Sleeping in Dick Cheney’s Bed†
by Brian Turner
I first encountered Wilfred Owen’s poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” as the text set for a literature analysis exam in high school. I sat in the last seat of the row farthest from the door; it was easy to steal a glance out the window behind me. Across the valley, beyond the line of winter-lit trees edging the hilltop campus, the clustered spires of Frederick, Maryland spiked against the snow-filled sky. The timer on the teacher’s desk clicked on as pens scratched against paper. When the wind picked up, the plastic sheeting that lined the wall of windows to keep in the heat crackled like a surreal metronome. By then, I’d watched my mother starch her husband’s weekend warrior fatigues and stood at the sidelines of plenty of Armed Forces Day parades. Years earlier, my childhood classmates had worn POW/MIA bracelets with surnames that matched their own. Owen’s poem was breaking through silences I hadn’t known how to name. As I reached the last line’s stunning revelation, the blind behind me snapped and rolled up.
There must have been an outburst of some kind—swearing, laughter, the greatly resisted efforts of a teacher turning us back to our work. But damned if I remember any of that: only that cracking sound of something wound tight and released; that visceral mirroring of my sudden understanding that the best thing a poem can do is snap you awake and let in a little more light. Though it would be many years before I’d write poems of my own, Owen’s turns in “Dulce Et Decorum Est”—beautifully described earlier at Voltage Poetry by Bruce Bond—detonated in my consciousness as a measure of the work poetic language can do in the world.
In terms of what it asks of us as citizens, Owens’ statement that “all a poet can do today is warn” is an invaluable mantra. Little wonder it’s a catchphrase easily owned in the form of mugs, t-shirts, and mouse pads. As poetics, however, the statement holds out…not so much. A political poem that offers precious little surprise for the writer, let alone the reader, inevitably tilts toward propaganda. So the poetic turn is an especially vital tool for engaging the complex shifts of perspective that characterize true contemplation and create what Stevens described as “the poem of the act of the mind.”
Brian Turner’s “Sleeping in Dick Cheney’s Bed” is built on a series of dramatic and rhetorical turns that move through confession and self-interrogation to engage the very questions that trouble citizens and poets alike. The poem opens in Rampart Lodge at the US Air Force Academy in 2009, where the poet, having fulfilled his speaking invitation, returns to a guest room. Turner’s opening line, with its binary opposition of “unnerving” and “comfortable,” sets the tone for an uneasy meditation. There’s security in the form of “NORAD watching over the bedroom” and the bucolic image of Colorado mule deer “chewing the dawn outside” while the poet dreams on, his duty done.
But Turner’s attentiveness to the unsettling identity shifts faced by veterans is vividly captured in the poem’s next turn, which takes the form of a dream-to-waking structure. In the dream, the poet is “wading thigh-high into the North Platte River, / wearing rubber waders, casting a handmade fly / with a whip-like, graceful sling of the line.” The ease and artfulness of fly fishing, however, are sustained for too brief a time: “I fall back,” Turner writes, “ plunge into the cold rushing/white water, my eyes blurred hard / under the sun’s interrogations.” In the uncanny logic of sleep, the natural image morphs into the horrific, and the poet sees:
. . . Cheney’s hands
like a preacher’s delivering me deeper into the truth,
with a gasp of air, a flash of light . . .
The poem’s long lines and cumulative clauses recreate the panicked pacing of dream narrative and provide a window into the troubled sleep of tortured conscience. Turner further complicates the image of sacramental baptism with description that mirrors the “enhanced interrogation techniques” Cheney advocated. Plunged back down into the “cloudy river, running 1400 cubic feet per second,” Turner gasps at Cheney’s offerings to the river (“midges and blood worms and rusty scuds”) until, finally, he can “cough up the fictional and beg for the heartland’s / fluid clarity, salvation, the charity of forgiveness, anything” that might return him to home—the “California bed,” lover beside him. The poet is haunted by the specter of Cheney, who, in a turn anticipated by the poem’s title, is revealed as the bed’s former inhabitant. Turner dwells on the image of shared space—“both of us held by the same coiling / box spring, goose down pillows cupping our heads”—following the chain of likenesses to the “dead skin sloughed off / to coat my own skin at any invisible level.”
With this image, the poem takes a major turn as Turner re-describes the event by submitting to a self-imposed debriefing. “What does it say about me,” he asks,
that the Pinot Grigio
tasted so good on my tongue, and that
I struggled to be a sergeant tonight . . .
Turner’s syntax relaxes here, lingering over the wine’s soothing lushness: it’s a temporary comfort that offsets the poet’s conflicted emotions over the different selves he embodies and multiple roles he must play. Recalling the “1600 listening faces” of the officer corps held hostage to the wisdom of the visiting poet who speaks “about rape, death, and murder,” Turner returns to his question, probing further, refusing to let himself off the hook:
—what does it say about me
that I can return to Cheney’s room after midnight,
strip my clothes off to curl in the bed
where he too has slept. . .
Turner’s rueful identification with Cheney reaches its culmination in the ironic admission that rises from sheer exhaustion, a discomforting state where he can find “the sheets a sublime reprieve / for my tired frame, the night a perfection of sleep.” Coming to a close, the poem brings us face to face with the soldier’s witness of what Owen described as “smothering dreams.”
From the quarrel with the self, the poet suggests the citizen’s complicity in the horrors of war and its aftermath, turning us back on the selves that go about our daily work, the selves that—for better or worse—toss and turn in Dick Cheney’s bed.
Jane Satterfield’s most recent book is Her Familiars (Elixir, 2013). She is the author of two previous poetry collections: Assignation at Vanishing Point and Shepherdess with an Automatic, as well as Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond. Her awards include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in poetry, the William Faulkner Society’s Gold Medal for the Essay, the Florida Review Editors’ Prize in nonfiction, the Mslexia women’s poetry prize, and the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize from The Bellingham Review.
†Scroll down for poem.