Tuesday, 12 August 2014

“I am home and whole, so to speak”

Full title: Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
Author: Kevin Powers
Genre: Poetry
Attributes: 96 pages, hardcover
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company (2014)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

It’s impossible to find anything said about Kevin Powers that’s not dominated by references to his involvement in the Iraq war. So, quite naturally, one wonders, is it even imaginable to read his poems outside this tight frame? Of course, the title itself, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, will appear to be a first difficulty. But let’s pretend this ‘fighting’ is not what everybody has agreed upon; let’s say it is a metaphor. Of no particular war, of no military battle. What now?
The task would still be an immensely difficult one, since the texts in the collection are peppered with images that only make sense in war poetry. There are these perfectly fitting lines from the title poem, for instance:
“war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.”
Then there’s “Great Plain,” a poem whose central event is as horrible as any we can find in history books at school or on the news at dinner time: a boy who defies death in order to make a buck by selling unexploded mortars back to the American soldiers.
So yes, against this hard textual evidence, it’s hard to pretend this was not a collection of war poems. But still.
There are things in Powers’ poems which can be read in ways that transgress the logic of the genre. Because yes, there are things worse than wars, things that go deep into our DNA and make us blush at a genetic scale.
Then let’s say it. What these poems are greatly concerned with, is the operations of signs. The alarm is already present in the first poem, “Customs”:
“The world has been replaced
by our ideas about the world.”
Why is such a thing more horrible than war? Because the replacement Powers is talking about is the cause of the very idea of war. Without such a cataclysmic irreverence to the world, there would be little, if any, reasons to take up arms to defend one’s conviction, one’s misunderstandings, one’s allegiance to appearance. Powers seems to understand well this fact, which reviewers overlook almost programmatically. In his poems, Powers takes a peek through the screen of the obvious: the war, the news about the war, the sentiments the war has caused in viewers and soldiers alike. Here’s where the burden lies: in the realization that war is a mere by-product, a consequence (sad, no doubt) of our separation from the world. With this awareness comes the painful realization that we have always missed that which truly deserves our attention:
anything on earth has earned the right to be observed
it is a thing of beauty while in flight.”
(“The Torch and Pitchfork Blues”)
There’s regret in this statement, which reads like a reference to American Beauty. It’s the regret that things have turned out the way they have, and we ended up in this grand mutation of signs, where it is increasingly harder to find signifiers that we can explain.
“We no longer have to name
the sins that we are guilty of.
The evidence for every crime
exists. What one
must always answer for
is not what has been done, but
for the weight of what remains
as residue – every effort
must be made to scrub away
the stain we’ve made on time.”
(“Photographing the Suddenly Dead”)

A lot of what we perceive is the result of how we represent.
Here, Steven Spielberg shooting War Horse: references to this type
of confusion appear often in Kevin Powers' poems.
Source: Dream Works Studios
To arrive at this awareness, one must understand that the tragedy of humankind is our disappearance behind the very signs we have created. This, of course, sends us head-first into terrible problems of morality, where we are asked to finger-point the thing we consider more important: the tragedy of one, or the catastrophe of the world?
“Before there was
brushed nickel there was iron, before
Tommy Dunlap was pushed idly from the bus
into that busy intersection, there was
a plenitude of grief already. Measured
against all that, a single incident recedes
into no biggie.”
(“The Torch and Pitchfork Blues”)

Issues of morality, ontological relevance, and a sense of metaphysical doubt cannot escape the genre known as “war poetry.” But the point is this: there’s a wider space where the poems of Kevin Powers can be placed. There, questions of more fundamental gravity must be asked, as the logic of war recedes into a concern of a second order.