Plain words bear wit­ness to a sol­dier’s Iraq ex­pe­ri­ence

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

Let­ter Com­posed Dur­ing a Lull in the Fight­ing By Kevin Pow­ers Ha­chette, 96pp, $29.99 (HB) “AF­TER Auschwitz,’’ wrote Ger­man philoso­pher Theodor Adorno in 1949, ‘‘no po­etry’’. This fa­mous phrase — wrenched from the sub­tleties of its con­text to be­come a slo­gan — is of­ten read as a pro­hi­bi­tion, yet is more about the ways atroc­ity dis­ables lan­guage, and the ques­tion of po­etry’s power to cap­ture and ex­plore trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence. Less fa­mously, Adorno later added: ‘‘Peren­nial suf­fer­ing has as much right to ex­pres­sion as a tor­tured man has to scream.’’

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda ap­proaches re­lated ques­tions in I’m Ex­plain­ing a Few Things, his poem about the Span­ish Civil War. It be­gins with a pre-emp­tive ques­tion: ‘‘ You are go­ing to ask: and where are the lilacs?/ and the pop­pypetalled me­ta­physics?’’ In­stead of flow­ers and me­ta­physics, the poem asks read­ers to ‘‘see my dead house,/ look at Bro­ken Spain’’.

The poem posits the eth­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions of metaphor. Neruda writes: ‘‘and the blood of the chil­dren ran through the streets/ with­out fuss,

May 3-4, 2014 like chil­dren’s blood.’’ Metaphor is just one form of po­etic fuss Neruda’s poem does with­out. There is noth­ing that can be com­pared with chil­dren’s blood that does not lean away from the hor­ror of its spillage.

In 2005, de­liv­er­ing his No­bel lec­ture, “Art, Truth and Pol­i­tics”, Harold Pin­ter read from Neruda’s poem as part of his con­dem­na­tion of the in­va­sion of Iraq be­cause ‘‘nowhere in con­tem­po­rary po­etry have I read such a pow­er­ful vis­ceral de­scrip­tion of the bomb­ing of civil­ians’’.

Al­most a decade later, Kevin Pow­ers, fine arts grad­u­ate from the Univer­sity of Texas, Iraq vet­eran and au­thor of the award-win­ning novel The Yel­low Birds, opens his de­but collection of po­etry with a blunt­ness like Neruda’s: I can tell you ex­actly what I mean. It is night again and end­less are the stars. I can tell you ex­actly what I mean.

These lines from Cus­toms carry an in­verted echo of the mod­ernist un­cer­tainty voiced by TS Eliot’s J. Al­fred Prufrock, whose dra­matic mono­logue re­turns to lament: ‘‘That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all.’’ ‘‘It is im­pos­si­ble to say just what I mean!’’ Prufrock ex­claims.

Pow­ers, on the other hand, rolls in­sis­tence through the syn­tax of his po­ems. In Great Plain, a poem framed with the im­age of the speaker hold­ing a gun to a young boy: When I say boy, I mean it. When I say al­most get­ting shot, I mean ex­actly that.

De­spite this em­pha­sis, what the speaker does or doesn’t mean — how lan­guage flips and slips away like a caught fish — is ex­actly the poem’s con­cern. The boy is ‘‘bring­ing un­ex­ploded mor­tars right up to us’’, hop­ing to be paid a dol­lar for each one. The land­scape is filled with un­ex­ploded ord­nance, or UXO. Words, too, lie in the poem’s ter­rain, wait­ing for the speaker to ex­plode them. Grass, for in­stance, was ‘‘once a green thing/ and now is not’’ and “when I say green/ I mean like f. king Ne­braska, wagon wheels on the prairie’’.

By Ne­braska, ‘‘I mean the idea of”. This vague­ness re­calls an ex-girl­friend talk­ing about guns, “But guns are not ideas./ They are not things to which com­par­isons can be made.’’

Guns are noth­ing more or less than the weight in the speaker’s hand as the boy ‘‘crests the green hill’’, his small hands full of vi­o­lence and in­no­cence.

This is the gun the vet­eran later cries for, drunk and weep­ing in a bar. He is laughed at by a group of ‘‘Young Repub­li­cans/ in pink popped-col­lar shirts’’ for beg­ging for its re­turn and ter­ri­fied of his vul­ner­a­bil­ity with­out it: ‘‘How will I re­turn/ fire?’’ It is a gun he has held, then lost that haunts him af­ter the ‘‘tour’’. With a nod to Emily Dickinson, it is de­scribed as ‘‘a some­times/ loaded gun’’.

The un­ex­ploded mor­tars the small boy holds are sim­i­larly loaded. They are not metaphor­i­cal bombs, like the Im­pro­vised Ex­plo­sive De­vice around which Pow­ers builds an ars poet­ica: If this poem had wires com­ing out of it, you would not read it.

Line by spare line, Pow­ers builds his case, align­ing po­ems and bombs and light­ing fuses be­tween words and vi­o­lence, such as the sergeant’s words ‘‘don’t/ worry boys, it’s war, it hap­pens’’ — bland con­sol­ing cliches that come to be part of aftermath’s tor­ment.

The poem ex­plodes into mu­sic when Pow­ers re­turns to an over­ar­ch­ing mo­tif of metal. In the ti­tle poem, Let­ter Com­posed Dur­ing a Lull in the Fight­ing, one ‘‘Pri­vate Bar­tle’’ (also the pro­tag­o­nist of The Yel­low Birds) imag­ines war as: “just us/ mak­ing lit­tle pieces of metal/ pass through each other.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.