Longing for the Ordinary – “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers

May 20, 2013 at 6:01 pm 3 comments

“The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers, Published in 2012

This book is powerful and beautiful.  I was hesitant to read it because of the subject matter (the Iraq war) but after finishing it I think this book is important.  It is important because for me, like so many other Americans, there has been a luxury in my relationship with the Iraq war.  It had been easy to go off on my political diatribes about the war (i.e. why were we there, what are we thinking) but it had been without heart.   Though this book did not change my reality , it did change my perspective and made me more reflective – more the way I should have been thinking about the war all along.  The possibility that literature can change our view of the world is what makes literature so essential. This book is a great example of how literature can change us.

Private Bartle is sent to Iraq when he is twenty-one years old.  At basic training he becomes friends with eighteen-year-old Private Murphy.  He promises Murph’s mother that he will see him through the war.  The friends find themselves in a battle outside of Al Tafar.  They are trapped in what seems to be an endless battle to capture the city.  They are fatigued and battle-weary, they see unspeakable things.  They trick their bodies into not sleeping and trick their minds into not caring.  And it is all pointless.  Bartle knows that there is a battle in this same location every year at the same time – ground is gained, ground is lost, and then it all starts over again.  War is relentless.

“The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

But as the battle continues it becomes evident that Murph has become untethered and that Bartle may not be able to protect him from unraveling.  You know at the outset of the book that Murph dies but it is the way he dies and the ultimate choices that Bartle has to make that is stunning.   When Bartle returns home he is haunted but also strangely removed from everything. He no longer fits anywhere.

Powers served in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He also has a masters in poetry.  Though this seems like an odd combination, this poet soldier has done something amazing here. He has taken his painful memories and experiences in Iraq and created this beautifully lyrical fictional account of war in Iraq.  It is an astonishing feat akin to the likes of Tim O’Brien in “The Things They Carry.”

For me the most powerful element of the book was Bartle’s desperate attempt to have normal, to be ordinary, to just make it through.  He is bereft of ambition but is instead committed to a simple form of existence.   His emotional disengagement is a great reminder to the reader that anyone who lives through these types of experiences has to disengage in order to survive.  They become a shell of their former selves and hope only to make it home.  And when they go home they long for things to be simple, a return to the what they were before.  But of course that is impossible and the fact that our society pretends that this return to normal is somehow achievable is perhaps the biggest lie of them all.

“I knew that at least a few of the stars I saw were probably gone already, collapsed into nothing. I felt like I was looking at a lie. But I didn’t mind. The world makes liars of us all.”

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Entry filed under: May 2013 reads. Tags: , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. biblioglobal  |  May 20, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    I’ve been hesitating to read this one for the same reason. That’s a good point about having the luxury to not pay attention when we don’t want to.

    Reply
    • 2. Emily C  |  May 21, 2013 at 8:37 am

      I probably should have also said it is a pretty uncomfortable read for a lot of reasons. So if you are heading to a fun vacation or something you might want to hold off reading it. But if you do read it please let me know what you think.

      Reply
  • […] Longing for the Ordinary – “The Yellow Birds” by Kevin Powers (readingthroughthebs.wordpress.com) […]

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There is some great literature out there, but there is a lot of bad literature as well. We shouldn't all have to read it. These are my recommendations and thoughts about the books I read.

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