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Letters Composed During a Lull in the Fighting review 'aftermath of conflict'

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Andrew Motion is moved by Kevin Powers' collection of war poems, with its graphic battle scenes and search for meaning and solace away from the frontline

Our conception of "war poetry" is still determined largely by what we know of poetry written during and about the 1914-18 war. Its originality in all senses, its dominance within the school curriculum, its unfading power to move and horrify: these all mean that for a majority of readers, war poetry that isn't about blood, mud and hand-to-hand combat, and that doesn't prove what Owen famously called "the pity of war", either doesn't qualify as war poetry at all, or is an inferior version. Hence the comparative neglect of major second world war poets such as Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis. Hence the tendency to see poems (and prose) about more recent conflicts as being good or less good depending on how they conform to the witnessings of a century ago.

Yellow Birds, by the Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers, did pretty well in this respect; despite the unevenness of its style and effects, it won the Guardian first book award among other prestigious prizes. Now comes a collection of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, which deals with experience similar to that covered in the novel: graphic battle scenes and the attempt to feel "at home" in the aftermath of the conflict. Its lyrics describe a sparsely populated mental landscape and project a jittery sensibility that is hungry for consolation yet removed from most comforts; they are written in choppy free verse that is at once wired and conversational (sometimes to a fault); the whole effort is impressive in its sincerity and virtually unimpeachable in its distress.

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