The experience of reading Kevin Powers’ new poetry collection, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is much like combat itself—long periods of calm and reflection broken by frenetic bursts of adrenalized action. Nowhere is this juxtaposition more clear than in the poem “Improvised Explosive Device,” in which Powers explores what was probably the biggest threat to American soldiers in Iraq. Those of us who drove the tattered roads of that nation remember too well the randomness and constant worry about IEDs, inanimate objects to which we had never before given a second thought. In the poem, Powers writes of the quiet moments before potential energy turns kinetic:
And if this poem was somehow traveling
in the turret of a humvee,
you would not see the words
buried at the edges of the road.
You would not see the wires. You would not
see the metal. You would not see the danger
in the architecture
of a highway overpass.
“Improvised Explosive Device” is unsettling, each line teasing out the danger that lurks beneath the ground or in the trash. This theme of things buried—explosives, reality, grief, history—runs throughout Powers’ poetry, as it did in his 2012 debut novel, The Yellow Birds. Powers, a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas in Austin, served as a machine gunner with the U.S. Army in Iraq. His poetry, like his fiction, weaves between Iraq and home.
In the opening poems of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, Powers’ narrator is relieved that he doesn’t have to choose whether to shoot a young Iraqi boy whose job it is to gather unexploded mortars for the coalition. In later poems, the narrator, back in the States, struggles to find his footing as he discovers that he no longer fits into the community from which he embarked on his tour of duty. He is a remnant of history.
And it is history that Powers explores next, reminding readers that so much of the United States was built with a disregard for the working class. “In the Ruins of the Ironworks” parallels this hazardous disregard—in this case, for coal miners—with that for green soldiers sent off to war. In “Church Hill,” the narrator laments his country’s ability to proceed with daily life despite knowledge of faraway—and even nearby—death. Depicting the called-off rescue of workmen buried in a collapsed train tunnel in 1925 in Richmond, Virginia, he tells us:
At some point
everyone stopped trying
to dig the survivors out and went back
to whatever it was they’d done before …
No one should be blamed for this.
Frustrated with the repetitive cycle of destruction and its subsequent whitewashing, Powers’ narrator appears to abandon the theme of history’s significance and our ability to learn from it. Every beginning, he observes, is just a course correction, and each star is just a record of a million cities waiting to be burned and lived in again. “Order is a myth,” he concludes. In “The Locks of the James,” he walks by a statue of Christopher Newport, one of the earliest Englishmen to arrive in Virginia, and dismisses his record as a pirate and “murderer of indigenous peoples,” proclaiming, “If I’m honest, I don’t think I cared. / If I’m honest, mine is the only history / that really interests me, which is unfortunate, / because I am not alone.”
As with The Yellow Birds, Powers is at his best when he homes in on the restrained anger threatening at any moment to shatter the lull and disrupt progress—the narrator wanting to fight obnoxious young drunks in a bar, only to cry because he misses having his weapon; another veteran at the VFW saying he lost his leg, only to be rebuffed and told, “Naw, they took it, the fuckers.”
Powers other times drifts into philosophical extrapolations about humans’ place in the universe, as in “Advice to be taken just before the Sun goes Supernova,” in which he writes that we are just “another piece of sacking added to the swirl / of forgotten objects swinging round / a million little masses we can’t see,” or in “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” where he declares that “A complete picture of the universe / as it currently exists / is not impossible, / only difficult.” As a result of these digressions, the collection sparks a desire for more immediate examinations of veterans’ role in war and their troubles reintegrating into communities. This is what hits home—the attempt to throttle the angst built up during a deployment, or simply from years insulated in an aggressive bubble. What is the point of worrying about our role in the greater universe if we can’t even identify it at home? As the narrator tells us, trying to piece together the remnants of his pre-war self, “I am home and whole, so to speak. … But I can’t remember / how to be alive.”
Kevin Powers will talk about Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting with moderator Jake Silverstein as part of the San Antonio Book Festival on Saturday, April 5, in the auditorium on the first floor of San Antonio’s Central Library, from 4:30 to 5:15 p.m. FREE.