For Your Poetic Enjoyment: A contemporary poem dealing with PTSD by an Iraq vet "At Lowe's Home Improvement Center" by Brian Turner with 7 "Inspired by" writing prompts

I don't know if "enjoyment" is exactly the right term, given the subject, but "poetic enjoyment" sounds better, because it's a wonderful poem about a terribly sad situation. So, don't want to talk it up or lead your reading in any way. The poem is in Brian Turner's amazing collection Phantom Noise. If you like this poem 100% you should buy the book. It is a must-have for any modern poetry reader's collection.

Brian Turner is a veteran of Iraq and he also served in Bosnia, his two poetry collections Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise both deal largely with his military and post-military experiences, but not exclusively.

Here is a video of Brian Turner reading the poem

Here is the text of the poem"At Lowe's Home Improvement Center" by Brian Turner:

Photo by Brooke Winters 
At Lowe's Home Improvement Center 

-----< O >-----

Standing in aisle 16, the hammer and anchor aisle,
I bust a 50 pound box of double-headed nails
open by accident, their oily bright shanks
and diamond points like firing pins
from M-4s and M-16s.
                                    In a steady stream
they pour onto the tile floor, constant as shells
falling south of Baghdad last night, where Bosch
kneeled under the chain guns of helicopters
stationed above, their tracer-fire a synaptic geometry
of light.
             At dawn, when the shelling stops,
hundreds of bandages will not be enough.

-----< O >-----

Bosch walks down aisle 16 now, in full combat gear,
improbable, worn out from fatigue, a rifle
slung at his side, his left hand guiding
a ten-year-old boy who sees what war is
and will never clear it from his head.

Here, Bosch says, Take care of him.
I'm going back in for more.

-----< O >-----

Sheets of plywood drop with the airy breath
of mortars the moment they crack open
in shrapnel. Mower blades are just mower blades
and the Troy-Bilt-Self-Propelled Mower doesn't resemble
a Blackhawk or an Apache. In fact, no one seems to notice
the casualty collection center Doc High marks out
in ceiling fans, aisle 15. Wounded Iraqis with IVs
sit propped against boxes as 92 sample Paradiso fans
hover in a slow revolution of blades.

The forklift driver over-adjusts, swinging the tines
until they slice open gallons of paint,
Sienna Dust and Lemon Sorbet and Ship's Harbor Blue
pooling in the aisle where Sgt. Rampley walks through—
carrying someone's blown-off arm cradled like an infant,
handing it to me, saying, Hold this, Turner,
we might find who it belongs to.

-----< O >-----

Cash registers open and slide shut
with a sound of machine guns being charged.
Dead soldiers are laid out at the registers,
on the black conveyor belts,
and people in line still reach
for their wallets. Should I stand
at the magazine rack, reading
Landscaping with Stone or The Complete
Home Improvement Repair Book?
What difference does it make if I choose
tumbled travertine tile, Botticino marble,
of Black Absolute granite. Outside,
palm trees line the asphalt boulevards,
restaurants cool their patrons who will enjoy
fireworks exploding over Bass Lake in July.

-----< O >-----

Aisle number 7 is a corridor of lights.
Each dead Iraqi walks amazed
by Tiffany posts and Bavarian pole lights.
Motion-activated incandescents switch on
as they pass by, reverent sentinels of light,
Fleur De Lis and Luminaire Mural Extérieur
welcoming them to Lowe's Home Improvement Center,
aisle number 7, where I stand in mute shock,
someone's arm cradled in my own.
                                                       The Iraqi boy beside me
reaches down to slide his fingertip in Retro Colonial Blue,
an interior latex, before writing
T, for Tourniquet, on my forehead.

Photo by jan abellan

-                            -                            -                            - 

This is a very sad and lovely poem at the same time. I adore the way the visuals of the two scenes melt together in a surreal way like something from a Charlie Kaufman movie. I'll write a fuller breakdown of this later because I do love it, but don't quite have the time today.


If you'd like to read some more poems about the effect of war, check out Poetry Foundation's wonderful resources. Also I very much recommend Brian Turners books, especially Here, Bullet and Phantom Noise. Also Yusef Komunyakaa's collection of Vietnam poems Dien Cai Dau is tremendous. A couple specific poems would be Komunyakaa's "You and I are Disappearing" and "Facing It".

I also really like these individual war poems:
"Grass" by Carl Sandburg
"Dulce et Decorum Est" by Wilfred Owen
"We Lived Happily During the War" by Ilya Kaminsky
"Belfast Confetti" by Ciaran Carson
"On Being Asked To Write A Poem Against The War In Vietnam" by Hayden Carruth
And oh man, come and see the blood in the streets. Someday soon I'll do a write up of the great Pablo Neruda's heartbreaking poem "I'm Explaining a Few Things" presented here both in the original Spanish and in English.

If you're feeling a like reading something less poetic and more... essay, here is an interesting article about Shell Shock in the poetry of WWI poets like Robert Graves and Wilfred Owen.

And just because I've been listening to the British Folk artist Beans on Toast a lot this week, here's his song "The War on War"... you know, just because it's a fun song that's tangentially related, though being punk rock, it has foul language and illicit topics are discussed. Be warned, it's not for children or those afraid of swear words.


Possible Writing Exercises:

1) Write a piece in which a soldier, returned from war, is going about an errand when he hallucinates or flashes back to a number of things from his past in the war. Decide how much this affects the soldier, how they transition back to their mundane task. Remember the humanity, and avoid stereotypes.
2) Imagine a place where you'd feel safe. Now imagine weapons everywhere. Write a list of at least five items or things that would be in your happy place. Write 2-3 ways in which that item might be used as a weapon. Now think of ten reasons why you might need to use that weapon in that setting, five of which are simple and as reasonable as you can make them, the other five are either absurd or extremely convoluted or just a 'long story'—make at least two of the second batch long run-on sentences.
3) Poetry-by-Numbers. This will be 5 steps, so strap in if you pick this option. This is taking the idea of objects sparking a memory of a different place and being mentally transported there.

  • A) Think of a place (Location B) as far away from wherever you are writing this (Location A) as you can that you know of (whether a city, a historical or geological feature). Google it and check out the city's wikipedia page, look up any famous people that have come from there, interesting history, landmarks etc.—making note of anything that strikes your fancy, anything interesting (at least 5 things). 
  • B) Now look around Location A (where you are) and see if you can find any visual parallels with the things you noted from Location B, noting any you see or can think of that might be in your current location. You need five, so wrack your brain. It should be easy to get ten. For instance, if you're in a home office, you may see a pen holder which bears a vague barrel shape of a penguin should your place be Antarctica, or a gigantic barrel of whiskey at the Suntory Distillery in Osaka.
  • C) Now reverse it and try to think of things that might be found in Location B that may look like something from Location A (where you are)—even if they aren't especially indicative of the specific place, they should just be found there. You need at least three, try to get ten or so. 
  • D) Pick three of your favorite combos from list B and C and explore them a little more. Do they have any other similarities or notable differences? 
  • E) Now write a first person piece where 'you' have just entered Location A and you see one of the things from list D (from Location A) which reminds you of its corresponding item from Location B. Imagine yourself holding or interacting with one of the things from List C that you didn't use for List D when you see one of the places or things you noted in List A and use good detail. Then imagine seeing one of the two remaining items from List D, Location B, which transitions you back to Location A (via the corresponding item). State resignedly that you're not in Location B, you're "in [Location A] with" and list at least 3 things from List B (include two adjectives). Then state "There is no" and list a number of things from your List A as you thought were especially interesting. You can use anywhere from 3-8 things here, and choose your adjectives/verbs carefully. Don't over-describe. End your piece with a description of seeing the last item from List D Location A, then describe how it's standing/sitting/laying etc like its corresponding item in the morning sun/sunset/moonlight. If one of your unmentioned features/items from List A fits in with that final descriptions, include it. Boom. Do a quick editing pass looking for boring phrasing and weak adjective/verbs, excessive articles. Try to remove at least five words, even if you need to rephrase a little bit. Every single rough draft can use a little tightening. 

4) Title Mania: Write a piece titled "At ________" with a specific business listed. Depending on how you handle this it can tell a lot about the piece, or just sell the location.
5) 5 WordsUse this link and change the max number to 452. Write down that number, repeat the process 5 times. Arrange them in order smallest to largest. Go through this piece and count the words until you get to your numbers, writing the word down with the corresponding number. If you have more than two words which are boring/basic words like "in" "their" "of" "I" etc, pick another five words. You have use all ten words. Now write a piece that uses those five words which is no more than 100 words long in total. Now expand that to a piece at least 500 words.
6) Poem in a Poem: Make an erasure poem using this poem. Be sure your final piece is no more than 75 words, and you don't use any large chunks of the original—phrases and a little more, but not sentences.
7) Hyper-focus: Lamps. I like the name/term "Luminaire Mural Extérieur" from the poem when Turner's describing the lamp section. First, take a moment and think about the word illuminate. Think metaphor. Take a minute and read each definition and seriously think about it, don't take short cuts because you know the word, dangit. Don't skip this. This is important for the composition of the poem. Then read through this list of types of lamps, note at least ten types. Fifteen is better. Pick one favorite, and hyperbolically describe why that particular lamp is superior to at least six other types of lamps, at one point outright dismissing a list of 4-6 lamp types.


Want some mellow background writing music? Try this mix of lo fi hip hop called Rainy Days in Osaka