Fresno native Brian Turner packed his poetry and went to war. Now, he’s returned with an acclaimed memoir.
With “My Life as a Foreign Country,” Turner has earned both accolades and, it seems, a measure of peace. The former infantryman has also fleshed out what he previously hinted at in poems dug from the hard ground in Iraq.
“The landscape is war,” Turner said in an interview, not for the first time, “but the actual subject is love and loss.”
Now 47, Turner is a thrice-published author. His first two volumes, “Phantom Noise” and “Here, Bullet,” were published by a small, quality outfit called Alice James Books. His latest, 212 pages of prose armored between hard covers, was published by W.W. Norton, which is big time.
Serious writers are saluting him. Tim O’Brien, author of the Vietnam War revelation, “The Things They Carried,” calls Turner’s book “brilliant and beautiful.” Critics in England, where it was first published, have deployed terms like “uncompromising,” “fevered” and “hallucinatory.”
Turner calls his book necessary, for himself if for no one else.
“When you get your head around difficult things,” Turner said, “it helps you move forward.”
In some ways, Turner did not seem to be cut out for soldiering. After attending Madera High School, Fresno City College and California State University, Fresno, he earned a master of fine arts in poetry from the University of Oregon. He was 30, kind of old for ground-pounding, when he enlisted.
In other ways, Turner reveals in his memoir how he was made for the fight. His father Marshall, who still lives in Fresno, had raised him in the martial arts. Marshall had served. Turner’s grandfather had served. His uncle had served, as had his dad’s friends, like Fresno-area trumpeter Ray Ramos, once a mortarman in Vietnam.
“I signed the paper and joined the infantry because at some point in the hero’s life the hero is supposed to say ‘I swear,’” Turner writes, adding later, “I signed the paper because I knew that on some deep and immutable level, I would leave and I would never come back.”
Turner entered Iraq in December 2003 with other members of 1st Platoon, Blackhorse Company, part of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team. A Stryker is a medium-weight armored vehicle, named for two Medal of Honor recipients and equipped with relatively quiet rubber tires that helped earn Turner’s men a new nom de guerre, the Ghostriders.
They had previously called themselves the Bonecrushers.
“They performed remarkably well in Samarra and Mosul, quelled the violent streets of Baghdad, fought and won in Tal Afar,” a 2006 study of the Stryker brigade published by the U.S. Army’s Center for Military History recounted.
As told in “My Life as a Foreign Country,” Turner’s combat tour combined constant fear, close calls, confusion and dark humor. He kept his BS detector dialed up high, sometimes turning it on himself in hopes he could stay true.
Turner kept journals, which he would later use to fact-check his own memories. Sometimes what he remembered was wrong. He kept count of his men. He kept by his side, for a while, the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, a timeless stoic.
“I definitely was not some super soldier,” Turner said. “I served with people who were capable, and who enabled me to come back home.”
Some of his war stories, Turner does not tell. They belong to others, he says. Other stories, he knows, may miss the mark.
“I have my perception of the moment,” Turner said, “but the guy to the left and the guy to the right of me may have had different perceptions.”
Turner served a total of seven years in the Army. His “Here, Bullet,” published in 2005, was considered the first collection of poems by an Iraq war veteran and helped him win a fellowship to spend a year outside North America.
Other fellowships and lots of travel ensued. In his acknowledgments, Turner recounts that portions of his book were written at a bar in Belgrade, a lodge in Phnom Penh and a hotel in Hanoi. It was, Turner allowed with a laugh, “pretty vagabond.”
Keeping with the far-flung theme, Turner’s wife, poet Ilyse Kusnetz, recalled in one online interview that their first real date was in Ireland.
Turner and Kusnetz now live in Orlando, Fla., where Kusnetz teaches. Turner chairs the master of fine arts program at Sierra Nevada College, located at Lake Tahoe. Later this year, he will be in Santa Cruz for a book event, and he may drive over the hills back to Fresno while he’s there, back to the place where he first dreamed of being an author.
“Sgt. Turner is dead,” he writes. “Some nights he walks the streets and alleys of Mosul, in the company of the dead. Others, he steps into the homes of the living, perches on the beds of lovers, and considers the world as it continues on.”