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Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems Hardcover – April 1, 2014
This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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Military veteran Powers’ acclaimed Iraq War novel, The Yellow Birds (2012), gripped readers with its close-to-the-bone story line, but his lyricism is equally meritorious. Powers now delivers on that strength in his first poetry collection: “For the silence that has filled your ears / again / and particles of light / funneled through the holes / made by metal meeting metal / meeting muscle meeting bone.” These revelatory poems capture war’s profound dualities as well as chaos: “Everyone is where they are / by accident; they will likely be as scared / as you are.” James reveals the strange counterpoint between the horrors of war and unexpected beauty: “Red, like a wound bled into water, / mixes with my mother’s voice.” He also considers the stoic words of a now-dead father, and the lasting influence of a modest community in West Virginia. Poem by poem, Powers travels an incredible journey through the thoughts and feelings of a veteran attempting to put the pieces together as he looks both forward and back, “hoping someday something will make sense.” --Mark Eleveld
Praise for The Yellow Birds
"Extraordinary...A harrowing story about the friendship of two young men trying to stay alive on the battlefield...Brilliantly observed and deeply affecting." --Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
"Powers is a poet first, so The Yellow Birds is spare, incredibly precise, unimproveable."--Dave Eggers, Observer
"Kevin Powers has produced a masterpiece of war literature and a classic."--Hilary Mantel, London Times
"A powerful work of art....Put it way up on that high rare shelf alongside Ernest Hemingway and Tim O'Brien."--Anthony Swofford
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Powers' poetic project is foreshadowed in the first piece and expanded upon in the following two selections. I defy anyone to read these three short poems and not continue through the remaining 88 pages (as I said, slender). The key is in the final three lines of the first, "Customs."
...I can tell you exactly
What I mean. The world has been replaced
by our ideas about the world.
This perspective Powers expands upon in his second poem, which is also the title of the book and which I reproduce in its entirety:
I tell her I love her like not killing
or ten minutes of sleep
beneath the low rooftop wall
on which my rifle rests.
I tell her in a letter that will stink,
when she opens it,
of bolt oil and burned powder
and the things it says.
I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.
The third offering, "Great Plain," makes even more plain the Powers' philosophical perception that, yes, there's a big world out there, but even as we swan through it, we interpret it, and we use words to record those thoughts and the accompanying sense impressions, and it's the words that afterward linger in the air and await discovery by others. (Never mind that we all carry cameras around in our pockets and can also record the sounds of that world: these are poems, and we're not reciting Homer in the agora, we're reading them, perhaps aloud - I do - in our solitude.)
To my eyes, this first triad of unmetrical, unrhymed verse sets an unusually high bar - above all for perspective, use of language, and imagery - that Powers reaches relatively infrequently afterward, and mostly in the first two parts, which are unnamed but I think of as "The Home Front" and "In the Field and After" - of his four-segment volume. These war poems are lamentations: there's little of the jokey camaraderie that was at the center of The Yellow Birds, only the residual sorrow that hovers about after the demise of friends. Powers' verse is filled with loss, emptiness, meaninglessness, sadness. And throughout, his careful deployment of words picks through his emotions, laying them out very carefully, being extremely explicit about "what I mean": he withholds nothing, or very little. He doesn't deal in obscurantism. He says, precisely, what he wants to mean and, moreover, understands that it lives as words on a page. Hence, in "Improvised Explosive Device" - the collection's longest poem, 115 lines over five pages - which leads the second part:
If this poem had wires
coming out of it,
you would not read it.
If the words in this poem were made
of metal, if you could see
the mechanics of their curvature,
you would hope
they would stay covered
by whatever paper rested
in the trash pile they were hidden in.
And throughout, Powers registers strong points about what he draws as meaning from the war in which he served, again consciously couched in words: "Go on./ They are safe to fold and put into your pocket./ Even better, they are safe to be forgotten." Poetry walks a fine line between artifice - irregular enjambments and line breaks, unusual indentation and punctuation, rhyme and metrical schemes - and the poet's desire for the words to colonize minds as though through osmosis, for "the poem as literary artifice" to call little attention to itself. The naturalness of Powers' language works unobtrusively; his sense that "these are words, people!" does not. The result, however, often hits us with great power, even as we're aware of the meta-effects in play.
Also very good and frequently strong are the volume's final two segments - I've named these "Flashbacks" and "History" - essentially mini-autobiographies of person and place, in and around recognizable Virginia locales and often in the company of family and friends. With the exception of the fine "An Alternate History of the Destruction of Dresden by Fire," there is no war in the collection's second half. But war lingers in the reader's mind from the first half: we know war lies in the future for the residents of this second half; Powers in effect foreshadows the earlier episodes of the narrator's life in chronological reverse, like a flipped Pinter play, with the reader knowing what will happen in the narrator's future, which is of course the reader's past, the words in our wake.
The conspicuously Eliotic "Grace Note" brings Powers' collection to the conclusion of affirmation implied in the final offering's title.
But that is not, I think, what will linger in the reader's memory.
The aftermath following war stretches out in the vastness of the Texas highways, in "Customs". The book title "A Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting": is another opening poem, which briefly describes a letter to his girlfriend and a quote from Pvt. Bartle. "Great Plain": describes a Nebraska prairie, in the mind of a combat sniper relieved he doesn't have to shoot a little boy cresting a hill. Several poems were written of his mother and were very well done. "Blue Star Mother": a deeply compassionate expression of his mother catching a dream of a fallen soldier, being strong enough to handle it. "A History of Yards": is of a promise made to her to be safe and not fear.
The violence and inhumanity of war are recalled in vivid detail in Part 2: "Death Mother and Child" and "Field Manual". The longer poems, "Improvised Explosive Device": the blast of destruction, metal, fragments, then words.. though these words have wires coming out of them, they are safe and sometimes best forgotten. "Photographing The Suddenly Dead" and the shorter poem "Separation": recalls memories and effects of PTSD.
"After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital for the Last Time": a soldier receiving therapy found peace thinking of the curvature of the coast, shoreline, and sea. I was reminded of a boyfriend stationed at Ft. Dix, before his deployment to Viet Nam in 1972, also my father in law who was stationed at McGuire AFB, (1959-1971).
Part 3: Many of these poems "Cumberland Gap", "The Torch and Pitchfork Blues": narrates Powers southern upbringing, his fathers direction. "Fighting out of West Virginia": tells a story of a mining town, poverty of some the people and how easily they are fired up. "The Locks of the James": opens part 4, describes a historical part of a southern town, a penthouse renovated over a tobacco warehouse, a parking lot paved over a slave burial ground, and that his fathers grave was located nearby. "Chapel Hill": relates a tragic collapse of a railroad tunnel, and at a chapel, the reenacted speech of Patrick Henry. "Advice to be taken just before the Supernova": a written remembrance of millions of unseen masses. This poetry was richly vibrant and beautifully written.
Kevin Powers was born and raised in Richmond, VA. He began his formal education at Virginia Commonwealth University. He received his MFA from the University of Texas located in Austin, where he was a Michener Fellow in Poetry. He was in the US Army in 2004-05, serving a combat tour in Iraq.
Many thanks to Little Brown Publishers for this book won in the Goodread's Giveaway.
Remembering: US Army S.Sgt Nathan L. Wyrick - October 10, 2011 - Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.