Powers, author of the shattering war novel The Yellow Birds (2012), turns to poetry while concentrating on familiar themes of dislocation, fear and “unmoored memory.”
As with that novel, most of the poems in this slender collection occupy three spaces at once: Iraq, the home front and the liminal country between them. The longest and most striking piece likens the poem itself to an IED, “or improvised explosive device”; though it opens on a rather unpromising poetry-slam note (“If this poem had wires / coming out of it, / you would not read it”), Powers builds steadily on the extended metaphor of poem as bomb, the images growing steadily more gruesome (“if these words were your best / friend’s legs, / dangling”). As is true of so many of the best poems about war—think Randall Jarrell’s “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” or James Wright’s “Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter”—the tone is understated, the affect sometimes unnervingly flat; having seen what he has of combat, Powers can no longer be moved by ordinary emotions, and the language he uses at home is the language of battle: “I tell her I love her like not killing / or ten minutes of sleep / beneath the low rooftop wall / on which my rifle rests.” And just as it is well that, as Robert E. Lee said, war is so horrible lest we come to love it too much, it is good that most books of poems about war, such as this one, are so short, lest we be overwhelmed by the grim news they bring. Powers sometimes wrestles with form, the length of his lines threatening to leave him breathless, but his intent is clear: He has survived, and though he now “know[s] better than to hope,” he also knows that he has beaten the odds—and that he is not alone.
A welcome debut. We hope that the next sequence finds Powers on safer ground, exploring the possibilities of life away from the front.