The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
230 pages, Little, Brown and Company, September 2012
When I was in high school, I became strangely (and somewhat disturbingly) obsessed with the Vietnam War. I’m not old enough to remember this war. It ended right about when I was busy being born. I was kind of a crazy hippie kid, and I desperately wanted something to protest, so apparently I decided I was going to retroactively protest something that had been over for a very long time. I don’t know. Don’t try to figure out teenage Amy. She had issues.
I still find war fascinating. Not in a strange way, now, though. More in a psychological way. What drives people to kill one another. What it does to a person, having to shut off their basic humanity in order to survive. How fragile, and yet how tenacious, a human being can be. How when a person comes home, they’re expected to bounce right back to the person they once were, as if that time away hadn’t happened; as if that person they had to be wasn’t still inside of them, screaming for attention.
The Yellow Birds is a beautiful, heartbreaking book about terrible things that you’ll want to avert your eyes from. It should be required reading about war, along with my personal favorite, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. They have a similar feel; the poetry of loss and blood and death and sweat; the lyricism innate in the dying cries of the people you’ve grown to love as family and the screams of the people you’ve had to forget are people in order to kill them.
Private Bartle and Private Murphy meet in basic training. Bartle, being older, is assigned to Murphy, to keep an eye on him; he idly promises Murphy’s mother, as they are shipping out, that he’ll make sure Murphy comes home alive.
Idle promises. Men’s bodies hollowed out and turned into bombs; whores with bruises gone black and red and yellow and kindness in their hearts and fear in their eyes; friends blown to pieces as you watch; learning how to survive a bombing by lying flat on the ground, covering your head, and opening your mouth so you won’t blow your eardrums; watching townspeople mourn their dead, who were only moments ago trying to kill you; wondering if it will ever end, hoping it will end, hoping it will end quickly, and without too much pain, hoping it will end slowly, and with as much pain as you deserve.
What happens when you come home, and you still have the ghosts of the war screaming in your head, and you don’t feel like you exist, and your mother insists everything will be fine, just fine, but the only thing holding you to the ground is alcohol and trying to piece it all together, where it all started to go wrong, where you could maybe have fixed it, if you’d tried, if you could only go back, if you could only braid the threads together into something resembling a story that made sense, a story that someone might want to listen to.
Powers is a poet who served in Iraq. Somehow, a poet went to Iraq, and came back to us with this book. How this is possible, I don’t know. I don’t know that I could survive seeing that kind of destruction day after day and come back and still have this kind of broken beauty in me; I think the desert and the heat and the blood and the loss would take my voice from me and leave me mute, shattered by screams no one could hear but me and with no way to get out through my tongueless mouth, my jittering fingers.
This is a book to teach in classrooms and discuss with children whose eyes still hold the future in them. This is a book to teach to politicians who see soldiers as expendable. This is a book to give to grieving mothers and wives and husbands and fathers.
There is poetry in death and pain and loss; the art is going to the poisoned well to find it and coming back in any sort of shape to share your words with a world that may not want to hear them.