Pushcart XLIII: Hugh Martin, “Iraq Good” (poem) from Cincinnati Review, 11/17

Calcite disk of Enheduanna

Calcite disk of Enheduanna

    The small boy smiles, kicks roundhouses across
the potholed road, says, Van Damme good? & I say, Yes,
Van Damme good.

Complete poem available online at Cincinnati Review

It’s a snapshot, a little scene that on closer look reveals tension and foreboding. Martin served in Iraq, so he knows the scene: Iraqi kids playing around a military post, making piecemeal conversation with soldiers on guard in limited English. Then some scenic details that evoke the overall tragedy of the scene: “on the ground where written words were first made, / where Enheduanna, Sargon’s daughter, wrote her poems,” now holds Humvees and protective Hescos. I had no idea who Enheduanna was, so looked her up: she was a poet in the ancient land of Ur, but more than that, she is the first author whose name survives attached to her work, written 4200 years ago. I’ve taken courses on ancient writings, read chapters about Ur; why did I not know that the first named writer was a woman? And why does this mention of ancient civilization, again a battleground, always touch me so deeply?

The poem ends with the kids again reciting associations they imagine the soldiers want to hear (“Sadam bad… America Good”) yet ends on a note of foreboding:

….Still, these silences, brief,
would break when one of the boys might point to our rifles
    hanging over our vests, muzzles aimed at the road, the black red-dot scopes
    clipped to the carrying handles, & say, Laser . . . good, then point to our dark
ballistic sunglasses, say, X-ray yes, good, &, although we’d agree,
there was really no laser, no X-ray, but if we kept those boys there,
    talking, on that street as evening came, we’d be,
    for the moment, okay if only we kept it going: Ali Baba
no good, chicken good, Sadiyah good, Iraq good, & good, & good.

Although we share poems primarily by means of written page, poetry is a primarily oral form, meant to be read out loud, where the form is not usually evident; a recording of the poet reading is helpfully included on the page with the text, linked above. Still, I’ve been a bit obsessed with form these days, trying to understand why a poem is written in the way it is, how that form came to the poet, what it imparts to the meaning and overall reading experience. It may make me appear to be approaching these poems mechanically. I’m not (I can see the soldiers nodding and agreeing with “lasers, good” even though there are no lasers, just to keep the good going and forestall what may be inevitable), but I am trying to understand how poetry works, how its impact is created.

So I noticed, again, the two-line structure, usually indicating a relationship, in this case, a friendly one that has the potential to turn adversarial. I noticed the indentations, in an ABBA ABBA pattern, which reminded me a bit of the crenellations on top of a castle wall but might more appropriately call to mind the Hescos (which, I learned, are wire mesh barriers filled with earth as protection against attack or, in some cases, flood) to someone who has a more accurate mental picture of the scene.
The poem is included in Martin’s 2018 poetry collection, In Country.