Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers

The Yellow Birds One knows one has a classic when time starts to slow and nothing is more important than reading this book at this time. Powers set himself apart with this debut. From whence did such a reserve of talent spring? One cannot credit the "shitty little war": "I don’t want to be tight with anyone because of this. Being here can’t be the reason we’re tight. I won’t let it be." Murph says this in the turning point of the book. All hinges on Bartle’s response: "Naw, man," I said. "You and me, we’re tight just ‘cause. We’d be tight anywhere. It isn’t about this."

Powers’ talent is something that the experience of war distilled to poetry, forcing the mind into remaking an observation finer, smaller, clearer until it fit into one line, one paragraph. "…ducking under the netting stretched from bunker to bunker…I used my hands to keep the sagging fabric from falling over me like a shroud. Thin light rippled down through the voids and fell onto my hands and my body…" I can see those zebra-lines of bright light strobing as Bartle walked.
"half of memory is imagination anyway."

We think sometimes that sending boys to war will make men of them, but instead it makes them a wreck more often than not. Those that survive the experience often just want a peaceful, simple life that they have "maybe not control over, but some agency in. [A veteran] wants to have a life that’s manageable, that he doesn’t feel overwhelmed by." That quote, from a Parade Magazine interview, continues
"…the entirety of the experience is overwhelming, the fighting, the coming home, the readjusting. So, I think, in [Bartle’s] case, he has a desire to live simply, to just be ordinary."
"I think a lot of the guys I know and a lot of people I’ve talked to, what they want is very often what most people want, a kind of simple life, a livelihood, a family, people who care about them, people they can care about."

At first it seemed Powers had created a series of linked stories, each chapter complete enough to stand on its own. But then I got into the rhythm of his tale and could see his underlying structure. I loved the way he handled us. We were told how but not why, and gradually we came to understand. The C.I.D. investigator changed “incident” to “accident” in the course of their conversation, did you notice? I knew then that Bartle was going to survive the war.
“Then it was spring again in all the spoiled cities of America.”

What a shock it must be to return home where one does not feel responsible for saving anything.
"I know there are exceptions, but in my experience, to a man, every person that I served with wanted to contribute to our country, felt that it was something that they could do on behalf of their fellow citizens."
"It’s more a realization that life is precious and fragile, and taking it for granted just seems kind of baffling." [Parade interview]

"I was the curator of a small unvisited museum."

One walks away from the story, the language, wondering about the man. Powers began with poetry, with "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," in fact. This poem, in his Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting: Poems debut collection of poetry by the same name, names Private Bartle:
"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 Private Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other."

This novel exposes the great emotions to which we are subject. It has economy, focus, lyricism, and a unique style. It looks very much to me as though Powers has a great gift, and we have been given one, too.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores


  1. Thanks for reminding me of this book -- I meant to read it at least a year ago and it got lost in the shuffle.

    1. This is really a spectacular effort. Can't believe it is a first novel. Bodes well.

  2. As you read this book and you take the time to reflect on the gentle flow of the words and the story you realize that the book is really an epic poem. So beautiful, such imagery, such empathy for the pain of the storyteller, Bartle. A deep look into this soldier's thoughts as he relives again and again the darkest days of his young life. There is no more to say. You must read this book.
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