metaphors in dream states and poetic excursions, the boundaries between peoples and nations dissolve and we are left with a fundamentally human account, one which sees through others’ eyes as readily and as vividly as Turner’s own: a bomb maker, quietly assembling “Death’s cold and metallic invitation”; a mother, distraught; an Iraqi doctor surveying the carnage; a child kissing her father’s cheek; a Turkish cook, dying.

Ghosts are as much Turner’s companions as his fellow soldiers. “I begin to imagine a landscape of ghosts. The way photographers talk about the presence of the dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg. How their shadows fall among the leaves of grass and the stalks of purple thistleweed in the early morning light of Antietam, beyond the sunken road and in Miller’s cornfields ... the dead in Agincourt and Senlac Hill. The trenches of the Somme. The beachhead at Anzac Cove. Ghosts lying under the leafed-out trees along the Chickahominy River. Vicksburg. Cold Harbor.”

At the same time, the poems he read and those he wrote in his notebooks during the lulls between combat amplified a sense of separation from ghost or living comrade: “The language of the journal entries and poetry forged an internal space within me, a space that didn’t belong to the army or to the community of soldiers I served with.”

Turner, today director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada College and a resident of Orlando, Fla., pulls no punches in describing the tableau of battle or its impact on civilian populations. He finds in the aptly named “theater” of war the intoxication and pathology of it, a realm bereft of reason where generation after generation of soldiers have marched, one war after another, to oblivion or lasting anguish. Still, while assaying its moral conflicts and gruesome reality, Turner’s book is no mere anti-war screed. It is a deeply felt paean to those who came home in body bags, “radiating a kind of hushed and sacred presence.”

At some point, the reader must wonder how a man of so perceptive an intelligence and sensitivity could have been drawn into such a foolish, futile war as Iraq. And the answer is complex. In part it was his father’s example, having to do with a conventional definition of manhood, one analogous to journeys into wild places “where profound questions are given a violent and inexorable response,” where one might “travail through fire and return again.”

In the aftermath, Turner reflects: “Maybe it isn’t that it’s so difficult coming home, but that home isn’t a big enough space for all that I must bring to it ... not large enough to contain the war each soldier brings home.”

His memoir is surpassingly sad and disquieting, and as profound sympathy washes over the reader, so does the war’s horror. Turner still cannot quite answer his overriding question: How does anyone leave behind a war, its deep reservoirs of trauma and ruined worlds and somehow waltz into the rest of his life?

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a free-lance writer and editor based in Charleston.