04 September 2014

Mil-Poetry Review: 'Letter Composed During a Lull ...'

"Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting" by Kevin Powers

In a 2014 poetry collection titled "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," Iraq War veteran Kevin Powers successfully bridges between stories of service and sacrifice, and explorations of an individual's place in society, geography, and history.

The poems are often short—many are just a page or two, and only a few clock in at more than three. Without losing any richness of word or meaning, Powers' language seems somehow less lyrical, less breathless, than his critically perfumed 2013 novel, "The Yellow Birds," which is set during the Iraq War. Rather than sweeping readers along in rapid and burbling rivers of prose, page after page after flowery page, the poetry collection delivers discreet dispatches of experience—bite-sized and chewy.

As a result, the work is accessible, approachable, and eminently shareable. Believe it or not, this just might be a poetry book you could read aloud in the barracks, without starting a fight.

The book comprises 33 poems, and is divided into four parts. The first half contains government-issue titles such as "Blue Star Mother" and "Meditation on a Main Supply Route." In these poems, Powers unfolds and unpacks the drab nomenclature in ways that resonate with soldiers and those who love them. In "Improvised Explosive Device," for example, he re-imagines the poem first as a bomb to be detected, then gradually expands the metaphor in waves of heat and smoke and jagged metal. Even before he lights the poem's figurative fuze, there is a desperate need to detect the threat, to perceive the unseen, to see where things lead. It begins:
If this poem had wires
coming out of,
you would not read it.
If this 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.
But words or wires would lead you still
to fields of grass between white buildings. [...]
Powers' poetic explorations of the military experience include eyes on the home front. In "Separation," his narrator rails against a group of "Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts," and then moves on to consider the loss of youth, identity, and even his weapon:
[...] I want to rub their clean
bodies in blood. I want my rifle
and I want them to know
how scared I am still, alone
in bars these three years later when
I notice it is gone [...]
In the book's second half, Powers relocates his reconnaissance of dread and isolation to different times and different terrain. There is fire here, as well as earth. He takes the reader to Dresden, Germany, seconds before the flames of World War II, and to the pre-apocalyptic moments before our sun goes supernova. He tells the story of a bloodied working-class Toughman competitor, losing to win a way out of West Virginia. He revisits a broken lock and canal on the James River, a place of childhood memory, which has twice failed to bring about an economic boom.

In all of these tales, Powers continues to probe questions of where and how an individual is rooted, whether in time or place, history or dirt. In "Grace Note," he writes a dirge familiar to any weary traveler. It does not explicitly mention war, but one can easily read war into it:
[...] Yes, we're due:
a break from everything, from use,
from breath, from artifacts, from life,
from death, from every unmoored memory
I've wasted all those hours upon
hoping someday something will make sense:
the old man underneath the corrugated plastic
awning of the porch, drunk and slightly
slipping off into the granite hills
of southeast Connecticut already, the hills sheaved off
and him sheaved off and saying
(in reply to what?) "Boy, that weren't nothing
but true facts about the world."
That was it. The thing I can't recall
was what I had been waiting for. [...]

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