Brian Turner is a former infantry team leader from the US Army. He toured in Iraq in 2003-4, where he wrote his first published collection, Here, Bullet. That was an extraordinary set of poems, documenting the violence of Iraq’s troubled streets far more intensely than the indifferent reportage of newsrooms. I discovered it through one of my occasional bouts of Keith Douglas obsession, finding a review in which Turner was compared to the Second World War poet. The comparison was justified and didn’t just stop at the professional similarities of two soldiers encountering bloody conflicts. There is something of Douglas’ style in Turner. Its hallmarks are these: striking visual images, no authorial commentary or passing of judgement, an urgent sense of what it was like to be alive during events described, and – as Douglas himself would have put it – absolutely no bullshit. Turner’s 2010 collection, Phantom Noise, sees him returned to his family in California, attempting to process all he has seen and done in Iraq. I found it a huge step forwards from Here, Bullet. It’s not just that Turner has improved as a poet – which he has – but that by juxtaposing further poems about the heat of conflict with both his childhood memories and difficult moments in which memory intrudes on his life in California, he creates a powerfully personal sense of a small world. America and Iraq become emotionally entangled, as if Iraq is the uneasy subconscious of the West. Below are some videos of Brian Turner reading his work. I was hesitant about searching for them, since I felt like great care had been taken by the poet to construct a collection that would speak for itself, that would document the war from a personal level and not need a framework of explanation. It turns out Turner reads brilliantly and lets the strength of his writing do his talking. On a similar note I’d recommend reading this book from cover to cover. Normally I enjoy the way you can dip in and out of poetry books, but in this one the placement of each poem is impeccable, some of them ricocheting off of what’s come before, some echoing on as you read forward. It will be interesting to see where Turner takes his poetry next. He proves on many occasions in Phantom Noise that he doesn’t need the extreme drama of war to head straight to the emotional core of a situation. I have a feeling he’s going to be a really important writer in the years to come… ~ That’s the end of my list for 2010 – thanks for reading. Throughout January I’ll be setting sail for St. Hauda’s Land to write a series of posts about The Girl with Glass Feet. In the meantime I hope you all have an amazing New Year.
It’s always a pleasure when an artist raises their game. I really enjoyed The Tallest Man on Earth’s first record, Shallow Grave, which came out in 2008. But this year’s two offerings, his album The Wild Hunt and subsequent EP Sometimes the Blues Is Just a Passing Bird were a cut above. Kristian Mattson (for he is The Tallest Man on Earth) has a voice that is keen, earthy and powerful enough to carry each song with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. This is one-man-and-his-guitar music at its best, and the formula works wonders whether it is underpinning slow plaintive tracks such as Like the Wheel (from the EP) or strumming along to more upbeat, folksy tunes like King of Spain (on the album). Having said that, the two songs that really elevated these records were the only two that deviated from the acoustic format. On The Dreamer Mattson plugs in his electric guitar for a pretty anthem that asks the blues to flap away, while on the album finale, Kids On The Run, he knuckles down at an ancient-sounding piano to belt out what for me is the most spellbinding tune of the year. Over the late summer my girlfriend and I did a great deal of driving back and forth to Dorset, and Kids On The Run was the most-played track on the car stereo. I recommend it for twilight journeys back through the countryside. The Tallest Man On Earth – ‘Kids On The Run’ (Barcelona 2010) from Jonah James on Vimeo.
This is probably the best book I’ve read this century. If anyone is still hunting for a definitive Great American Novel, they can find it here. It’s received a great deal of entirely justified acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2007. I read it a few months ago after a good friend lent me his copy. It’s had such a sustained impact that I keep thinking about it. In a nutshell it’s about a man and his boy walking south through an America devastated by an unspecified disaster. The world as we know it has been destroyed and the remnant is an uninhabitable wasteland. The cause and details of this apocalypse are never elaborated because they are entirely unnecessary, as are the names of the father and child. The novel focuses exclusively on their relationship and their fears: the man’s fears for the boy’s safety, the boy’s fears for his father, their fear of fear itself. I should warn you that it is enormously sad, but in a very reflective fashion. It makes you appreciate not just the great loves of your own life, but things as small as clicking open the ring pull of a can of coke. All this is sustained by McCarthy’s use of language. He’s so gifted that in the following NPR review he is accurately described as being able to make something as mundane as a microwave operations manual read like the King James Bible. There are poets who would chop off their hands if only they could first write something as masterful as this book. I have some more books by McCarthy piled up to read in the New Year and after The Road am seriously considering reading nothing by anybody else until I have got through his complete works. I honestly do think he’s that good. Random House have the first few pages excerpted on their site, so you can get a flavour of the book there. There was a film of The Road last year. It’s also very good, even if the trailer makes it sound a little like a zombie holocaust movie, not a haunting and beautiful struggle to find tins of baked beans among the ruins of civilization. A better taster of the film, and also a fitting taster for the book itself, is the soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. But read the book first – you won’t regret it.