July 2014

Salvatore Ruggiero


Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems by Kevin Powers

The eponymous letter of this volume of poetry would be shattering to receive from a soldier. It opens with "I tell her I love her like not killing / or ten minutes of sleep / beneath the low rooftop wall / on which my rifle rests." These lines show the letter-writer's complete distance and emotional remove not only from what's going on around him but also from the letter's recipient. Clearly war is killing him inside, eating away the humanity he once had. Human connection is now equitable to taking a safe nap in an unsafe place; they give him the same pleasure. This "letter" ends with a character restating "that war is just us / making little pieces of metal / pass through each other." The supposed grandeur and heroism of war, the lives of these soldiers' day to day, is made shockingly belittled. Life and death -- and their causes -- seem almost accidental and certainly insignificant. We can't go on, we'll go on, the narrator suggests.

Kevin Powers's debut volume of poetry, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, captures this struggle to exist -- before, during, and after war. His project here is to give voice to soldiers and veterans who don't have any immediate voice in the world of literature. They are people who see, are seen, and feel as Others, despite representing the nation on the battlefield -- a current issue that is especially haunting with the American Veterans Affairs fatal waitlist problems ongoing. Powers, through his free-verse lines, captures this paradox with this inherent remove and dissociation via his narrators, as well as interest in the minutiae of what life has to offer through how the smallest moment or item can bring happiness (such as sleep beneath a rooftop wall) or destruction (such as pieces of metal passing through a body). The poet delivers these sentiments in easy to digest images and poems that just as easily horrify or create pity in the reader.

To do all of this, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting takes us from the iron factory towns near Richmond, Virginia; to the devastated and bloodied war zones of Mosul, Iraq; to the troubled PTSD minds of the Powers's Everymen, the returned war veterans; to the omniscient view of that tyrant, history, judging from afar. And Powers is unafraid to use the long poem, pages of lines to tell his story, a choice not too common or forgiving for the contemporary poet and the reader alike. This landscape is unsurprisingly bleak and non-triumphant -- where Samuel Beckett's absurd clowns meet Wilfred Owen's broken soldiers. "It was true / what you said. You came home / with nothing, and you still / have most of it left" ends "After Leaving McGuire Veterans' Hospital for the Last Time," a poem that unnerves as it tries to make sense of the world and the existence its veteran has had. "[Y]ou realize your life is just a catalog / of methods, every word of it an effort / to stay sane" and "If you've earned anything / it is the right to be unseemly / while you decide at what point / the bay becomes the ocean... to find what's lost if what is lost / is you." It does not feel like it is good to fight and die for one's country in this world.

In "Separation," one of the better poems of the collection, Powers has his quiet and pensive narrator share a bar with loud and ignorant youths. He starts:

I want the boys at the end of the bar
to know, these Young Republicans
in pink popped-collared shirts, to know
that laughter drives me mad
and if one must be old
before one dies, then we were
old. Nineteen or twenty-three

Clearly the narrator believes that these Young Republicans supported his being sent to war. Their pink collars suggest to him not only their fraternity-like behavior but also their na´vetÚ, their unblemished and newborn skin, their lack of knowledge of what war and death really are. There is a remove from the reality of having an opinion on a tactic and the actuality of what that tactic does to those involved.

Moreover, the separation referred to in the title is not only the separation that death during war creates. It's the separation between a soldier and his rifle, a weapon that feels like his life, and an event that happens to this narrator when he first returns home at a bar. It's also the separation of a soldier and the world around him when he's no longer known as a soldier, as readjusting to society cannot be accomplished by just being thrown back into the civilian world nonchalantly. "'How will I return / fire?' I cried. I truly cried... [T]wenty-four and crying / for my rifle and the boys / at the end of the bar / were laughing." Powers makes us wonder if these are the Young Republican boys or if they were other boys at the bar when his narrator's rifle was taken away. Past and present meet in clever ambiguity, and such a meeting suggest there are no right answers here.

Free verse with occasional iambs suits Powers's talents. With it he sometimes is a philosopher: "What one must always answer for / is not what has been done, but / for the weight of what remains / as residue." He sometimes is a reporter: "the woman in the driver's seat / so brutalized by bullets it was hard to tell her sex. / Her left arm waved unceremoniously." Prose poetry was also found in his debut novel, The Yellow Birds, which felt like what Septimus Smith, Virginia Woolf's war hero from Mrs. Dalloway, would have written if he were in the Iraq War. That being said, free verse is clearly the preferred if not only mode Powers ruminates in, creating a lack of diversity and potency in this collection. In Letter Composed, Powers's poems are sometimes more like captured instances and sentiments that just have line breaks every now and again. Lines don't yet feel like the world hinges on them. The immediacy is in the poem in its entirety and not on each line or word. If Powers ever decides to publish another volume, a more showcased variety in styles and content would not go amiss. But this is a worthwhile collection of themed war-inspired and -torn poetry that will haunt during a lull in the civilian day.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems by Kevin Powers
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0316401081
112 pages