"The truth has no spare mercy, see."
-–from "Death, Mother and Child"
I read Powers’ debut book of poetry first and then by Section Three, read his poetry concurrently with The Yellow Birds, Powers’ classic story of wartime Iraq. I found that although up to now I do not commonly read poetry, Letter… nods to prose in a way that seems reassuringly familiar. And when I began his National Book Award winning novel The Yellow Birds, I saw a poetic sensibility in his prose. Perhaps the best writers of war fiction have poetry in their literary makeup, like Remarque, and Graves. (Some argue that sections of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is like a list poem.)
Poems are a sort of shorthand: an efficient economy of words. Much can be said but whatever is meant must be pared to its essence, carved close. It suits war…as a subject and as a propellant. Sometimes shorthand is all you can manage. Poetry can act as a grounding tool, rolling the words in the mind and the mouth until they come out making some kind of sense. It helps one to see, to really notice, and to organize one’s thoughts coherently.
In an interview with the magazine of the same name, Powers tells us:
"Poetry was the beginning of my thinking, a way of asking, Is this even an answerable question? How do I approach it? I wanted to be honest about both the experience and the difficulty of talking about it."He wrote the title poem before the novel and many of the ones in this book were begun during his writing The Yellow Birds. Poetry, the process of writing it, concentrates the mind, and forces one to choose words, and to picture the literary landscape.
"This idea of this particular soldier [Bartle] with these particular concerns had occurred to me before I realized I wanted to write a novel. In fact it was seeing that these same thematic elements, these same questions kept appearing – essentially I was writing different versions of the same poem over and over again. I just needed a larger canvas." From June 2013 Guardian interview
Letter…, then, is one kind of art in the service of another. Powers mentions the work of printmaker and sculptor Käthe Kollwitz in "Death, Mother and Child", whose art is also used in the service of another: "Kollwitz was right. Death is an etching." Art doesn’t change the truth, but only gives it voice.
"You came homeIn this collection I felt a building of understanding. Whether that was Powers' skill or my own development, I cannot say, but somewhere shortly after halfway I was hammered by the experience of reading these deceptively simple poems. The accretion of awareness made me reach for his earlier novel, which I hadn't yet read, to see what I missed.
with nothing, and you still
have most of it left."
--from "Leaving McGuire Veteran’s Hospital for the Last Time"
NPR’s Abigail Deutsch, in her review of Letters…, says that the collection is good, but uneven. She names one poem, “Improvised Explosive Device,” as having corny effects. I happened to like that one, which begins:
If this poem had wires
coming out of it,
you would not read it.
…If this poem had wires coming out of it,
you would call the words devices…
In the recent award ceremony for the PEN Hemingway Awards at the JFK Library in Boston, the author Geraldine Brooks mentioned that Ernest Hemingway once said that “War is the only subject there is, and those who don’t agree haven’t had a chance to experience it.” I guess perhaps that’s so, but war comes in many forms and Powers seems to understand that. “I wonder how do we justify the things that we do, because it always seems like we are doing terrible things.” [Powers in the Guardian interview]
Powers is writing a new novel, about the murder of a former plantation owner just after the American civil war has ended. The story involves the consequences of this murder and how it affects the community he lorded over.
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