“If a body is what you want, then here is bone, and gristle, and flesh…” the voice of poet Brian Turner boomed out abruptly over the audience, which was packed into the Bookfellow Room on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 30.
“What the hell is that all about, right? ‘Is he just going to yell poems at me all day long?’” Turner said in a more amiable tone after concluding his first poem.
The author of two poetry collections, “Here, Bullet” (2005) and “Phantom Noise” (2010), he has received numerous prestigious awards, been published in various poetry journals and featured on National Public Radio and more.
Turner also served for seven years in the U.S. Army, including one year as an infantry team leader in Iraq.
During his introduction, Associate Professor of English Nicholas Regiacorte mused over how many manifestations of his selfhood must follow Turner around.
“As I return to Turner’s books, I keep thinking about the number of selves we carry and for how long,” he said.
Through Turner’s poems of wartime carnage — graphic and gory in a tale of a battlefield combat scene, or private and haunting in a portrait of a female soldier experiencing the effects of sexual abuse —Turner offered an often-veiled world.
But he continued to circle back to the world at large that “we live in today,” and people’s part in it as writers and global citizens.
Paraphrasing William Stafford, he explained that the job of the writer is not to pose solutions, but rather to ask the questions more clearly.
“I have no answers … but I do wonder how light defines us. How will you be defined? What will you do?” were questions he put to his rapt audience.
“Is the war over?” he asked, describing his grandfather, who fought against the Japanese. “You would recognize that you were in the presence of WWII. The war is still alive, ‘cause it’s carried inside of us,” he said.
Questions that followed were “How do you say hello in Arabic? How do you say goodbye? Do you know the word for friend? Do you know the word for love? How long have we been fighting people who speak Arabic?”
How do people transcend boundaries, he wondered, offering that “maybe the word ‘we’ can teach us something.”
Turner did not beat around the bush.
“I want to be really plain, and I don’t want to put a lot of embellishment on it, but there’s a lot of weight that’s being transferred from generations before you,” he said.
Pleased with Turner as a poet and performer, Professor of English Robin Metz characterized his poems as “wide-eyed with horror. And it’s not a shrinking violet’s perspective; he’s been there, he’s seen it, he tells you the truth.”
Senior Sammy Maffeo, who had read his work and seen him perform previously, again appreciated hearing his take on the modern day and age. “He has a strong personality,” she added.
Metz described Turner’s move of giving out his phone number to the audience as “generous,” noting that “the fundamental impulse of art begins with generosity.” It was this same ebullient generosity and care that ran throughout Turner’s words to the audience, with the poet repeatedly checking in to see how his audience was faring.
He was generous with his time too, staying afterwards to sign copies and chat with audience members, and coming to Knox in the first place as an outside observer for senior Rana Tahir’s Honors project, according to Regiacorte.