The Stick Soldiers by Hugh Martin
BOA Editions, 2013, 104 pp
Reviewed by Mark Allen Jenkins
Martin’s debut collection joins a growing field of contemporary war poetry that includes Brian Turner, Seth Brady Tucker, and others. The Stick Soldiers gives readers a broad sense of his experience in basic training, deployment, combat, and return to civilian life. This creates a more rounded sense of Martin’s experience that likewise helps establish the point that like any solider, there are prewar and postwar moments, too.
The poem “Nights in the Quadrilateral Pool of Sawdust and Sweat” depicts intimate familiarity in communal showers among a company of men who have spent enough time together to no longer feel awkward showering together. The speaker recognizes men by their scars, like “the check-mark scar / where Shotwell’s appendix was lifted;/ a topography/ of burnt skin on Melvin’s back” and their post shower routines: “Parson, from Boston,/ his strict tradition// brown towel around his waist,/ he’d walk to the rusted/ industrial fan, open/ the cloth with both hands// like parting a curtain for sunlight.” This poem and several others (“Tomorrow, We Go Up North,” “Four-Letter Word,” “Friday Night, FOB Cobra,” “The Burn Pit Detail At FOB Cobra”) underscore the bond these men feel.
Another poem, “First Engagement,” tries to recapture the confusion, as well as the tension between training and fear. Told in the second person, it begins with the “you” following “others over gravel, looking up/ at the dirt-berm wall that surrounds your home, FOB Cobra,/ and you climb to the edge that ends against sky./ You push with boots, claw the loose dirt with one hand, hold the rifle in the other .” These soldiers swarm to attack a potential threat, an unknown civilian truck approaching the base, “orange sparks// hundreds, splash from its tailgate.” Soldiers take aim at the threat, “you steady your rifle/ atop the berm, and first, the Bradley fires,// its orange tracers, almost gentle, weightless/ as they fly to meet the truck’s grill; the platoon follows; down the line, they fire together. You aim. Your first shot” but soon after, a “lieutenant yells Cease fire” then you notice “silence. So this is it?” this soldier’s first combat was fast and anticlimactic.
Later, the soldiers learn the menacing sparks came from a load of rebar a man and his son were taking home to rebuild their house, but beyond that “All you know; an hour ago, three mortars fell/ from the sky for you, this vehicle with sparks/ is for you, its only day three and how many more until you can go.” This paranoid feeling is emphasized by the effective use of you that makes it feel like someone or something is out to get the poem’s “you.” Even if learning about the actual and tragic contents of the truck undercuts this feeling. Many other poems likewise explore the meeting of horrific, sudden violence, in otherwise mundane settings (“Nocturne, Traffic Control Point,” “After Curfew,” “Nocturne, Traffic Control Point”).
These are just some of many poems in this compelling collection I dog-eared for rereading. As America’s withdraw from Iraq fades amidst more recent events, it becomes even more important to read books like The Stick Soldiers to give voice and image to just what contemporary war constitutes for soldiers like Martin.