Kevin Powers started writing poems and stories at about the age of 13. He began writing poetry about war a year or two after his discharge from the Army as a way to process his own experiences while in Iraq, and eventually decided to take classes to develop his talents. Powers graduated in 2008 with a bachelor's degree in English from Virginia Commonwealth University and received his M.F.A. in Poetry from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. His poems have appeared in the New Orleans Review, Poetry, and The New York Quarterly.
Here is where appreciation starts: the Iraqi boy
in a dusty velour tracksuit almost getting shot.
When I say boy, I mean it. When I say almost
getting shot, I mean exactly that. For bringing
unexploded mortar shells right up to us
takes a special kind of courage I don't have.
A dollar for each one, I'm told,
on orders from brigade HQ
to let the local children do the dirty work.
When I say I'd say, Fuck that, let the bastards find them
with the heels of their boots, who cares if I mean us
as bastards and who cares if heels of boots means things
that once were and now are not, the way grass once was green
and now is not, the way the muezzin call once was
five times a day and now is not.
And when I say heel of boot, I hope you'll appreciate
that I really mean the gone foot, any one of us
timbered and inert, and when I say green,
I mean like fucking Nebraska, wagon wheels on the prairie
and other things that can't be appreciated
until you're far away and they come up
as points of reference.
I don't know what Nebraska looks like.
I've never been. When I say Nebraska,
I mean the idea of it, the way an ex-girlfriend of mine
once talked about the idea of a gun. But guns are not ideas.
They are not things to which comparisons are made. They are
one weight in my hand when the little boy crests the green hill
and the possibility of shooting him or not extends out from me
like the spokes of a wheel. The hills are not green anymore,
and in my mind they never were, though when I say they were,
I'm talking about reality. I appreciate that too,
the hills were green,
someone else has paid him
for his scavenging, one less
exploding thing beneath our feet.
I appreciate the fact
that for at least one day I don't have to decide
between dying and shooting a little boy.
Death, Mother and Child
Mosul, Iraq 2004
Kollwitz was right. Death is an etching.
I remember the white Opal 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 wretched,
the hand seemingly saying, I will see
you there. We heard a rumor that a child
was riding in the car with her, had slipped
to the floorboard, but had been killed as well.
The truth has no spare mercy, see. It is this chisel
in the wood block. It is this black wisp
above the music of a twice rung bell.
After Leaving McGuire Veterans Hospital For The Last Time
This is the last place you'll ever think
you know. You would be wrong of course.
There is time enough to find
other rooms to be reminded of,
other windows to look out,
chipped sills to lean against
that rub your elbows raw. January
is not so cold here as it is elsewhere,
a little gift. When the wind blows it is
its music you remember, not its chill
as it shakes the empty branches and arrives
wherever wind arrives. Go there then, there.
Follow the long and slender blacktop as
it struggles east along the banks
through sprawling fog not destined
to survive its movement in the morning
toward the sea. And toward the sea
the sound of singing ceases, silences
beginning with a sputter and a cough
as the driver of the truck you hitchhiked in
pulls off, and one more cloud of dust
in your life of clouds of dust disintegrates
as evening settles in. What song is this?
you remember the immigrant clinician asked,
and now again along a shoreline in the night
you realize your life is just a catalogue
of methods, every word of it an effort
to stay sane. Count to ten whenever
you begin to shake. If pain of any kind
is felt, take whatever is around
into your hands and squeeze, push
your feet as far as they will go
into the earth. Burial is likely what
you're after anyway. If it's unseemly,
these thoughts, or the fact that the last
unstained shirt you wore was on
a Tuesday, a week ago or more, do not
apologize. 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
is you. Is that a song you hear
out there, where the reeds begin
to end on every curvature of coast,
is its refrain asking what you will remember,
or is it saying, no, don't tell, ever?
You'll realize you're clinging
to a tree islanded amidst a brackish sea
of bulrush, the call of whippoorwills
and all the emptiness you asked for.
No reply: the nautilus repeats
its pattern, a line of waves
beats on forever as you enter them.
Somewhere a woman washes clothes
along the rocks. It was true
what you said. You came home
with nothing, and you still
have most of it left.
This article was originally published in November 2012, and has been updated for the
April 2013 paperback release.
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