Our Bodies the Instruments of Love

Brian Turner

“I have no advice for anybody; except to, you know, be awake enough to see where you are at any given time, and how that is beautiful, and has poetry inside, even places you hate.” —Jeff Buckley

“I sense the world might be more dreamlike, metaphorical, and poetic than we currently believe… I wouldn’t be surprised if poetry…in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes and designs—is how the world works. The world isn’t logical, it’s a song.” —David Byrne

My best friend died of cancer in 2012 at the age of forty-five.

We were born four days apart and shared the same first name—though we didn’t meet until his family moved from Minnesota to California and into the same cul-de-sac when we were seven years old. We were raised like brothers from then on out. Beginning in our late teens, we played in a series of bands—always with Brian on guitar and me on bass. We banged out chords and broke strings and blew out the only speakers we had playing grunge rock in Fresno long before the term was coined to describe the genre. We played with speed metal drummers and jazz drummers and even one drummer who missed two weeks of practice after his girlfriend stabbed him in the hand with a fork. We recorded demos and Christmas tapes and a couple of different albums, though mostly we sweated-out the hours going over set lists in dingy practice spaces or lost ourselves jamming until something electric buzzed in the air and in our bodies and time itself stood still.

After his death, I didn’t think I’d ever make music again. My bass rested on a guitar stand in the spare bedroom for at least two or three years, gathering dust and silence, with one of Brian’s guitars beside it, more tombstone than instrument.

The Dead Guys in Fresno

Ghosts? Oh, I’ve got ghosts. They visit out on the porch
sometimes when the wind blows through, chimes
ringing in the trees. My brother describes the Fentanyl
and pancreatic cancer in his veins, that cold blueing
of the pistol in Johnny’s mouth. This is Fresno
he’s telling me about. Home. Where the fog rolls over
the San Joaquin Valley. He says something about the one
he loved, long gone now, the one who moved to Ohio
because he just never could say the words out loud,
the most important things. A sad kind of gift
from the father to the son. He tells me he’s sorry
about all that happened to Uncle Paul,
the way his body fell apart in equal measure
to the way his life fell apart. As it is for many.
And Pleshy. Remember him? How he shot himself
in the face, but didn’t die, just moaning in the yard
with his blown-off jaw bleeding in the dirt.
These things we do to ourselves, my brother says.
These things we do to each other. Remember
how we fought over the girl with the bustier, that night
we crushed cross-tops and snorted them off a table, then
smoked weed on the rooftop to bring ourselves down?
Remember the LSD, the mushrooms, the crystal meth,
the crack pipe, that joint dipped in formaldehyde?
How we survived our twenties I don’t have a clue,
though maybe it was the music. Tube amplifiers.
Kick drums. Distortion that brought something
new and beautiful into the world. The set list played
over and again until the air itself charged electric,
A minor/ D minor/ G, B minor at the bridge,
our bodies humming a new vocabulary we swore
to honor with our lives. Remember that, he says.
And of course I do. It’s all jumbled around inside of me.
The whole city of Fresno. Divisidero Street. Blackstone.
Skinheads with their aluminum bats. Veteranos
with Bulldogs tattooed across their necks. Hmong
and Laotian tagged on the fencelines. A police officer
shining a light into my eyes, as if he had any idea
what might be found there in those widening
pools where the ghosts are, my brother
among them now, saying, You know, it’s not true,
I told her how much I loved her, all kinds
of ways, all the time, but she left me just the same.

Profound loss can have a way of surprising us, no matter how much we steel ourselves for the inevitable.

Half a year after Brian died, and a couple of years before my father died, my wife, poet Ilyse Kusnetz, was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. She lived with cancer for another three years before crossing over, as the Hospice people say, in September of 2016. In less than five years, the people who I held most dear—at the very core of my life—were gone.


When I think of my father in the ICU, intubated,
with whole decades of our lives tunneling in
as I tried to give voice to the last words
ever, and the language failed me, completely,
it’s his expression that comes to mind,
such tenderness, such compassion.
There is so much my eyes have seen,
that my hands have done, and yet
I know almost nothing. How many losses
will it take for something like wisdom to set in.
How many doorways into the sublime need to open
for me to fully inhabit the wider landscape
of the soul. There is no false humility in this, just
one human being looking inward and remembering
my brother’s voice on the phone, that last call
after a year of chemo and the doctor’s death sentence
coming due, my brother saying You don’t even know
how good a glass of water tastes. And of course
he’s right. I light the candles as each anniversary
arrives. For Ilyse. For my father. For my brother.
Votive candles for uncles, grandparents, friends
long gone. Each an act of memory. Devotion. Lament.
I watch these figures move under a statue of Buddha,
how they sway to the teardrop of light pooling
in a well of beeswax. Do they gather around me
so that we might remember their days on Earth,
or are they here to help me on my own way, in this
slow crossing of mine, the small deaths I usher in
each day, as the dead whisper all that must be done,
gesturing me toward them, saying It’s okay, It’s alright,
there is no dying of the light, there is only this
shimmering dusk, this gathering of souls
into the deep shadow of a mountain.

In time, I found the only thing that helped, if it did at all, was music. It wasn’t the physical act of playing that did it. It wasn’t being lost in several hours of mantra-like strumming, the body and the instrument becoming one, the human voice wailing its way into god’s ear. For me, it was the composition process. The recording studio. The piecing together of fragments so that the living and the dead might be together once more. Ilyse’s voice. Brian’s guitar.

It began with Brian’s guitar. I think sometime in 2014 or so I listened to a few recordings he and I had made one afternoon in his Fresno apartment years before, in 2005, after I returned home from the war in Iraq. We’d recorded several songs using only one microphone, with Brian on a steel string acoustic and me on a nylon string with a boomy tone. Thankfully, bassist and music engineer Benjamin Kramer was able to drop the bass frequencies (effectively erasing my playing, for the most part) and isolate Brian on his steel string. We could now bring in others to inhabit the song so that it might be fully realized—augmenting it into a version or variation of something he might be proud of.

This process sparked something in me, too. I began to pick up my bass. I added a Phil Jones bass amp. I bought a Gibson electric. I set my old trumpet aside and began playing the flugelhorn. Another friend and musician, Jared Silvia, encouraged me to explore electronic music. I added a Resonant Garden from Folktek, along with an O-Coast synthesizer from MakeNoise. I learned how to play my flugelhorn through these (and a variety of pedals)—a process that stretched my understanding of sound and acoustic space.

Several projects arose from these experiments. When I most needed to hear her, my love, Ilyse, I turned to interviews and poetry readings recorded over the course of her lifetime. And, in doing so, a question came to mind—how can I collaborate with her and her work directly, with her as the lead voice, so that she might shape the meditation? All of this gave me the kernel of an idea which eventually became an entire album of experimental music “11 11 (Me, Smiling)” with a band I created to see it done—The Interplanetary Acoustic Team. “Light Sketch”

I’m not claiming that music saved my life. And I’m not claiming that it hasn’t, either.
I’m just too far down inside of it all to know, one way or the other.

Someone tells me that David Bowie has died.

Of course, David Bowie is always dying.
Song by song, dying. And something about that
places him outside of time. Alive. Singing.
Otherworldly, David Bowie. Celestial traveler.
Bowie spinning through the darkness
as the Earth spins toward the next millennium,
or maybe toward the last day of our own lives.
The memorials afterward. His music
playing in the heads of those passing by.
Music that recognizes the finite
within the infinite. The you. The me.
The world we have come to love
but does not love us in return.

Someone tells me that the world is dying.
The world is always dying, only this time
it isn’t a story, or a failure of the imagination.
The world is dying and it’s a Tuesday.
The winged creatures are still flying.
The angry and the sick and the confused
and the beautiful and the kind and the lost
continue in their myriad ways to sing
into a wound so vast some call it a cathedral,
some call it a god, some call it their one precious life.

It’s 2021. I’ve created a new band called THE HEAVY EVERYTHING. We’ve roughed out an album of rock music and we’re about to lay in the vocals. The album: Summertime. It’s meant to be a kind of road trip album. Something to listen to with the windows rolled down, the volume up high with an ocean ahead, wind in your hair, America disappearing in the rearview mirror, sunlight burnishing the world in blue and gold.

In places, I’ve lifted old chord passages from songs that Brian and I once played back in the day and made them new. I’ve written the songs while playing guitar on most of the tracks—banging out the chords, breaking strings, cranking up the volume to make the speakers hum. And it’s as if I’ve become the instrument now. And yes, I realize just how mystical this might sound for many, but it’s as if Brian is somehow playing through me. He’s inside of the music. And, if you listen close, real close, I promise, and this is the god’s honest truth—you’ll hear Ilyse singing along, too.

Brian Turner is the author of two collections of poetry: Here, Bullet (Alice James Books, 2005) and Phantom Noise (Alice James Books, 2010). His memoir My Life as a Foreign Country (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014) has also been translated into Italian (N.N. Editore, 2016) and Dutch (Der Arbeiderspers, 2015). He’s the editor of The Kiss (W.W. Norton & Co., 2018) and co-edited The Strangest of Theatres (McSweeney’s/Poetry Foundation, 2013). His poems and collections have been translated into Arabic, Dutch, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.

Turner served for seven years in the US Army. He was an infantry team leader for a year in Iraq with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division (2003-2004). Prior to that, he deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina with the 10th Mountain Division (1999-2000).

His poetry and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, National Geographic, Harper’s Magazine, Shortlist, Poetry Daily, Virginia Quarterly Review and other fine journals. Turner was featured in the documentary film Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience, which was nominated for an Academy Award. He is a Guggenheim Fellow, and he’s received a USA Hillcrest Fellowship in Literature, an NEA Literature Fellowship in Poetry, the Amy Lowell Traveling Fellowship, a US-Japan Friendship Commission Fellowship, the Poets’ Prize, and a Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation. His work has appeared on National Public Radio, the BBC, Newshour with Jim Lehrer, Here and Now, and on Weekend America, among others.

The poems in “Our Bodies the Instruments of Love” are part of a forthcoming collection (All of Us Dying in Jack Gilbert’s Arms). He is the founding director of the MFA program at Sierra Nevada University and he lives in Orlando, Florida.

Instagram: @turners_lens