A Review of Seth Brady Tucker’s Mormon Boy

Seth Brady Tucker Mormon Boy Cover


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.

Carrying a Backpack of Sorrow….Soldiers on the Edge of Suicide

Jack Hirschman, 2006 Poet Laureate of San Francisco, with Iraq War vet, Jon Michael Turner

By Nadya Williams

More of our young soldiers are now killing themselves than are being killed in our wars in the Middle East. The sad statistics are at the end of this article, but the following poem by a 24-year-old former Marine, who slashed his wrists twice after four years of duty and two tours of combat, tells it all.

You fell off the seat as the handlebars turned

sharp left, throwing your body onto

the hot coals of Ramadi pavement,

intertwining your legs within your bicycle.

Lifeless eyes looking to the sky,

your neck muscles twitched turning your head

directly towards us. Nothing escaped your

lips except for the blood in the left corner

of your mouth that briefly moistened them

until the sand and dust dried them out.

The blood trail went behind the stone wall

where your body was placed, weighed down

by your blue bicycle and we laughed.

I used to fall asleep to the pictures and now

I can’t even bear to get a glimpse.

Excerpted from “The Bicycle” by Jon Michael Turner

The military “broke me down into a not-good person, wearing a huge mask,” Turner told the audience at his poetry reading in San Francisco’s Beat Museum, in North Beach. The March 12 event – on the birthday of ‘Beatnik’ literary icon Jack Kerouac – was organized by the venerable Jack Hirschman, San Francisco’s 2006 Poet Laureate, and by the local IVAW (Iraq Veterans Against the War). Jon read from his small, self-published book “Eat the Apple” and from several large pages of dark green hand-made paper – the product of The Combat Paper Book Project, where 125 vets, ranging from World War II through Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, shredded their uniforms to make books for their poetry.  “Poetry saved my life,” he said more than once.

The Burlington, Vermont native was accompanied by his father and step-mother on a coast to coast series of readings from the little book whose name comes from a play on the word “core.” The flyer for the evening reading stated:

“There’s a term ‘Once a Marine, always a Marine,’” Turner says, ripping his medals off and flinging them to the ground. As the room explodes in applause he adds, “But there’s also the expression:

‘Eat the apple, f*ck the corps.

I don’t work for you no more!’”

Jon walks with a cane and was physically injured in battle, but only his poetry reveals his invisible wounds, as in these excerpts from “A Night in the Mind of Me – part 1”

The train hits you head on when you hear of another

friend whose life was just taken.

Pulling his cold lifeless body from the cooler,

unzipping the bag and seeing his forehead,

caved in like a cereal bowl from the sniper’s bullet

that touched his brain.

His skin was pale and cold.

It becomes difficult to sleep even after being

physically drained from patrols, post,

overwatches and carrying five hundred

sandbags up eighty feet of stairs after

each post cycle.

The psychiatrists still wonder why we

drink so heavy when we get home.

We need something to take us away

from the gunfire, explosions,

sand, nightmares and screams……….

I still can’t cry.

The tears build up but no weight is shed.

Anger kicks in and something else

becomes broken.

A cabinet

An empty bottle of liquor

A heart

A soul.

People still look away as we submit ourselves

to drugs and alcohol to suppress these

feelings of loneliness and sadness,

leading to self mutilation and

self destruction on the gift of a human body.

The ditch that we dug starts to cave in.

And from “A Night in the Mind of Me part 2:”

Laughter pours out from the house as if nothing

were the matter, when outside in a chair, underneath

a tree, next to the chickens, I sit,

engulfed in my own sorrows………

Resting on the ground is my glass,

half filled with water but I don’t have

enough courage to pick it up and smash it against

my skull so that everyone can watch blood

pool in the pockets where my collar

bones meet my dead weighted shoulders,…

Every time I’m up, something pulls me down,

whenever I relax, something stresses me out,

every time a smile tugs on my heart, an

iron fist crushes it, and I sit outside in a chair,

underneath a tree, next to the chickens,

away from the ones that I love so

that my disease won’t infect them.

Sorrow and self-pity should be detained,

thrown into an empty bottle and given to the

ocean so that the waves can wash away the pain.

One wonders why this slightly-built, sensitive young man joined the Marines in 2004 at the age of 18 (he was sent first to Haiti at the time of the US-backed February coup that ousted the populist and democratic President Jean-Bertrand Aristide). Jon explained that he came from a military family whose participation in every American conflict stretches back to the Revolutionary War. His father is clearly too young to have gone to Vietnam, but could have easily been in one or both of the Bushes’ wars. Jon’s big brother is also a soldier, ironically now in Haiti after the earthquake. Of the American military, Jon now writes in ”What May Come”:

tap, tap

That’s the sound of the man at your door,

I’m sorry but you won’t see your son alive anymore,

my name is Uncle Sam and I made your boy a whore.

And, from “Just Thoughts”

…………I often wonder

if this will be the rest of my life.

Schizophrenic, paranoid, anxious.

That guy that walks around the city center that

people steer their children away from.

“Mommy, who’s that man walking next

to the crazy guy?”

“Oh that’s just Uncle Sam sweetheart, he takes

the souls from young men so that

they have trouble sleeping at night”

“It takes the Courage and Strength of a Warrior to ask for Help” – we’ve all seen the ads, on billboards and busses, with the silhouette of a down-cast soldier against a back drop of the stars and stripes, and a 1-800 Help Line just for vets, provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs. But “The Surge” in self-inflicted deaths continues, with 350 suicides of active duty personnel in 2009, compared to 340 combat deaths in Afghanistan, and 160 in Iraq during the same year – the highest active duty military suicide numbers since records began to be kept in 1980. And for every death, at least five serving personnel are hospitalized for attempting to take their life, according to the military’s own studies.

But these statistics do not include the far larger number of post-active duty veterans who kill themselves after discharge, or, like Jon Michael Turner, who make the attempt. A CBS study put the suicide rate among male veterans aged 20 to 24 at four times the national average. According to CNN, total combat deaths since 2001 (8+ years) in Afghanistan are now 1,016; since 2003 (7 years) in Iraq 4,390 – totaling 5,406 as of March 21, 2010. However the Veteran’s Administration estimates that 6,400 veterans take their own lives each year – an ever growing proportion of them from the recent Mid-East wars – with this figure widely disputed as being way too low. Multiply 6,400 by seven or eight years to compare the numbers of our young soldiers that are now killing themselves, to those being killed in our wars and occupations.


To buy “Eat the Apple,” contact Jon M. Turner, Seven Star Press, 4 Howard Street Suite 12, Burlington, VT 05401; E-mail: JT@greendoorstudio.net See also: www.IVAW.org (Iraq Veterans Against the War)

Nadya Williams is a free-lance journalist and a former study-tour coordinator for Global Exchange, a San Francisco-based human rights and peace non-profit.  She is an active associate member of Veterans for Peace, San Francisco chapter, and is on the national board of the New York-based Vietnam Agent Orange Relief and Responsibility Campaign.