Unhappy Memorial Day: Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

Powers LetterThose who have fallen in our nation’s wars deserve unambiguous commemoration on Memorial Day, and all other days for that matter. But for veterans and artists it’s not that simple.  Remembering the dead while gathering strength to go on become vexed projects, shaded by doubt and perspective.  Memory and hope crash together disjointedly; forgetfulness and despair operate at cross-purposes. Kevin Powers’ new book of poems, titled Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, illustrates the truth of these points, though it doesn’t address American dead in the Iraq War very often or directly. If anything, the deaths of Iraqi civilians and his own father concern Powers more, as well as those of the historical inhabitants of the Richmond, Virginia locale in which many of the poems are set.  In a poem called “The Locks of the James,” he writes:

If I’m honest, mine is the only history
that really interests me, which is unfortunate,
because I am not alone.

Though the deaths of fellow American soldiers doesn’t preoccupy Powers, killing and dying considered more abstractly definitely does. The poems in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting trace the intertwining processes of remembering, reflecting, and projecting, roughly but not always centered on an awareness of mortality brought to an intensified pitch by combat.  The title is sensational, but misleading. Few of the poems are composed in media res with the speaker in the warzone.  Instead, most are recollections in more-or-less tranquility after return home.  “Meditation on a Main Supply Route,” a poem that has the speaker comparing notes with a Vietnam War vet, is typical:

I am home and whole, so to speak.
The streetlights are in place along the avenue
just as I remembered
and just as I remember
there is tar slick on the poles
because it has rained. It doesn’t matter.
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.
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 them new likenesses;
toss them with new wishes
into whatever water can be found.

The “pennies off our eyes” that turn living vets into walking ghosts is a sense of obligation born of guilt.  In “Photographing the Suddenly Dead,” Powers writes:

We no longer have to name
the sins that we are guilty of.
The evidence for every crime
exists. What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for the weight of what remains
as residue—every effort
must be made to scrub away
the stain we’ve made on time.

The last poem in the collection, “Grace Note,” tries to muster the imagination to figure out how to carry on purposefully into the future after war:

And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest awhile,
for we are more than figuring the odds.

“The world has been replaced / by our ideas about the world,” Powers had warned in the volume’s opening poem, “Customs,” and by the collection’s end we know he hadn’t been kidding. For a veteran-artist such as he is, every day is a day of remembrance and every poem a document of pain. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting’s most imaginatively exciting poem, “Improvised Explosive Device,” consists of an extended metaphor in which Powers compares a poem to an IED:

If this poem has left you deaf,
if the words in it are smoking,
if parts of it have passed through your body
or the bodies of those you love, this will go a long way
toward explaining why you will, in later years,
prefer to sleep on couches.

“Yet you will weep and know why,” wrote English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, not about war, but about death generally.  As Hopkins’ poem, “Spring and All,” ends, Hopkins claims that it is for herself whom the poem’s subject weeps, not anyone else.  Powers seems to have arrived at similar view, while suggesting that it could only have been obtained by contemplating the death of his father, innocent Iraqis, and all the Americans killed-in-action or died-of-wounds in the nation’s wars.

Veterans' tombstones, Towson, Maryland.

Veterans’ tombstones, Towson, Maryland.

Kevin Powers, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. Little, Brown, and Company, 2014.

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