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Weekly Poem: Kevin Powers approaches war with ‘unadorned honesty’

When Kevin Powers, author of the award-winning novel “The Yellow Birds,” was composing his first book of poetry, he was preoccupied with questions of communication and relatability. (Chief arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown spoke to Kevin Powers about his novel back in October 2012).

“Where do we find this vocabulary to talk about events and experiences that feel singular and unique and extreme? How do we find the terrain that other people can enter and reach some kind of empathy or understanding?” Powers pondered during a recent conversation with Art Beat.

Powers was a machine gunner for the U.S. Army in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. In “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” his poems describe both combat and the moments that surround it in order to talk about the consequences of conflict for different people.

“One of the things … I think the book as a whole is also trying to do is really understand war at its most basic and direct level, but to approach it with unadorned honesty, with a directness,” said Powers. “There’s serious questions being asked by the speaker of the poem with serious repercussions, but that’s it’s happening below the surface.”

“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” the poem that gave the collection its name, is one of the poems that deals more directly with combat. Like the collection as a whole, the poem grapples with the difficulties of communication.

Listen to Kevin Powers read “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting,” from his new collection of the same name.

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting

I tell her I love her like not killing
or ten minutes of sleep
beneath the low rooftop wall
on which my rifle rests.

I tell her in a letter that will stink,
when she opens it,
of bolt oil and burned powder
and the things it says.

I tell her how Pvt. Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.

Power wrote each poem to stand alone, but he hopes that there is an organic connection between the poems in the book, especially expressed through the order in which they appear.

In the title poem, Powers explores death or injury by violence, but the book’s examination evolves.

“The natural progression is to reflect on the nature of death as it presents itself in everybody’s life and also thinking about who we are is a product of where we’re from, and not just where we are from in terms of geography, but also in terms of who we come from, from our families, and those kind of influences.”

While this collection is Power’s debut, the writer says he’s loved poetry from the moment he remembers first reading a poem.

“I think there are people who love poetry who just don’t know it yet. And so I’m hoping maybe, even if it’s not mine — obviously I’m hoping they like mine — but even if it leads somebody to take a look at something they might not have otherwise, I find that incredibly exciting and rewarding,” said Powers.

“It’s great that if nothing else, I’ll have some opportunities to just be an advocate for poetry as a form.”

“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” was excerpted from the book “Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” by Kevin Powers. Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Powers. Reprinted with permission of Little, Brown and Company.