Plain words bear witness to a soldier’s Iraq experience
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.”