As long as war exists, it will perhaps be in our natures to try to capture it, perhaps to understand it, perhaps in some desperate way to learn something about it and about ourselves. In Last Post, her final poem of 1914 Poetry Remembers, Carol Ann Duffy imagines a world in which poetry can reverse death and devastation. One of the final lines, ‘You see the poet tuck away his pocket-book and smile’, suggests that the poet might, in this alternative world, be able to turn his attention to other things – he’s still a poet but he no longer has to record the carnage of war. In reality, of course, poetry remains a way of attempting to capture the realities of war for those who are caught up in it. One of the most recent volumes to do just this is Powers’ Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting. I really enjoyed, if that is the right term, his novel, The Yellow Birds (2012), which stemmed from Powers’ experiences in Iraq as a machine-gunner, and his new volume of poetry is just as powerful.
In the titular poem, we see a chilling reduction of emotion as a means of surviving: ‘I tell her how Private Bartle says, offhand/ that war is just us/ making little pieces of metal/ pass through each other. One of the most moving poems, Separation, deals with the difficulties of returning from war and living amongst those who do not know what war entails. ‘I want the boys/ at the end of the bar to know/ that my rifle weighted eight pounds/ when loaded’. And given that this comes after a poem in which he writes, ‘I appreciate the fact/ that for at least one day I don’t have to decide/ between dying and shooting a little boy’, Powers leaves us in no doubt as to the cost such experiences have had on him.’ In A History of Yards, Powers returns to the image of a mother waiting for her child to return home, ‘I lie/ in a courtyard eight thousand miles distant/ and remember she’s watching as she has been/ each morning since I promised not to die.’ His sparse style downplays the sheer horror of war, making it all the more affecting on full consideration. And it is clear that it is the capturing of events which is important to him – in Photographing the Suddenly Dead, Powers goes back to a different conflict, that of the American Civil War, to look at the work of Mathew Brady, a pioneer in producing photographic scenes of battle lines and who ‘would let himself go bankrupt too/ just to get the process right.’ Whatever the process, the recording is vital.
Broken into four sections, it is the first two sections in the volume which contain writing more obviously part of the ‘war-poetry’ genre. Throughout the volume, however, there is sense of dislocation and violence bubbling away, suggesting that fighting on a frontline, wherever that might be, or whatever form that might take, fractures lives and perspectives beyond the immediate experience. Historic hurts are also present in several poems. In The Torch and Pitchfolk Blues, a game of Jacks in a schoolyard is the starting point for memories of childhood injuries, before Powers moves back to consider the dangers slaves would have experienced on the plantation which had previously existed on the same location, ‘it would be difficult/ to say for sure if the fence they crawled under to escape/ had been over by the baseball field’. This sense of doubt over facts, and this linguistic uncertainty, pervades the collection, with ‘might’ and ‘if’ establishing a voice which suggests that certainties and the attendant securities are impossible in a world where death is so readily possible.
He ends with Grace Note, imbued with a sense of weariness from the outset, ‘It’s time to take a break from all that now,’ but which ends with a possible note of optimism: ‘And I know better than to hope/ but one might wait/ and pay attention/ and rest awhile/ for we are more than figuring the odds.’ We may now be reaching the centenary of the end of the First World War, but the need for writers to show us what they have lived through is sadly still with us. Powers joins a long list of talented writers to do just this.