Tuesday, July 8, 2014


There's a longstanding tradition of poems about war. Think of "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, or "Dulce et decorum est" by Wilfred Owen. Or Here, Bullet, a collection of poems by Brian Turner, a veteran of the Iraq war. Kevin Powers, who was a finalist for the National Book Award for his novel, The Yellow Birds, joins those ranks with his new poetry collection, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems, which includes several war-related poems in a collection that tries to make sense of life and death and the human experience. Powers served as a machine gunner in the United States Army and spent two years in Iraq.

Here's the title poem, so you can get a sense of his work:

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
by Kevin Powers

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.

None of the poems that deal with war glorify it in any way, though they give a gut-wrenching impression of what it is like, and of what it's like to carry those memories when you return to the real world. It's a great collection if you like good poetry, and if you are interested in reading what war and its aftermath are like for those who serve. Perhaps the images aren't pretty, but they are accurate, incisive, and precise.

Here is another poem describing what it was like for him three years after returning from Iraq:

by Kevin Powers

I want the boys at the end of the bar
to know, these Young Republicans
in pink popped-collar shirts, to know
that laughter drives me mad
and if one must be old
before one dies, then we were
old. Nineteen or twenty-three
and we were old and now
as the fan slings and the light
shines off their gelled hair and
nails, I want to rub their clean
bodies in blood. I want my rifle
and I want them to know
how scared I am still, alone
in bars these three years later when
I notice it is gone. I want the boys
at the end of the bar to know
that my rifle weighed eight pounds
when loaded and on my first day
home I made a scene in a bar,
so drunk that I screamed and
wept and begged for someone
to give it back. "How will I return
fire?" I cried. I truly cried.
But no one could give it back
because it was gone and I felt
so old: twenty-four and crying
for my rifle and the boys
at the end of the bar
were laughing.

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