Full Disclosure: Haven’t read Powers’ work before. I’m aware that his first novel, The Yellow Bird, got some hella good reviews though. Review copy kindly donated by Susannah Herbert of the Forward Prize.
Review: First off, I’m indebted to this review by David Clarke over at Dr Fulminare. It put a lot of the book’s most difficult elements into a comprehensible frame, and fully explores the feeling of critic-obsolescence in the face of real suffering, whether of the publicly-reported variety or otherwise. It also asks important questions about the remit of the war poet: conditions in the trenches, for example, became public partly from the writing of individual soldiers, the poetry of Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al valuable, widely circulated insights. Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting has all the benefits of writing in a communications-based culture, and as such need not negotiate 1914’s relative ignorance or misinformation about the ‘enemy’; the book is explicitly focused, however, on the poet’s personal experiences (or what is presented as such, see this interview), with the war’s broader impact left largely incidental, with all the complications that infers. In the poem ‘The Locks of the James’, regarding ‘Christopher Newport’, the ‘accidental founder of this city’ and ‘a murderer of indigenous peoples’, the poet states: ‘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.’ It’s a complicated stance, one that seems aware of its own shortcomings but that openly elides responsibility for them; it seems like the reader is being quietly and unsettlingly invited to map these principles onto a wartime context. Other poems in the collection suggest this is a kind of emotional survival mechanism: how can an individual soldier take responsibility for state-sanctioned murder, in an arena in which a statement like ‘I appreciate the fact / that for at least one day I don’t have to decide / between dying and shooting a little boy’ is actively pressing? Yet how much more could be brought to the discussion by a clear-eyed examination of the principles that led the narrator here? Are we being presented with the wrong questions?
It leaves the reader in a difficult position: Letter Composed is, ostensibly, open about the narrator’s participation in wrongful killing, and equally open about his difficulty overcoming the trauma. However, the victims of ‘Death, Mother and Child’, ‘Field Manual’ and ‘Photographing the Suddenly Dead’ are left anonymous and with little significance outside the drama of the poem, where the poet has an entire book to provide background reading for himself and his fellow soldiers. It’s a question I don’t have a good answer to, and the book is at pains to emphasise its inability to adequately respond. ‘Nominally’, recounts the mass grave of a hundred people forced into slavery covered by a car park, disappeared names and children from underneath an interstate. The narrator replies ‘And I am unmoved by the cold / cardinality of this’, and ‘So what? Nothing / was counted.’ Bearing in mind poems like ‘Valentine with Flat Affect’ and ‘After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time’, it’s not unlikely that the poems dramatise this creeping inability to process external suffering, a phenomenon directly linked to the events contained in the Iraq poems and the narrator’s inability to process them. It’s a kind of vicious cycle, and while the raw, barely articulated anger in ‘Separation’ at ‘these Young Republicans / in pink popped-collar shirts’, the desire to hold them also accountable for ‘how scared I am still, alone / in bars these three years later when / I notice it [the poet’s service rifle] is gone’ might aim at easy targets, perhaps that ‘Young Republican’ identifier is telling. It’s as close as the poet gets to directing blame outwards; it’s noticeable that Powers never assigns responsibility to his superiors, who often seem as bewildered as the narrator, one sergeant stuttering, ‘after, like, don’t / worry boys, it’s war, it happens’, or the war effort at large. Michael Longley’s ‘Wounds’ comes to mind, with its depiction of the innocent brutality of teenage soldiers in the Great War and the Troubles. One of the book’s key threads seems to be the sheer unpreparedness of these young men sent, like Longley’s volunteers, to commit unspeakable violence in the name of a greater power which, in both ‘Wounds’ and Letter Composed, remains nameless and (explicitly) blameless.
This might be a good time to talk form. Powers is primarily (or most effectively) a novelist, and the majority of the poems here have the compelling forward momentum of good short stories, with ‘Fighting out of West Virginia’, one of the book’s most fully realised vignettes, presented entirely as prose. This is not to undermine the book’s strengths as a collection of poetry. The loose rhythms of Powers’ free verse are the perfect fit for the poems’ conversational directness, and, given the book’s content, permit a vital clarity to the narrative. The later passages in the collection focus on the poet’s hometown and state, and obliquely insist on the war’s broader significance for the communities which disproportionately supply its foot soldiers. These are former factory towns suffering from extreme poverty, and the armed forces are a relatively well-paid and respectable career. Again, Letter Composed does not explicitly attack this position, but unmistakeably disproves it.
As Clarke argues in his review, there is a nagging unease at the book’s end about the lack of broader context it provides or explores about the war in Iraq, which I understand is given greater breathing space in The Yellow Birds, Powers’ debut novel. Whether the collection’s unwillingness to explore other avenues of experience stems from a traumatic incapacity or an artistic decision is, ultimately, irrelevant; it is an unresolved problem for the reader to negotiate, and much of your appreciation of the book may depend on your ability to suspend this judgement. The book is greatly supported by its moments of real lyrical energy, particularly in the poems for Powers’ mother, ‘Blue Star Mother’ (‘looking back / on the photographic / evidence of my life / one could easily be convinced / I was raised by a woman / whose face was the palm of a hand’) and ‘Portugal’, probably the book’s most full-throated venture into dream- or metaphor-driven narrative, and effective for its change of perspective. Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, is, if nothing else, a document of great value in an ongoing discussion of an ongoing war, and (hopefully) only the beginning of a vitally important conversation.
Tl; dr: Letters Composed is a difficult collection, and by most conventional metrics not a pleasant one. It is, however, a valuable addition to the poetry community, and definitely worth reading.