A Review of Seth Brady Tucker’s Mormon Boy
By Karen Craigo
I’ve always felt drawn to work of poets from the Great War. Writers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon brought home to their readers the terrors of war, and while it is difficult to take their words in, it is essential to consider their powerful poems of witness.
A fragment from Sassoon’s “Aftermath” demonstrates how poetry can be a deterrent to war:
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, “Is it all going to happen again?”
Nearly all of Sassoon’s poems capture a glimpse of the hell we call war, and for me, they hold more of the feeling of armed conflict than any history book could attempt to depict.
For years, I have been looking for the Wilfred Owen of our wars in Iraq or Afghanistan, and I have come up empty. I have found something far superior, though, in the poetry of combat veteran Seth Brady Tucker—superior because he is not a copy of those war poets who have come before him, but instead is an utterly unique and powerful voice in his own right, and a bold and unflinching witness to the wars we own today.
Mormon Boy, Brady’s debut poetry collection, covers a lot of ground—love, coming of age, even the perfection of his wife’s hiney in soccer shorts—but for me, war eclipses everything else in the book, and this is exactly as it should be.
Tucker’s first section, “Falling in Love During Wartime,” introduces the topic of his service, and the placement of these poems—coming before some poems that deal with Tucker’s pre-service life, so that the book is not chronologically ordered—has a profound effect on the way a reader receives the other work in the book. I actually suspect that I will read all of Tucker’s subsequent releases with the tinge of his military service shading my understanding of them. It’s unavoidable. War, after all, changes a person.
Tucker’s poetry is informed by plenty of sensory imagery—more, I think, than I see in the work of the Great War poets I mentioned. Tucker’s poem “Whirligig,” for instance, talks frankly about the mingling smells of his friend Erik’s blood and his own overheated weapon. It also presents a grisly picture of Erik’s severed foot, which “existed still tied / into its boot—how it felt to pick up that foot and place it in a pile of other things that /were Erik’s.” The understatement makes the idea of that pile all the more ghastly.
This section of “Whirligig” about Erik introduces the idea of getting past the war, and it concludes, “[S]omehow, one night, he will know five minutes / of peace—just five minutes of life, as it should have been.” But the title of the second section, “Those Stains Will Never Come Out,” seems tragically to reveal the futility of such thinking.
Still, it is intriguing to imagine other parts of Tucker’s life that are even more rarified than combat service. We have about 1.3 million active-duty troops in all branches of the military, but Tucker’s home state of Wyoming has only half a million souls. One of my favorite poems in his collection was “Where to Find Work in Natrona, Wyoming,” which the poem announces has a population of five. “This / should say it all,” Tucker writes. He continues:
Natrona mocks you,
with a population exactly
one thousandth its elevation.
Here, dust floats like a fog
over everything, but ultimately
obscures only the fact that there
is nothing to see but horizon.
The poem concludes with the incredibly bored speaker studying a veterinary guide and imagining he can probably handle some of the procedures described inside. That boredom is probably as far from your boredom as the Earth is from the sun.
One is thankful that Tucker the soldier went to Afghanistan armed not only with a rifle but also with some of the distracting memories from a time before his service that this book recalls. I think the poem “Making Out in Cars with Bucket Seats and Other Tales of Woe” resonates with every small-town person (although my own Gallipolis, Ohio may as well have been Beijing in comparison to Natrona). Imagine being approached while parking (in the sexy sense of the term) by an “incredible blue dick of a cop,” who asks probing questions about last night’s escapades while you are attempting to enjoy your night with a whole different date, whom Tucker identifies as “Red”:
Red, being no dope,
opens my car door and starts sprinting away into the night, her silhouette
flashing purple and black in the swirl of ruby and sapphire lights, long hair swinging like a middle finger, and then I am running too, my dark
a bull’s-eye, a giant target, a free pass for a cop busting his first-kill cherry
The poem ends with Tucker berating himself for not buying American and lamenting bucket seats instead of the “wide / bench seats of a Nova.”
Tucker’s collection covers a lot of ground, the way it seems first collections used to do before everyone entered programs and started writing books instead of poems. I like the variety in theme and form, and I found Mormon Boy to be a promising introduction to a talented poet.
Seth Brady Tucker, Mormon Boy, Elixir Press, 2012: $17.
Karen Craigo teaches English to international students at Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Her chapbook, Someone Could Build Something Here, was just published by Winged City Chapbook Press, and her previous chapbook, Stone for an Eye, is part of the Wick Poetry Series. Her work has appeared in the journals Atticus Review, Poetry, Indiana Review, Prairie Schooner, Puerto del Sol, The MacGuffin, and others.
Read her poem “Death by Water,” included in our Saturday Poetry Series, here.