Kevin Powers, an Iraq war veteran and the author of “The Yellow Birds,” which was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2012, has just published a strong poetry collection called “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.” I read the title poem in Poetry magazine in 2009, and I’ve been waiting for his book since. Although many will be quick to label this a collection of war poems, a deeper reading reveals a collection that, section by section, writes its way stateside and into the wider historical landscape of our lives.
Powers employs a rangy, conversational line, often creating a sense of voice through hesitations and restarts, with an insistence on getting closer to a phrase — as if cycling through an idea until it comes out right. One example of this from “Great Plain” reads:
. . . When I say Nebraska
I mean the idea of, the way an ex-girlfriend of mine
once talked about the idea of a gun. But guns are not ideas.
They are not things to which comparisons are made. They are
one weight in my hand when the little boy crests the green hill
and the possibilities of shooting him or not extend out from me
like the spokes of a wheel.
But the charged voice in “Great Plain” does not carry over into the majority of these poems, which take an understated tone and deal with the experience of detachment, the unmoored soul gone adrift in a world devoid of meaning. While this is a theme throughout the canon of war literature, notably in the work of the Lost Generation of World War I, the ongoing struggle with psychological detachment in “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” represents the trauma we must deal with as a nation welcoming our men and women home today. In “Elegy for Urgency,” Powers offers us this raw and unadorned lens:
But you have noticed nothing in a long time,
holy or otherwise, so it is not remarkable
that you spent the rest of the day listening blankly
as your friends and loved ones chattered on,
unable even to speak,
the whole time dizzying further, only aware
of the futility of trying to fix yourself in the world
with words you cannot remember.
The names of the trees are trees
and birds are those singing things
carrying their music off to a place
to which you’ve lost the way.
Although one of the great hallmarks of this book is its restraint, Powers sometimes carries a wonderful poem too far, unable to hold back. For example, he might have ended “Meditation on a Main Supply Route” with these lines:
I know these roads will work
their way to me. They may arrive
right here, at this small circle of light
folding in on itself where brick
and broken sidewalk meet.
But, instead, Powers continues:
So, I must be prepared. But I can’t remember
how to be alive. It has begun
to rain so hard I fear I’ll drown.
I guess we ought to
take these pennies off our eyes,
strike into them new likenesses;
toss them with new wishes
into whatever water can be found.
Powers is a Southern writer — he was born and raised in Richmond — and his voice is steady and sure, steeped in a storytelling tradition. He has not yet fully developed his sense of the line, too often allowing a weak line to stand on its own. But any quibbles one might have with this collection are soon tempered by a full reading of the book. The poet is obviously versed in the work of contemporary poets. In Powers’s music, I hear strains of Bruce Weigl and Dave Smith, with allusions to other work in the genre.
Rather than place this collection among tomes of war literature, focusing only on the lineage of battle and the refrains of gunfire, I’d encourage readers to simply employ the appellation “poet” — a term he has earned with this book and one I look forward to seeing him develop and add to as the years go by. He is a poet of blue jeans and factory work, ironworks and crumbling buildings, one who knows how the imagination can seamlessly find its way from one war to another, as he does in “An Alternate History of the Destruction of Dresden by Fire” — in which a deaf boy signs to a bear in the Dresden zoo as Allied bombers drop their ordnance overhead.
We haven’t heard the last from poet Kevin Powers. And for good reason.
LETTER COMPOSED DURING A LULL IN THE FIGHTING
By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown. 96 pp. $23