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Hugh Martin


Hugh Martin
M16A2 Assault Rifle

Some days I clean the rifle so it shines,
a cold slice of darkness in grease-stained hands.
Some days, I hate to take it outside, dust
blowing faster, eating the morning brown.
Some days, after the warm silhouettes bow
across the green field of the firing range,
I sit against sandbags, sweat in sunlight,
and hold that grip, the muzzle's edge resting
across the top of my thigh. And some days,
when I've cleaned it for hours, I want only
to take it home for the space of blue wall
above the mantel, because it'd be wrong
to shoot again, to smear and smudge with whorls,
to blemish a thing that makes the night blush.

The First Engagement

You run with the 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 as the terse pops

of warning shots go silent. At berm's edge,
beneath the crooked Kevlar cover, you peek to see
the hundreds of meters of mortar-beaten
land and then why you're there: a white truck moves
down the broken asphalt road, orange sparks,

hundreds, splash from its tailgate-a vehicle-born
IED. It could be headed to the village, just north;
it could be headed for the main gate.
Inside the truck, the driver can't see
or does not see or doesn't care to see:

you, the dozens of rifles, the Bradley's black
cannon aimed to the windshield, the hood,
his own head, his passenger's head.
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 the truck slows. When you adjust, your foot slips,
you fall below the edge, unable to see. A lieutenant yells

cease-fire--silence. So this is it?
No one knows the man
was dragging rebar from the back of his truck;
no one knows he was taking it to re-build his home;
no one knows his son, the passenger, is shot in the arm;

no one knows the man is shot in the leg, the stomach.
All you know: an hour ago, three mortars fell
from the sky for you, this vehicle with sparks
is for you, it's only day three and how many more
until you can go. Steam rises

from the hood, the blown tires sag to the concrete,
the rusted bumper hangs beneath shattered headlights,
and from the space where a door used to be,
the man falls to the road for you, for the Bradley,
for all the men, to show just how you've done.


The Stick Soldiers

                                To soldiers, I hope the war is fine.
-Girl Scout Troop 472

The children have colored the cards,
dated from December,
with Christmas trees, piles of presents,
snowmen smiling, waving. Sara wants
a doll. Evan, a dog. Kyle promises
to pray for us.

Outside the hooch, we open mail,
hundreds of letters
from youth groups, scout troops,
classes of school children.

Kearns wants to write back,
ask for pictures
of older sisters.

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.

In Jalula, the children draw us pictures, too.

In white chalk, on concrete walls,
a box-shaped Humvee with two antennae
rising like balloons from the hatch.
A stick-soldier holds a machine-gun;
he waves at us,
us, in the Humvees.

Further down the wall, a stick-man holds
an RPG
aimed toward the Humvee,
the waving soldier's head-
what the children want for Christmas,
or what they just want.

                     -from The Stick Soldiers
Hugh Martin is originally from northeast Ohio and he spent six years in the Army National Guard and deployed to Iraq in 2004. His chapbook, So, How Was The War? (Kent State UP, 2010) was published by the Wick Poetry Center and his full-length collection, The Stick Soldiers, was published through BOA Editions in March 2013. He is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, the winner of the 11th annual A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize from BOA Editions, Ltd., and the winner of the Jeff Sharlet Memorial Award from The Iowa Review. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The American Poetry Review, The New Yorker, and The New Republic. Martin graduated from Muskingum University and has an MFA from Arizona State. Currently he is the Emerging Writer Lecturer at Gettysburg College.
A Review of Hugh Martin's The Stick Soldiers by

The Stick Soldiers is a book of poetry but it’s more than a collection of poems. It is a brave, honest and authentic journey of a young man who served six years in the Army National Guard as an M1A1 Tanker and was deployed to Iraq in 2004. This collection of poems is not light reading but it is necessary reading if we are to heal the wounds of war and shorten the divide in our country. This is not about politics, but about poetry. It is about a young man going to war and showing in words and images what he saw and what he felt in the journey he has experienced from boot camp, to war to back home again. It is about putting the pieces together in a way that only The Stick Soldiers can do.

At times the focus of the poet’s intent is almost too close to witness, making the reader feel uncomfortable because war is uncomfortable. Other times, distance is the only way the poet and the reader can possibly look. This distance is perhaps necessary in order to engage within the world of RPGs, IEDs, body bags, body parts, loss and war. Martin doesn’t just show us what it’s like to be an American soldier at war in Iraq; he also shows what it’s like to be an Iraqi child or a homeless man or a father trying to make a living for his family in war. Perhaps a fractured psyche can only look through a soft lense and write what it sees. I use the word fractured respectfully and gently because as I read Martin’s poems, I feel the fracturing of what war does and I also feel the poet’s need and wanting to be whole again. It’s as if the poet is arranging and rearranging words and images and feelings and memories and experiences in each poem and in the collection as a whole in order to make sense of his journey from young man to soldier of war. I have heard a few of our returning young Iraqi and Afghanistan combat soldiers tell me, “War made me a man.”

The Stick Soldiers is a haunting and beautifully written declaration of this same reality. Martin is a poet who is a solider. Or is Martin a soldier who is a poet? Can one separate the poet from the soldier or the soldier from the poet? Not in this collection of poetry and that is why these poems are so incredibly powerful. No matter how many times I may read “M-16A2 Assault Rifle” I have the same feeling when I read the last five words of the poem “…that makes the night blush.” It is sorrow and wonder and regret and hope and love and something I can’t identify but this something resonates so deeply within my psyche it won’t let go. This kind of experience when reading a poem is what poetry is about. The Stick Soldiers is a journey you don’t want to miss. Especially if you care about the soldiers our country sent to war and if you want to help them come home.


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