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 that Private Bartle says, offhand,
that war is just us
making little pieces of metal
pass through each other.
Powers, who grew up in Richmond, Va., enlisted the day after he turned 17. He served as a U.S. Army machine gunner in Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraq, in 2004 and 2005. Those years informed “The Yellow Birds,” a first novel that writer Tom Wolfe called “the All Quiet on the Western Front of America’s Arab wars.” Private Bartle is its narrator.
The new book contains 34 poems that well out of war, bafflement and remembrance, often speaking of mothers. They touch on rifles, men in bars, stretches of Texas and Nebraska and West Virginia. The book is dedicated to “my friends from the Boulevard.”
When Powers spoke in Cleveland last September, he said he hadn’t kept a journal as a soldier, that he didn’t have the stamina or mental reserves. But the books his mother mailed him were a lifeline, and he wrote some letters. Almost three years ago, a friend brought out one that he’d sent to her.
“I could see the point in the letter where I almost opened up, but didn’t,” he said.
In his penultimate poem, “A Lamp in the Place of the Sun,” Powers concludes with four short lines in plain language: “How long I waited/for the end of winter./How quickly I forgot/the cold when it was over.”
“Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting” is the first book of poetry that Little, Brown & Co. has published in 30 years.