02-25-2013

Seth Brady Tucker

The Road to Baghdad

Is less a road than a floral 
collection of spongy and soft
bodies, a gathering of the myriad

colors of nations-burnt umber,
puce, kiln red, olive drab, hot
steel. It is a road that stretches

eternally into the ochre mocha 
of the horizon. The road 
to Baghdad has its own atmosphere

and sound, so unlike the roads 
I have driven in the States-here,
the road is silent but for the pops

and spits of flame where trucks
clutch the bright and colorful
bodies of the unfortunate dead.

The road to Baghdad is like the aftermath
of a Fourth of July parade-streets 
littered with the chaos of celebration,

where dyed paper and the bright 
hulls of fireworks gather in the gutter.
Sometimes, I look for the road

to Baghdad in old maps or on 
the web, but I can never find
it-the distance of time has cleared

it from the record books, has erased
it from everywhere but my mind, and 
from the minds of those soldiers who saw

it with me. Today, I awake in the morning 
with unexplained scratches on the bridge 
of my nose, and I ask my empty room, where

has that road gone? I understand that if there 
is no road, then there is no me. But if none 
of this ever really happened, how do I awaken

every morning to the sun burning my outline
into the wild asphalt of that beautiful highway?

 

Falling In Love During Wartime

I am missing eleven months, nine days, and give or take, fourteen minutes from 
     my life.
A good portion of 1990 is lost, and a large piece of 1991 has disappeared. People 
     talk

to me about Brokaw's War Time America as if I were there, as if these pieces of 
     someone
else's life could exist. I missed the yellow-ribbon orgy, the flags flying for "the boys

over there," the night when everyone closed together around their radios and 
     televisions
ready to mourn the fallen, or exult for their heroes. The robbery was complete and 
     crimson,

it was ancient, it was cleansing, it was eternal. I'm sure that the beaches in North 
     Carolina
were quiet that year; the water was warm, the sand on the beach yielding, and the 
     girls too-

worried for strangers like only beautiful, uninvolved people can be. Here is what I 
     want:
I want that night, that night when I am twenty-one, when I can buy a alcohol 
     legally,

when I can sit in the dark night of the park with the girl I should be in love with. I 
     know her
because she existed for me in the desert, at night rising with the cold roasted 
     moon. She

is fair and olive skinned, her hair a light brown, and she is thin and muscular as a 
     fawn.
It is no secret that she comes from the only pornography we had in the gulf: the 
     Victoria's

Secret Fall issue, which I still own. And she understands me like only I understand
me, and we are leaving the party on campus, we are holding hands like people 
     hold hands

when holding hands is new to them--anxiously, moistly, tightly. We are leaving the 
     party
because we cannot bear to watch this war that is on television. Maybe we are too 
     sensitive

to violence, or maybe we just don't want to be reminded that there are people just 
     like us
in a desert that has turned cold and hungry and mean, a desert that is trying to 
     swallow up

everything above it, and we don't want that on our conscience, we don't want to 
     think
of men walking into white flashes of light, into red tracer rounds, into the blackest

fortress of sound imaginable, into faces streaked with tears, into faces streaked 
     with blood
and tears, into faces streaking in front of their vision, soldier fingers tightening 
     around triggers

uncertainly even though those fingers, those hands, have been trained to obey, 
     and these
boys, who are as handsome as they will ever be, wonder if the bullets hitting their 
     chests

will feel like paper cuts or like explosions, if it will be clean or if it will be messy. We
walk out of that party, in love, our eyes linking like bodies copulating, and the 
     bottle

of wine is in my hand. We are both feeling high-we are six beers and a half bottle
of Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill into it, drinking while we watch faceless soldiers

push up on an invisible border that is already in flames above the skyline. We had
to leave, our feelings for those soldiers impelling us to rise and escape with our 
     wondrous

love intact. We walk to the park. It is cool out, the grass is cold where the dew
has touched, yet the earth still harbors the heat of the day underneath. We are 
     barefoot

and the streets are empty. The static sound of gunfire is far off, pouring from the 
     blue
flickering lights of the houses, and we are walking away, letting the sound fade

until only our breath can be heard, swallowed up by the simple sounds of our 
     sweet
and innocent blood moving through muscle and bone. We sit on a peeling park

bench, I wipe the wet night off before she sits, and we move close-the heat of our 
     bodies
swirls with the cool night as we move, and we drink wine from the bottle and she 
     has

a glistening shade of pink wine above her lip for a split second before she licks it 
     off.
And the look in her eyes right then-like there is a metaphor for that. The darkness

is swallowing us, it is closing around us, pulling the light from the stars away, and 
     the moon,
and there is only reflected light to see by, and her face is pale and sharp, as if the 
     dark

has outlined her face in pastels, and all I can think about is how lucky I am to be 
     this guy,
here with her, and the night agrees; the night takes us and lets the alcohol do its 
     work.

We embrace, and I can feel the soft ripple of her ribcage against mine, and I can 
     feel
the side of her breast with my arm, and her breath is moist against my ear as she 
     whispers

things about love past our long hair, which is entwined like the dark grass of the 
     park.
She tells me she will never leave me alone, that we will be together forever,

and I know she is lying, but it feels so good to hear it that I will believe it eternally.
Tomorrow will be the same. We will come to this park again. I will feel like the 
     world

is collapsing into itself, that I could reach out through the walls and soothe the 
     loneliness
of Mr. Earnest next door, that I am a part of it all, that I will feel how it feels to be 
     a part

of Blitzer's America At War from the outside, I will wake up with the dreams
of a civilian, I will hold a candle out on an all-night vigil, I will stand in protest

I will hang ribbons I will support our boys over there I will pray even though
there is no god I will remember things that never happened I will fill the space

between the boy on the bench and the boy in the desert and I will always, always,
make sure he is with someone. I will maintain that the desert is a fiction, a fiction

of lights and noise, and I will assert to the boy on the park bench that he will
never have to feel like he was a part of something missing, that the years would

be kind, that his sleep would wind like silk, and unlike the boy in the desert,
when he looks up, the bright sun will shine upon his face without passing through.

  

 

And the Way the Sun Was Positioned

I thought you were smoking a cigarette-
just kicking back for the moment against 
the warm metal of a deuce and a half
truck, in the shade. There were puddles 
of oil running from underneath the truck,
leaking from bullet holes where rounds
had pierced the engine block. Your leg
was wet from one large ebony puddle, but
we were all dirty then, so it didn't seem to
matter.

Your M-16 was across your chest, and your
forearm was draped over the handgrip
in such a comfortable manner, I thought 
for a moment you were asleep. So I just sat 
down by your side. I hadn't eaten yet, so 
I tore open an MRE, threw the sealed package
of beef, dehydrated away and began to 
eat the peanut butter on the dry crackers.
You were looking back over the low ridge,
where smoke seemed to be oozing from the 
pores of the earth in spurts. And I thought
that dying would be easy now, like sunshine
is easy, or hammocks. I thought that
after what we had seen and done that day
that everything after would be a piece of cake.

But I wasn't ready to go back, over that ridge
you were looking at, over to where bodies
held on to metal like scorpions hold onto
flying beetles. Back there, I wasn't ready
to go, and I was glad for you being there, and
I wanted to tell you so. I said, "Danny."
and you hitched like you were about to 
vomit. And you turned and looked at me,
and I could see the cigarette in your hand, 
how it was ashes down to the filter, and how 
the oil (you said it, ‘ole') didn't look so much 
like oil anymore, and how your eyes seemed gray 
with your skin, and all I wanted right then 
was a burning cigarette so bad.

BIO: Seth Brady Tucker's poetry manuscript, Mormon Boy, won the 2011 Elixir Press Editor’s Poetry Prize, and was published in 2012. Seth recently attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as the Carol Houck Smith Scholar, and was the keynote speaker at the "Words Beyond Bars Poetry Project." He has been nominated for a number of awards including the Pushcart Prize. His poetry and fiction is forthcoming or has appeared in the Antioch Review, Chautauqua, Art Times, Indiana Review, Rosebud, North American Review, River Styx, Rhino, Southern Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, among many other journals and anthologies. Seth has degrees in English Literature and Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, Northern Arizona University (where he resurrected and worked as Poetry and Fiction Editor for Thin Air magazine), and Florida State University (PhD, 2012). Currently, Seth is writing a novel set on an Indian Reservation in Wyoming, and has finished writing a second poetry collection. He teaches poetry and fiction workshops at the Light House Writer's Workshop in Denver, and lives and teaches near Boulder, Colorado. He is originally from Wyoming, and served as an Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper in the Persian Gulf.

An Interview with Seth Brady Tucker by Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum 

Jenna Bazzell and Andrew McFadyen-Kecthum: "The Road to Baghdad" is a poem whose title reads as the first line of the poem. Lots of poets do this because, well, they can't come up with a better title, but here it prepares the reader for the poem to follow kind of like a thesis statement in an essay (yeah, yeah, we're both teaching a lot of English Composition these days!) and is also the first poem in your collection, Mormon Boy. What are you going for with this title?

Seth Brady Tucker: I see this poem as the centerpiece for the first section of the book, a way to begin to poetically express the profundity of "things lost" (a theme of sorts for the book after all, because the narrative voice of the "Mormon boy" is "lost" in so many different ways). The title of the book itself is meant to create a resonance throughout the collection-if the reader understands that the narrative voice is always that of this Mormon boy, my intention was to stretch what is spiritually at stake, take it beyond what is happening and what did happen. As far as the title of "The Road to Baghdad" is concerned, I honestly didn't think about it much. Not that it was an afterthought-I just simply wanted to drop the reader into the poem as quickly as possible, not give them a moment to ponder the "why" of the poem. I actually love this strategy-I hate poems that share the title and first line of the poem. Wasted space, in my opinion. I'd love to tell you that I worked incredibly hard on this poem, and that the revision process was long and complicated, but the truth is, this poem came to me almost exactly as you see it-I think I may have changed five or six small things over the year before it was published. This is how most of my poetry is generated-I think about the idea for a week, a month, a year, then the germ of the poem comes to me, and within a couple of lines I "hear" the envoi (or "send-off," which by the way, I think is exactly what all great last lines should try to do), and the rest of the poem is what I think of as "the chase for the last line."

JB & AMK: The word "road" is repeated nine times (including in the title) in "The Road to Baghdad" with no other synonyms except for "highway," "streets," and "gutter." Why repeat the word road so many times?

SBT: The simplest answer to your question is that the repetition of "road" is an effort to be honest, and that any other description would risk painting the wrong picture. The only three versions of road that I experienced in the Persian Gulf were literally roads or highways or open desert-there were no avenues, drives, etc. No streets, for that matter. I also believe that this repetition creates a rhythm or beat for the poem, a cadence of sorts that slowly bends with the changing topography of the poem. My hope was that it would function as an antanaclasis, but I'm not sure if it succeeds in that way. Ultimately, this poem endeavors to build distance for the narrator and for the reader, and all those other terms for road are simply too "American," and I couldn't imagine substituting anything else for them. This poem specifically tries to describe the road that ran along the oil pipeline that ended in Baghdad-a road used by both military and civilians that was bombed mercilessly for six months before the ground troops ever arrived.

JB & AMK: One of the last lines of "The Road to Baghdad" states "I understand that if there/ is no road, then there is no me." This line suggests that the road and the speaker have become one, which dramatically changes the meaning of the entire poem. Why wait until the end of the poem to make this statement?

SBT: That was the intention. As I said before, this collection (and this poem for that matter), are concerned with "things lost," and I wanted the reader to understand that many of the poems in the collection are less concerned with what happened (or didn't happen, in many cases), and more concerned with the distance between lives. I teach poetry and fiction workshops for veterans, and the incredible "break" that happens when a soldier leaves the military and tries to be a civilian often creates this immense sense of distance. This break, or distance, also seems to be a trope with many warrior poets, and is certainly something that I have grappled with in my writing, both in my poetry and my fiction.

JB & AMK: I am always interested in the use of questions in a poem. In "The Road to Baghdad," you use two different questions towards the end of the poem. What effect on the poem do think ending the poem in these questions has and why might you have decided to end the poem in this way?

SBT: I think I scratched the surface of this in a previous question, but for me, the questions at the end serve a specific purpose-because this poem is confessional by nature, I wanted to express the shift or change in a way that would take it beyond what is at stake for the narrator, and make it more about what is at stake for "us" as a reader. I was attempting to imply that the question the narrator is asking is subject to change, that this isn't a conclusion (and it never is, for most soldiers) that neatly ties up the poem (who wants to read poems that do that anyway?). I think it speaks a bit to that break I mentioned earlier-how does someone go from the killing fields and then to a college classroom without some sense of weariness and bewilderment?

JB & AMK: In "Falling in Love During Wartime," you use long-lined couplets. What purpose does this form serve for this particular poem?

SBT: This poem is meant to race down the page, to provide the reader with the stream of conscious "voice" for the narrator. The early versions of this looked more like a prose poem, but I found them too daunting for the reader (I actually broke this poem up into short quatrains at one point, and the thing was more than seven pages long and was ponderous and slow and lacked any real discernable voice). The idea came from reading the laments in the Book of Psalms, and then from some classical elegies, but without the traditional qualities of music or song. I especially liked the Psalms of David (Psalms 3-44) from the King James version, and the long lines just suddenly made sense. And since there is the suggestion of a Mormon narrator behind all the poems (or there is supposed to be), it also made sense to me because I had to read the bible over and over again in seminary school before classes (which I hated), and I thought it would be fun to parody the lineation in a tribute to my pessimism. I mean, why not? Right?

JB & AMK: In this poem you often deliver phrases in sets of three. For example, in the fourth stanza you write, "The robbery was complete and crimson / it was ancient, it was cleansing, it was eternal." What are you going for here, and how did you arrive at this "form"?

SBT: This was really more about the voice I was hearing, rather than a conscious craft choice. I don't suffer from multiple personality disorder, but when I write it sure feels like I do! That said, it is something that differentiates my fiction and poetry-I almost never hear a voice when I write fiction, but certainly do when I write poems. I think of these poems as gifts-some of them need a lot of attention by way of revision, and they don't always come easy, but I am thankful when they do. I tend to do much more thinking about the poems once I have an idea, and a lot less time writing them, thank god.

JB & AMK: You use the em dash (-) quite a bit in this poem when, it seems, you could use a comma just as effectively. What's up with that?

SBT: I would argue that the em dash is nothing like a comma because it doesn't break up two ideas, or provide a clear division between thoughts. I believe the em dash extends a thought, mimics the way we speak, gives no pause the way a comma does. This poem is really about the speed of the line, the rush of a narrative voice that argues with itself-the reader is meant to burn through the poem on the tide of the stream of conscious, so in my mind, anything that slows down that voice is doing the poem a disservice.

JB & AMK: In "And the Way the Sun Was Positioned," you evoke the second person "you" but don't indicate who the you actually is until the end of the poem in a direct address from the speaker of the poem. Why do you keep the "you" secret until so late in the poem? Why reveal the you at all?

SBT: That's exactly why I love the second person in poetry-the mystery. For ATWTSWP, that mystery is what builds the tension for the reader-they get to experience something most could never imagine (in this case, a lull in the fighting, where two men get to share a sacrament), and then also get to experience the poem as a witness to this sacrament.

JB & AMK: At the end of the first stanza, the speaker says "your leg was wet from one large ebony puddle, but / we were all dirty then, so it didn't seem to matter." While I really like the rhythm and sound of "your leg was wet from one large ebony puddle," the rest feels more prosy to me and not terribly necessary. But this is something you do quite a bit in this poem. You extend the sentence, pump up its significance, and give it greater context. Many poets would argue against doing this, would argue that economy should be more readily observed. What say you?

SBT: I'm not trying to start an argument here, but what poets say this? Certainly not anyone I am trying to ape. This sounds more like a rule or edict-something that in my mind squashes good writing instincts. I would argue that applying rules to poetry is like using your hands to redirect a river-I'm more concerned with the tradition my poems are emulating, rather than any set of current aesthetic rules I may be breaking. It's the contrarian in me. It's more important to me that I respect the tradition, but don't fall prey to emulating the tradition. I think that's why my favorite poets (Dickey comes to mind) always seem to break the expectations within a poem. And in the end, I don't believe the poet chooses the form-the poem and the concept of the poem defines the form. I tell my students that each poem they write should follow a new set of rules-rules made up by the siren call of the specific poem they are writing. I this case, the hook for ATWTSWP is the "you" as character and reader, and the expectation of the poem is that we will slowly get to know that person. Dramatic? Perhaps, but that's where this poem came from after all-poetry that tries to describe war or the aftermath of war is always going to feel that way. But I certainly wouldn't want Brian Turner to employ more economy in his poetry about the Iraq War...

JB &AMK: I like how you use parentheses to include a pronunciation of a word that Danny says differently near the end of the poem to add a little characterization. What is the significance of placing this information in parentheses though? Why not just write the line as "and how / the ‘ole' didn't look..." with "ole" in, perhaps italics to indicate speech?

SBT: It's in the way the inner ear "hears" it. I try to be pretty consistent with this in my poetry, to be honest (because I believe it)-italics seem to make the word resonate in the mind of the reader, where quotation marks actually cause the reader to "hear" the word spoken in their mind. That's one of the frustrating things about having a book out-you can't edit it anymore. I originally used the single quotation mark to highlight the word but not confuse the reader into thinking that this was being spoken in the poem. I look at it now, and I can see that there may be a case for the double quotations. In any case, I didn't want to hear this omniscient "peal" of the word that you get from italics; rather, I wanted the reader to actually hear the word spoken in their head but not in the poem. I think as far as the parenthesis is concerned-in my reading of the poem, the use of parenthesis doesn't seem to slow down the line like commas would, and to ignore a major portion of the characterization of the "you" seems counter-intuitive.

JB &AMK: Can you talk a little bit about what it's like to attempt to impart your experiences in Iraq via poetry? Why not write stories or essays? What is it about the form of the poem that works so well with this subject matter for you?

SBT: Well, in poetry, as in fiction, sometimes the little truth has to take a backseat to the big Truth, and I think my experiences in the military simply give my writing a bit more credibility than most. Tim O'Brien wrote, "In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. [ ... ] It's a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness." So, I don't necessarily think of myself as a war poet, because I'm not always telling the truth-I'll leave that to studs like Brian Turner. I just see myself as someone fascinated by stories of heroism and courage and cowardice and love and hate and weakness, just like everyone else. Anyone can write about our wars, but I find that I sometimes have to write them. When it comes down to it, I write as much fiction as I do poetry, and the short story collection and novella I recently finished certainly has some military/veteran themes, but those stories aren't necessarily about my own specific experiences. As for the second part of your question, about "why poetry?" This is actually hard for me to answer because I try to challenge the dividing line between fiction and poetry in much of my writing-I see the craft and development of poetry and fiction as less distinct than most; I often exchange certain strategies, manipulate genre expectations, and swap specific skills as I craft my own fiction and poetry. Of course, there are limitations to this approach, but I believe that poets and fiction writers have much to learn from one another, and to divide into camps is to the detriment of each. But, yes, when I'm writing a poem, it is a poem, and I do find myself gravitating to poetry when the idea I have doesn't seem to work well with the concept of "plot." And, there are certain things you can do in poetry that are difficult to pull off in fiction, especially when it comes to the music of the line (not to mention line breaks!), language, and voice-none of the poems we spoke of today would work very well as short stories, and certainly "The Cold Logic of Farm Animals," another poem from Mormon Boy that focuses on war from a variety of points of view, would never make it as a story, even though it has elements of prose running through it. In the end, I think poetry gives me a way to focus on the small things, without concern for the story that surrounds them, and I get to magnify them, and figuratively and lyrically treat them like the big things, just like they deserve. 

A “Mini-Review” of Seth Brady Tucker's Featured Poems by Contributing-Editor Aaron Bauer

In “Advent, 1966,” Denise Levertov ponders a photograph depicting the burning bodies of Vietnamese children. She writes: 

      because of this my strong sight,
      my clear caressive sight, my poet's sight I was given
      that it might stir me to song,
      is blurred.

The brutality of the My Lai massacre, the event where this photo was taken, robs Levertov of one the most essential tools for a poet, her sight. She cannot perceive this individuality of any victim but rather blurs them into an indistinguishable mash.

A new generation of war poets are now having their voices heard. Many of these contemporary writers, such as Seth Brady Tucker, do not have the disconnects the poets of the Vietnam era had—to see the realities of war through a photograph or a television screen. As eye witnesses of and also active participants in war, an outright condemnation that may have been possible during Vietnam is problematic, to say the least. Nevertheless, war still blurs one's vision. That blurring, however, through the eyes of a poet gives an opportunity for metaphor to find meaning in seemingly meaningless circumstances.

Tucker's strong “poet's sight” can entrance his readers by finding beauty to explore in even the most desolate situation. His control of the line is nothing short of masterful in “The Road to Baghdad,” as sound and meaning morph and evolve from line to line and stanza to stanza. In the opening stanza of “The Road to Baghdad,” he simultaneously disarms and alarms his readers:

      Is less a road than a floral
      collection of spongy and soft
      bodies.

The first two lines of this opening stanza lure us in with a somewhat muted tone and calming image of this desert road being nothing more than a bouquet of flowers. However, a harsh enjambment inverts this calming image, revealing this is not a bed of rose petals we tread on. The image here is oddly reminiscent of Levertov; in place of a group of children smoldering, Tucker gives “a gathering of the myriad // of colors of nations.” We see no faces. We hear no names. But we see and feel the grotesquely alluring color and texture.

But Tucker does not sustain Levertov's contemplative distance: his bodies are not in a photographs but bodies whose bones crack underneath his feet. He recognizes the life of a soldier is inextricably entwined with the violence he observes. Toward the end of the poem, the poem's speaker researches this road “in old maps or on / the web” but is gone. Then, Tucker writes, “I understand that if there / is no road, then there is no me.” If the speaker's duty as a soldier blurs with his identity as an individual and then the acts of the soldier are erased, what place is left for identity, he ponders. Can a soldier even tell a civilian that he defended the road to Baghdad when no one will admit the existence of such a road in the first place?

To say that war can 'blur' one's vision would not be license for stereotypes or generalities. In his poem, “Falling in Love During Wartime,” we are met with an opening line of intense specificity: “I am missing eleven months, nine days, and give or take, fourteen minutes from my life.” Even an admittance of uncertainty—rather than undermining our trust in the veracity of the author—assures the reader that the poem's speaker aches for some way to retrieve every absent moment.

Near the close of the poem, the speaker states:

                                          I will maintain that the desert is a fiction, a fiction

      of lights and noise, and I will assert to the boy on the park bench that he will
      never have to like he was a part of something missing

Perhaps, it is here that the distinction between Levertov's approach and Tucker's becomes most apparent. For Levertov, the intensity of war was experienced through a proxy—a photographic medium that, while visual and visceral, was also deniable and avoidable; the photo could be set down, the newscast turned off. For Tucker though, war is not only intense (“men walking into white flashes of light”) but also quotidian and tangible (“the only pornography we had in the gulf: the Victoria / Secret Fall issue”). The soldier in the desert is the boy in the park. Of course, we crave along with the poem's speaker for the one to be a fiction the other never has to know, but that cannot be.

Of the three poems featured this week, “And the Way the Sun Was Positioned” stands out in the way it treats its subject-matter. Both “The Road to Baghdad” and “Falling in Love During Wartime” have a dream-like quality to them, a combination of narrative and lyric elements. However, we see the straight narrative of “And the Way the Sun Was Positioned” unfold under an unyielding desert sun. It seems here that a reader is privy to every detail—the type of truck Danny rests against, the way Danny's hand rests comfortably on the M-16, even the “beef, dehydrated” label of the discarded MRE package. But sometimes seeing clearly just isn't quite enough.

In this poem, we find that the blurring effect of war is not exclusively an external force. We will ourselves to see something other than what confronts us as way to comfort ourselves. We so want to see the oil as just oil and the cigarette as still burning because of what that would mean in the situation. This is the type of poem that can't be read once; the ending shoots a reader's eyes up to the beginning to reorganize and reinterpret.

Tucker's poems do not attempt to persuade readers that war is beautiful but, rather, that there is beauty in war—as beauty has the potential to exist anywhere and can be revealed through the power of a “poet's sight.” Beauty is powerful and can persist in even the most forsaken places and desperate circumstances.