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Iraq veteran, Kevin Powers, will take you to Hell and back, if you let him. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting is a feverish tour of a traumatised psyche. And our guide ‘won’t be the hero’ but rather takes the form of a dissociated subject trying to ‘earth’ himself, and tabulate reality. This poetry dances between the ordinary ‘useless things’ and the horrific. Its characters are ‘dead men walking’ – men who are ‘home and whole, so to speak’, but who ‘can’t remember how to be alive’. These are men ‘unraveling’, ‘evaporating’, struggling to reclaim ‘the firmness of reality’.
Through his poetry, Kevin Powers gives voice to the near ineffable. He dissembles monstrous situations into their discrete parts, to effect vivid images. War, for instance, ‘is just us/ making little pieces of metal/ pass through each other’. But it is the inhumanity of the return home that is most unsettling. In the poem ‘Separation’ a returned soldier contends with the psychological traverse between his experiences and those of his war-naive peers. Having fought for his country, he has become a psychological expatriate. But self-alienation is equally a potent force and Powers articulates this in his poem ‘Elegy for Urgency’:
‘If only you could recall the name,
which you are sure is resting
right there on the tip of your tongue
with the rest of your life.’
Yes, Kevin Powers will take you to Hell and back, if you let him. But there is no Satan working in the killing fields. Rather, the work of the enemy is viewed as a sequence of mis-timings and ‘Clayton’s’ choices. Three young men are killed ‘whose crime/ was an unwillingness/ to apply the brakes in time’. A boy fortuitously avoids ‘almost getting shot’. The world of war works by the mantra ‘so be it’. Possibilities dissolve into actualities, as though arbitrarily.
While war may lack parameters, language doesn’t. Like a come-back to TS Eliot’s Prufrock, Powers declares ‘I can tell you exactly/ what I mean’. There is something menacing about the directness of language here. Words are likened to explosives. ‘If this poem had wires coming out of it,/ you would call the words devices’. Powers handles words carefully, at times hesitating, at times qualifying statements with ‘I think’ and ‘I mean’. One feels his words are pedantically chosen, which is no accident, if Atwood’s dictum is correct – ‘War is what happens when language fails’.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Morton
Letter composed during a lull in the fighting
by Kevin Powers
Published by Sceptre