Brian Turner, "Ashbah"
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 soulfull 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.
NPR on Brian Turner's poetry, including some audio recordings of him reading.
Last week, I posted about teaching war poems by Walt Whitman and Richard Lovelace, and G. Lupino kindly answered my request for help with a more modern war poet by pointing me to Turner. So I found a couple poems on the NPR site, made some fair use copies for my students, and tried to teach this poem today. I went all high media and we even listened to Turner read it!
I failed miserably. I think it's an interesting poem, but also one that's difficult for my students to discuss in class. Having chosen the poems I have, I think it's likely my students think I'm anti-war in general. It's a reasonably supposition, given the poems I'm teaching and they're reading. (But even if I were totally pro-war, it would be hard to find much war poetry that's really pro-war.)
But the Iraq war is so divisive that it's hard for students to talk openly about what we think. We've heard too much nastiness about how being against the war means we're pro-terrorist or whatever.
My students are uncomfortable confronting people (especially professors) with disagreement, though sometimes they're ready to complain to higher ups that a professor hasn't been open to disagreement. My sense, and it's only from my point of view, is that I try to be open, but that my authority in the room makes disagreement difficult nonetheless.
There was one stellar moment in the class, towards the end of the hour (which is really not an hour, of course), when one student said he hadn't really liked the poem (because we'd devolved to that level) because it felt pointless. Another student said she thought that WAS the point, that the pointless feeling reflects the pointless wandering of the American soldier ghosts, and maybe the pointlessness of the war. But boy, getting there was painful.
I'm looking forward to next week. We'll be taking up the always fun "My Last Duchess." I think my students find it a lot easier to talk about wife-murder. But I'm not comforted by that thought.