In anticipation of reading Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, I examined a number of other reviews of the collection. Now, having read the work, one of these reviews strikes me as particularly interesting. David Clarke perceives Letter Composed as largely self-obsessed. With regard to the poem “Improvised Explosive Device”, written from the perspective of a soldier who, having seen his friend seriously wounded by a bomb, shoots a civilian that may (or may not) have triggered the bomb, the narrator argues “you would want someone to pay”. Clarke writes, “Just as the soldier is presented as having no choice, so we as readers are offered no choice as to how we might react to this situation.” For that critic, the collection’s use of perspective is a failing, lacking the ability to move “even when demanding our empathy”. I raise this point because the question of empathy is one of special importance concerning this work. By its very nature, war poetry generally does “demand” empathy and indeed, much of the praise surrounding Letter Composed specifically singles out Powers as an “Iraq war veteran”, comparing him to “the best war poets”. I feel challenged, however, to determine the collection’s merit as poetry as opposed to mere “war poetry”.
Powers’ use of free verse often appears almost as prose masquerading as poetry; prose forced into poetry by line breaks. Sometimes this may be perceived as a weakness, but more often than not, it works. Take, for example, the following extract from “After Leaving McGuire Veterans’ Hospital for the Last Time”:
If you’ve earned anything
it is the right to be unseemly
while you decide at what point
the bay becomes the ocean, what
is the calculus of change required
to find what’s lost, if what is lost
Powers employs metre, alliteration and assonance with utmost subtlety, achieving a wonderful internal rhythm. This, in turn, lends itself beautifully to such delicate and deeply moving moments as the shared experience of mother and child in “A History of Yards” as the mother:
watches two blooms in one moment:
mine, in the dust. She is driving her body
beneath the soil of her garden
as far as she can, not knowing I never
took cover; ears already ringing
yet somehow still hearing her voice
that I held as a child saying never be afraid
to love everything. She, beneath
the porch light, watches
my body open,
the daylight becoming equal to it.
In certain instances, however, Powers has a tendency to say too much, to keep writing where things left unsaid would have strengthened a poem. Take, for example, the following lines from “Death, Mother and Child”:
I remember the white Opel being
pulled through the traffic circle on the back of a wrecker,
the woman in the driver’s seat
so brutalized by bullets it was hard to tell her sex.
Her left arm waved unceremoniously
in the stifling heat and I retched,
the hand seemingly saying, I will see
These lines are striking in their unrelenting quality. Powers’ words are ruthless, the images created brutal. Unfortunately, he follows these lines with a comment that, ‘The truth has no spare mercy, see’, a blatantly obvious observation which is hugely anti-climactic, serving only to dampen the poem’s impact. Having said that, it is crucial to note that this is detrimental merely because the great strength of Powers’ poetry is its inherent capability to move.
Power’s debut poetry collection, Letter Composed is not without flaws but it is indeed a forceful piece of writing. More importantly, it is fine poetry which most certainly deserves to be appreciated outwith the narrow boundaries of “war poetry”.