LETTER COMPOSED DURING A LULL IN THE FIGHTING: POEMS
By Kevin Powers
Published in 2014 by Little Brown.
Reviewed by Tony Burnett
The poetry in this collection serves as a memoir not only of the author’s service as a machine gunner in Iraq, but also his childhood and coming of age. It goes beyond the traditional dimensions of war poetry in both depth and subject. Primarily writing in free verse, Powers often makes effective use of second person POV to engage the reader in unfamiliar settings. In fact, if there is any fault with the collection it is an underlying desperation in the author’s goal to reach his audience that at times subtracts from the drama of the narrative. At other times, especially when the events get too close to his soul, be effectively finds ways to avoid a head-on collision with the emotions, leaving the reader exposed but still breathing.
Though not chronological, there is a narrative beginning with innocence and progressing through fear, anger and anguish to a final, almost Buddhist-like, acceptance. This only becomes evident as the work progresses. Initially, he can seem almost flippant, as in the title poem, when “Private Bartel says, offhand, that war is just us making little pieces of metal pass through each other”. Later, in Field Manual, the author agonizes over his assignment to kill the stray dogs that have accumulated outside the fence of the compound. One of the most poignant pieces is Great Plain which ends with “I appreciate the fact that for at least one day I don’t have to decide between dying and shooting a little boy”. Finally, in Advice To Be Taken Just Before the Sun Goes Supernova and A Lamp in the Place of the Sun, the author reaches an understanding of his role in the universe.
The collection covers a lot of territory but it is primarily about relationships; his relationship with himself, with his family, with his fellow warriors and even with his rifle. His relationship with his mother plays heavily into his ability to deal with the surroundings. His relationship with his readers seems to be his ultimate purpose and, after having read the book twice, I feel a distinct kinship with Mr. Powers.
Letter Composed During a Lull In the Fighting is not only therapeutic for those who have engaged enemies, but for those of us who’ve never experienced combat: it’s both terrifying and enlightening. I recommend this book not only to those who appreciate poetry but to anyone interested in a well written memoir of a very traumatic life.
Tony Burnett is a poet, musician, journalist and writer who lives in rural Central Texas with his wife Robin, and multitudes of living yard art. He has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2011.