October 18, 2019KR Reviews

On In Country by Hugh Martin

Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2018. 104 pages. $17.00.

When I was on deployment. When I was over there. When I was gone. In the suck. In the shit. There are lot of slang options in the military referring to a deployment, as Hugh Martin notes in the opening lines of his second collection’s title poem “In Country”:

[In country] we called it. Called it
   like my uncle called his months

in Saigon. Slow addition
        of nights & days away

from the States. Three-sixty-five

   and a wakeup, we’d say. The sand-
box. The desert. Over

there. Or just
there.

Martin was deployed to Iraq in 2004, with the Ohio National Guard, as an M1A1 Tanker. I don’t remember when in my own military career I first heard the phrase “in country,” but—catch-all for warzone—I always knew what it meant. More than all those other options, “in country” conjures a sense of place made of boundaries. An other place—far from here where the war takes place, literally takes a place from itself. When American soldiers say “in country,” it sounds like there is only one. The country is no longer a specific place, but a part of the war.

I enlisted in 2007 when our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were four and six years old. They could have been the same place, the same war, for all anyone I met in the Army seemed to care. Sergeants would say “back when I was in country” or “when you get in country, remember . . .” but no one ever asked them which one. It didn’t matter because my Afghanistan wouldn’t be your Afghanistan and neither would be anything close to what the country really is. We weren’t talking about a real place. War was an act of the imagination. Something we prepared for by pretending we were in it. My war isn’t a place anymore. The versions of Iraq and Afghanistan I experienced while deployed, no longer exist. Perhaps they never did except as amalgamations of what I’d heard from other soldiers, what I saw in movies, what I saw myself, and what I did.

For an American soldier, writing about war can easily become a reenactment of the violences done against those places where we waged it. No matter how guilty or remorseful or informed we are, to some extent when we write about Iraq and Afghanistan we are always erasing those places with our warzone. While Martin places many of his poems in a physical, contemporary Iraq through titles: “On Jalawla Street,” “Frisking Two Men in Sadiyah,” “Sunday in the City of Oranges” or epigraphs like Baqubah, Iraq; FOB Cobra; Balad, Iraq; north of Balad Ruz, the poems are concerned with temporality, aware that place exists outside our own brief experience with it. Returning to the collection’s opening poem, for instance, the speaker relies upon the anaphoric engine “in country” to shift through scenes ranging from Mashoof canoes that “. . . drifted through marshes / of green reeds—the original Eden” to a “. . . Black Hawk hovered / above the rebuilt ziggurat / of Ur / for photographs.” The poet never forgets nor lets us forget that while many of these poems are set in Iraq, their subject is an imagined version of that place. It is a convergent construct of memory, history, and American imagination. It is a war.

Which is not to say this country isn’t real or full of risk, but those risks are defined by perspective. In the poem “Man on a Cart,” the speaker attempts unsuccessfully (and to his embarrassment) to keep an Iraqi man on a cart from entering an area cordoned off due to a possible IED. Here the soldier’s understanding of the place is irreconcilably at odds with the local man’s:

No one can go up the road
Blue One blocks it

from the other end. Blue two
blocks it from the market.

I have no way
to tell him this.

For one man the area is dangerous; for the other, danger is a foreign soldier saying “la.” One man fears what he can imagine, the other what has invaded his home.

“In Country” is a chronicle of these dichotomies. Opposing realities butting up against each other. In “Iraq Good,” soldiers and Iraqi children label Jean-Claude Van Damme and America “very good,” and “Saddam / very no.” Meanwhile, the speaker reflects on the fact that insurgents are paid in US dollars to blow up Humvees (HMMWV) made in Indiana.

Tension between the place and our idea of it drives the speaker of these poems constantly to locate, not find but pinpoint, himself within that context, to situate, perhaps obsessively, his experience. In the collection’s penultimate poem, “Intravenous,” the speaker asks:

. . . How many days

did I sit in the barracks at Bragg
staring at maps of this place

as if it’d save me? On this street

I couldn’t say . . .
which way’s east, west, which way’s

the river.

The speaker believed if he could know the place, its terrains and delineations, he could be safe there, but instead he finds himself untethered, unlocated. He is trying to show us his position on a map but with his finger tip—wide enough to be hundreds of meters off at scale. Better a pencil, knife tip, bullet, or needle—sewing, hypodermic, pine. The poem moves quickly from Fort Bragg in North Carolina to the thin beam of a flashlight pointed at an injured Iraqi girl so that a medic can establish IV access:

. . . & I keep the M4s
mounted light aimed—a small

yellow ray beaming
from below the barrel—

steady, toward her head
in Doc’s hand, to help him see.

And closer still, the poem zooms in to the needle itself, the slowest thing the speaker has ever seen, sinking toward the girl’s forehead—her frontal vein—a last-ditch option when peripheral veins are too depleted to find.

Situated so close to the end of the book, “Intravenous” offers a small measure of cathartic release otherwise resisted throughout the collection. When geographic location escapes the speaker, he is able at least to find some sense of purpose, of usefulness, in providing aid.  It’s not an uncommon logic amongst soldiers attempting to rationalize participation in war, let alone a war so long drawn and unabashedly pointless.

But Martin wisely refuses to let the book end there. Instead, he offers a pair of final sonnets addressed to Wilfred Owen, which follow a through line of nerve agents from the European trenches, to Damascus, to “Kentucky where America keeps / its bullion behind barbed wire” and soldiers, in the name of training, are exposed to tear gas. The poem, like so many in collection, insists that “in country” does not refer to the past or present, but a state of malaise in which both past and present occur and occur and occur simultaneously. “In country” does not mean Iraq or Afghanistan, the United States or Syria: rather, it is a country they all inhabit, a warzone in which we all reside.