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Letter Composed During A Lull In The Fighting and other poems By Kevin Powers - book review

Kevin Powers’ debut novel The Yellow Birds, drawing on his time in Iraq as a machine gunner in the US Army, was hailed as a masterpiece on its release in 2012, a war novel fit to stand alongside All Quiet on the Western Front. It’s not surprising that his poetry drinks from the same well, with titles such as “Improvised Explosive Device” and “After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time”. But there’s more to this first collection than war poems.

“Things are at an end,” says the opening poem; “The world has been replaced/by our ideas about the world”. The weary note sounds again in “Elegy for Urgency”, which speaks of being “aware/of the futility of trying to fix yourself in the world/with words you cannot remember”. Powers’ speakers share a disconnect from everyday life: “everything in the world only reminds me/of something else”. But some things are just themselves: a truck pulls away, “one more cloud of dust/in your life of clouds of dust”. The sight of a dead woman in a car mashed by bullets prompts a rare artistic reference: “Kollwitz was right. Death is an etching.” Mostly, the poems do not transfigure, only record.

“I am home and whole, so to speak,” says the voice in “Meditation on a Main Supply Route”. For the returned veteran, all landscapes, even home, spell death and disaster. In “Church Hill” Powers evokes a train that was swallowed up long ago when a tunnel collapsed: “At some point/everyone stopped trying/to dig the survivors out”, despite the eerie sound of voices under ground and “the quiet ringing of the Pullman bell”. 

Burial is a key theme: “push/your feet as far as they will go/into the earth. Burial is likely what/you’re after anyway.” Some “boys” practised digging so much “they stayed below the surface”. “I/have tried to become earth/many times.” There are older crimes, ancient wrongs lying beneath the surface of modern America: a local parking lot built over a slaves’ cemetery; and underneath even that, the hunting grounds of the Mattaponi Indians. 

Sometimes the verse slackens: in only a few lines of “The Locks of the James” (the James being a river) are such trite phrases as “by all accounts … with luck … the actual project … not to mention the fact that … utterly doomed from the start …” Powers is pointing up the banality of municipal language but sometimes we move so far from the idea of poetry being “the best words in the best order” that all we’re left with is simply, “words”. At his best he has an elegant tough-ness. In “Nominally”, the speaker is “unmoved” by the historical griefs of his town. “So what? Nothing/was counted. Order is a myth.”

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