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Wednesday, August 21,2013

A poet's war novel

Kevin Powers’ ‘The Yellow Birds’ chosen for One Book, One Community read

by Bill Castanier
A war is raging far away. Two childhood friends sign up together and end up in the same unit. One swears to his friend’s mother that he will bring him back alive, but can he deliver on that promise?

“The Yellow Birds” is Kevin Powers’ award-winning selection for this year’s One Book, One Community program at Michigan State University and in East Lansing. The title sounds innocuous, until you learn the phrase is based on a U.S. Army marching song where a yellow bird’s head is smashed.

A veteran of two tours in Iraq, Powers drafted his poetic muse into the service of an ambitious novel about the toll war takes on soldiers, both on the field of battle and back home. He joins a long list of poets and novelists, including Ernest Hemingway, James Jones and Philip Caputo, who returned from war as different men. 

“I don’t see how you could experience combat without some kind of trauma,” Powers said by phone from Florence, Italy, where his spouse is studying. “It wouldn’t be normal.”

He did not set out to write an antiwar novel but found that “by nature, every book about war is anti-war.”

Powers, 33, enlisted right after high school at 17 and served back-to-back tours in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. After the war, he worked in the private sector before receiving an English degree from Virginia Commonwealth and a master’s degree in poetry from the University of Texas. 

The author admits he was able to work out some of his own PTSD while writing his debut novel, which he began while a student.

“The pity of war,” from Wilfred Owen’s scorching anti-war poem, was already taken, but it would have made a perfect title for Powers’ debut novel about two soldiers trying to get through the war in Iraq alive.

Owen and WWI veteran Siegfried Sassoon are two poets Powers greatly admires. Readers can find parallels in the work of all three. Like Sassoon and Owen, Powers has a penchant for describing war with what he calls “hyper-realistic engagement.”

The novel begins with a simple and powerful trope: “The war tried to kill us in the spring.” When prose falls short, poetic leaps of imagery try to convey the unspeakable: “The war rubbed its thousands of ribs against the ground in prayer … its eyes were white and open in the dark.”

Powers’ first book has been compared to some of the memorable war literature of all time, especially Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” one of the seminal novels written about Vietnam. “The Yellow Birds” was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award, along with Ben Fountain’s anti-war book “Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk.” 

If a student asks him whether he would enlist, knowing what he knows now, “my immediate instinct is to say no.”

“Idealism is admirable, but the people who are deciding what to do with you may not see idealism in the same way,” he said. “Intentions don’t necessarily lead to the outcomes we want. There are a number of ways you can serve your community.”

He said he enlisted in the Army “because it seemed the reasonable thing to do at the time.”

“I was not a good student in high school and college seemed like something that wasn’t for me. Serving my country was the honorable, practical and idealistic thing to do,” he said.

Like most Iraq war veterans, he brought home more than just memories from his two tours. His arms and back are decorated with a dozen tattoos, a common practice for combat veterans of the Iraq war.

“For me tattoos, are a reflection on mortality,” he said. “Nothing is permanent, including tattoos.”

Two of the tattoos are especially meaningful to him.

“Not knowing if I’d come back I have a dogwood — I’m from Virginia — and a drawing of my wife, Kelly, which is pretty spectacular.”

Powers will be at MSU and in East Lansing for several appearances the last week of August. He will be at Hannah Community Center in East Lansing at 7 p.m. Sunday and will speak to freshmen at the Breslin Center at 9 a.m. Monday. That same afternoon, he will appear at a meet-the-author event at the East Lansing Public Library. All events are free and open to the public. 

īThe Yellow Birdsī

Kevin Powers

7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 25

Hannah Community Center

(517) 333-2580

FREE


9 a.m. Monday, Aug. 26

Breslin Center

(517) 432-1989

FREE


4 p.m. Monday, Aug. 26

Meet-the-author event

East Lansing Public Library

(517) 351-2420

FREE

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