I don’t often like war poems. Though most of them are probably good therapy, and some of them are undoubtedly good propaganda, too few of them are actually good poetry. Kevin Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, however, is something more than mere therapy or propaganda, and in its finer moments it achieves a poetry of real strength and complexity.
Powers’ poems are characterized by disjunction, sometimes between a lived present and a remembered past, sometimes between the body’s experience and the mind’s perception, sometimes between the physicality of an object and its apparent meaning, but almost always a disjunction between the concrete and the abstract, creating the sense, as he says himself in the first poem of the collection, that
the world has been replaced
by our ideas of the world.
It is in this way that Powers is able to take up even the cliches of war — the soldier enduring mortar fire, the veteran suffering from tremors, the men in black suits delivering bad news to waiting mothers — and make them meaningful again. He dissociates them from themselves, makes them strangers to themselves, so that they can be new for us once more.
There are times when this approach feels too detached and intellectual, as if Powers is unable to enter into the events and emotions that he is describing. When the technique is effective, however, he is able to represent the experience of war as infiltrating everything that follows after it, dissociating and unhinging the world, replacing events with ideas that no longer seem proper to themselves.
The effect is often quite powerful, and the whole comes together to embody the lines that stand out for me as the theme of the collection:
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for what remains