War Poetry: Hugh Martin’s The Stick Soldiers

the-stick-soldiersSomehow I missed Hugh Martin’s excellent poetry volume The Stick Soldiers when it was released in 2013, so now let me make amends. Martin’s accessible and very affecting verse attempts to make sense of the author’s deployment to Iraq and the disorienting times afterwards in ways that to me seem valuable and fresh. Neither overwrought nor undernourished, the poems in The Stick Soldiers strike notes that allow clearly-rendered physical description to give way to higher, unanticipated orders of meaning. A fine example is “The Range”:

“The Range”

We shoot green silhouettes
of men. Their blank faces

are painted beige, their plastic
chests checkered with holes,

but still, they rise in the July sunlight
like a boy too stupid to know

when to stay down, when to quit.
Drill Sergeant Grant paces

the gravel walk. He stops
to lie beside me on the beaten grass.

Between shots in the deep hush
of some, he says breathe, breathe

as we watch the targets fall
flat to the earth. I never

speak, but only fire, study
the range for the next one—

hold my breath, tap
the trigger, take them down,

one by one, like it was all
the world needed done.

A second example is “The Rocket”:

“The Rocket”

Blue as the pale sky this rocket
lay beside a dry wadi
alone where there was nothing
for miles, as if a man too tired
to take it any further
had set it here years ago, this spot
on the sun-hardened ground.
There was no wind. There was no one
but us, our trucks parked
at the edge of the valley. Sergeant Sumey,
tired of staring, walked to the rocket.
We all knew better than to touch
a thing like this, but all of us, all our hands,
had done it many times before. Sumey grabbed
the rocket like a handle to the earth,
lifted it—no longer than his M-4—
above his shoulder, and leaned back,
widened his stance, as if about to throw it
to the barren hills in the east,
so we could watch its arc, its twirl,
as if doing the rocket the favor
of making sure it left the world in pieces.

While “The Range” and “The Rocket” have a set-piece feel describing events experienced by many soldiers, other poems render more sustained looks at Martin, or his narrator, in interaction with those close to him personally. A stanza from “Four-Letter Word,” for instance, places unwitting family members in juxtaposition with a soldier who can’t help but note the triteness of their conversational gambits. It also demonstrates what for me is Martin’s great ear and eye for the exact word and right line-length:

“Four-Letter Word”

5.

Home for Christmas leave.

This is our son, he’s going to Iraq.
He’s leaving for Iraq.
His unit is being mobilized for Iraq.

He has to go to Iraq.
I’ll get you a drink, you’re going to Iraq.
E-mail me when you get to Iraq.

Hopefully things will get better when you get to Iraq.
Are you scared about going to Iraq?
Did you know you would have to go to Iraq?

I can’t imagine going to Iraq.
Is there a chance you might not go to Iraq?
Where will you be in Iraq?

What will you be doing in Iraq?
How long will you be in Iraq?
Iraq? Really? Iraq?

The perspectival chasm dividing the narrator and his family in “Four-Letter Word” is amplified in the volume’s title poem, in which the soldier-narrator describes drawings sent to his unit by American schoolchildren:

“The Stick Soldiers”

We tape our favorites to the door.
In blue crayon, a stick-figure soldier poses
as he’s about to toss
a black ball,
fuse burning,
at three other stick figures,
red cloth wrapped over faces,
Iraki written
across stick chests […]

The narrator then places those pictures in contrast with the drawings by Iraqi schoolchildren on sides of buildings the soldiers drive by:

Further down the wall, a stick man holds
an RPG
aimed toward the Humvee,
the waving soldier’s head […]

A number of other poems describe Martin post-deployment and post-service. These too work in a quiet vein: not traumatized, the narrator just thinks a lot about what he lived through in Iraq, and he is discomfited more than he is alienated, outraged, or made dysfunctional. Though the volume’s subjects have been well-covered by other veteran-writers, Martin’s calmness about it all distinguishes his approach. Our current political and cultural moment is not one for understated emotional control and nuanced ambivalence, but if the nation ever settles down again enough to value thoughtfulness and eloquence, The Stick Soldiers’ wise view of a soldier’s experience of war awaits.

Hugh Martin, The Stick Soldiers, with a foreword by Cornelius Eady. BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013.

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