The infantryman’s spade is a symbol of his relationship with the earth. Our eyes are drawn to the assault rifle but he spends more time digging than he does fighting. However, once the conflict’s rolled away, the earth, once life-preserving, changes character. On August 15th, 1998, the Irish Times’ Padraic Convery, reporting on unexploded ordnance in Laos, wrote that: ‘In one village an entire family was wiped out. The young mother and her four children, aged between two and eight, were all killed by a single unexploded bomb while clearing grass in a field. Only six months earlier her husband had died after striking a bombe [bomblet] with his hoe in the same field. Another farmer died the same way in a field he had worked for the previous two years.’ During the Vietnam war, the US airforce flew a mission over Laos every 8 minutes for 9 years – leaving Laos with the distinction of being the country most contaminated with unexploded ordnance. The Mines Advisory Group operation there has a budget of $1 million a year. The bombardment cost US taxpayers more than $2 million a day over its nine years. Casting our eyes deeper into C20th history, of the 23 million assorted explosives fired over Verdun in 1916, it’s estimated that 4.5 million of them failed to detonate and a deadly crop of hundreds of tons of volatile unexploded ordnance wriggle into the light every year, as farmers plough their fields and the weather freezes and thaws the earth.
Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting opens with Customs and we’re left wondering whether Powers is referring to the reflexes and muscle memory of the infantryman, now transposed to a civilian environment, or whether he’s got baggage to declare as he crosses the checkpoint between war and peace. Everything has changed and words now mean their opposites, as ‘Amen may have meant “to begin” / back then. So be it, the desert, I imagine, / said. So be it, as the car I’m traveling in / turns right on state highway 71, / due west into the vast unending waste / of Texas. // Now it only lets us know that things are at an end.’ The speaker’s ‘may’, open to possibilities, characterises him as thoughtful, introspective and line break before ‘of Texas’ shows a flash of a wicked humour.
The collection’s title poem follows, and we get an idea of what the change in values calmly proposed in Customs might actually mean. ‘I tell her I love her like not killing / or ten minutes of sleep / beneath the low rooftop wall / on which my rifle rests.’ That the best the speaker can manage is to define love as like the absence of a thing shows how inverted his values have become. The stanza finishes in dark, ironic mood as, while the fitful infantryman tries to snatch ‘ten minutes of sleep,’ his ‘rifle rests’ and, if any smell’s associated with love letters, it would be perfume – but this is ‘a letter that will stink, / when she opens it, / of bolt oil and burned powder / and the things it says.’
Independence Day is in dialogue with Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth. Owen’s ‘passing-bells’ echo in Powers’: ‘Sunset: the shadow of the carillon / had done its covering of us.’ Unlike the knell of Owen’s bell, ‘carillon’ implies something light and melodic, yet even this casts a shadow and ‘covering’ has military connotations. Powers develops this idea in the next stanza: ‘And the ringing I / did not hear next did not come from the building’s bells, / but from the sound / of each ignited shell / that boxed my ears with its beginning.’ Signs and signifiers are decoupled and, as Powers recycles Owens’ bells / shells rhyme, he compels the reader to transpose the scale and horror of World War One onto his poem. Yet the report of each shell ‘boxed my ears,’ undercutting Owen’s image with something familiar, schoolboyish, fatherly even (all this while the girl he finally achieves ‘resonance’ with is identified as no more than ‘the girl’). To cope, all the speaker can do is ‘dig / my feet into the ground as hard as I / could if I / ever doubted / the firmness of reality’… ‘in fact I / have tried to become earth / many times, to be lower than earth.’
The holistic view of the soldier presented in Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting’s dramatizes the barely repressed trauma of combat, imagining his world as a place in which sounds and sights, together with the words used to name them, have drifted away from the soldier’s organising intelligence. In Portugal, the speaker says ‘When I turn // to my mother’s grave, a hole in the dirt / beneath cork oak and wheat, I am afraid // because the edge of a peninsula is a great mass / of earth – so much to put my mother in, / so much with which to cover her.’ The earth, the soldier’s refuge, the keeper of his secrets, will betray him in time, as farmers plough their fields, or as the weather freezes and thaws the earth.
- Kevin Powers has been nominated for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014
- Mines Advisory Group International