Poetry: Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting and Jump Soul

This post covers two recent Shelf Awareness poetry reviews (April is poetry month, after all). The first is the debut collection Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers, author of the much-praised novel and National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds and the second is Jump Soul: New and Selected Poems by Charlie Smith.

The power of Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting comes from its visceral and pitiless images of war. The poems are all first person, mostly narrative, and leave no doubt about the degree to which Powers’ experiences haunt him still and probably always will.

I tend to love poetry that uses concrete, grounded images, one following the other and without needing commentary, to convey emotion and meaning. Magic happens when poets trust their imagination enough to offer juxtaposed associations, no matter how unlikely, but which suggest a larger truth. They build from metaphors writ large in gorgeous and precise language. Poetry to me is always more than the sum of its parts because it relies on that magic. It’s also the reason that it’s generally impossible to express the “meaning” of a poem in other words, because no prose summary of a poem can capture the emotional aftershock those sparks generate. And poetry usually needs compression for this to happen.

Powers’ poetry is different. It feels more literal. It is almost more “prose poetry” formatted with shorter lines.  His narrators offer observations about the meaning of their experiences in lines that, while lyrical, tend to the abstract, and abstractions can be disconnected and disorienting even though they also suggest something profound. It’s a different approach that does not rely on poetic intensity of line, on metaphor to carry the meaning. But the poems’ haunted quality, their openness, the way his more introspective musings always connect back to his felt experience results in a collection that cannot fail to move readers. It also makes for a collection that is very accessible, and drawing in more readers is an excellent thing.

Smith’s collection is just as powerful but does have that compression where the line is the metaphor. I love his manifest delight in words. He takes such pleasure in layering both. But he’s not piling them on gratuitously. The resulting fullness is not excess but encompasses the full range of lived experience, both darkness and light, both pleasure and loss, in the same breath.

Both collections are must-reads. Each demonstrates the very different possibilities of poetry’s generous ability to share experience and perception.

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