Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Thanks for Asking: So, How Was the War? by Hugh Martin

I was remiss in announcing the start of National Poetry Month (belated trumpet blast, cymbal crash), but one thing which I haven’t been lax on is my Poem-a-Day habit.  Every day, as part of my morning constitutional, I open the latest volume of verse I’m reading and ingest a few stanzas of Grade-A, 100-proof poetry.  So, for me, every month is Poetry Month—maybe that’s why I overlooked its in-like-a-lamb arrival on Sunday.

I’m working my way through the 762-page The Poets Laureate Anthology.  I started reading it last April.  At 1-3 poems per day, I proceed at the pace of molasses moving across a glacier.  But that’s the speed which suits me best.  Ingesting more than three poems in a single sitting makes my head too crowded.  I mean, all those words bumping into each other, throwing elbows--it's too much linguistic cacophony.

Last weekend, I took a short break from the poets laureate for a quick trip through a 28-page chapbook published last year by The Kent State University Press: So, How Was the War? by Hugh Martin.  It was a quick read, but it was also an unforgettable one.  Let's put it this way: if these poems were drinks, then I spent the weekend tossing fiery shots of whiskey down my gullet.

Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and, as the title of the chapbook implies, his poems are all about war, the preparation for war, and, more pressingly, how to deal with the post-war aftermath of what happened over there.  In “The War Was Good, Thank You,” Martin begins with this couplet
In the college cafeteria, a young girl asks,
“So, how was the war?”
I don’t know for certain, but I assume that's an incident lifted directly from his own life.  Nearly every veteran gets asked that question, in some form or another—maybe not as directly or as cavalierly, maybe it’s a “God bless you for your service” and a hard handshake, but the question is there in the eyes, swimming back and forth like a goldfish in a small bowl.  Everyone wants to know what it was like to be in a place where, in Martin’s words, insects fly “with ferocious speed [and] excitement” around a suicide bomber’s corpse in one poem and soldiers routinely hand out Ziplock bags of candy to children in the next.  Everyone back home in America wants to know, “Is it like what I see on TV and my computer screen?  Is it better?  Is it worse?”

In “The War Was Good, Thank You,” Martin answers the chapbook’s titular question by not answering it.  Instead, he gives us six disparate stanzas, snapshots from a year in the desert, which cumulatively try to answer the unanswerable.
On Sundays, I read about where I am at in magazines
and on the Internet. I feel I should understand more,
but being here only makes it harder, like adding more pieces
to an impossible puzzle. All we want is to be lucky,
to stay lucky. In afternoons, I lay outside shirtless on my cot
and to relieve the headache of here,
place ice cubes on my closed eyelids and let them melt.

“Show and Tell,” a prose poem, describes what happens when a veteran is invited to speak to a seventh-grade class, the students sitting in their “identical desks” and looking at him like he was “a blank chalkboard.”  How to describe a war which is only survivable through the profane camaraderie with your fellow soldiers, a war where roadside bombs pop like balloons, a war where your home for an entire year is a small steel hooch shaped like a boxcar?  How to put that into show-and-tell words?  He pulls a six-inch piece of twisted shrapnel from his pocket and passes it around the room.  To him, it’s a tangible scrap of his experience, proof that he’s alive and narrowly missed the bomb which sent fragments “flying blindly at our soft bodies of skin.”  But the kids in the classroom wrinkle their noses and pass around the shrapnel like it was “a smelly sock.”

No one can fully understand the rhyme or reason of war.  Sometimes, not even those who were in it.  It's a mind-blowing thing, this mobilization of countries who clash and kill, whether it's over ideology or real estate.  That sense of disturbed wonder really comes across in these poems.

Iraq can be a surreal place where, in “Mortars,” those payloads of death take on a primitive beauty:
At night they fly like javelins,
slicing through clouds and sky,
soaring past moonlight and minarets.

And then, a few pages later, stark dirty realism dominates the grisly “Sampson’s E-mail With Attachment” which begins
I accidentally deleted the e-mail
of the head you sent me
from Afghanistan.
There is no turning our own heads away from that photo of the dead suicide bomber, no denying the the undeniable there-ness of the face which has shriveled and deflated “because the blood had gathered/in a puddle to his right.”  A hundred successful projects to repair power plants, a thousand smiles from kids with baggies of candy, and a million “Mission Accomplished” banners could never erase a gory sight like that from the haunted veteran’s mind.  (I’m speaking here as someone who saw photographs like the one attached to Sampson’s e-mail on a regular basis during my tour of duty in Baghdad.)

And what do you do with the war after you return to the States?  How do you deal with the hot, clanging memory of friends lost and enemies killed?  You drink so much coffee that your hands vibrate "like the cones of subwoofers."  You wander the aisles of Wal-Mart as blue-vested employees insist you have a nice day.  You try to forget about doomed children calling "Mister!  Mister!"  Or, if you're like Martin, you seek healing in poetry.

Writing from a foxhole at infantry-grunt level, Martin has brought the war home and dumped it in our laps.  Never again will we casually ask, “So, how was the war?”  Now we know.  Now we see it was hard, brutal, frustrating, and an unshakable stink for those who returned.


  1. These thoughts of mine always sounds trite, even whining, perhaps a bit guilty. I served in Nam in the Navy, although I was on a ship in the Tonkin Gulf, eating good food every day, watching movies at night, even getting stoned after my shift as a radioman, where I sent messages about damaged Marines and others. I never felt the connection of those who experienced actual battle, or saw death and destruction. Yet over 40 years later, that war (and the echos of my father's war)and what it was and was not is still with me.