From the outset, Kevin Powers' new book is rooted in Richmond. The dedication page reads, "For my friends from the Boulevard."
So opens "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting," a poetry collection by the National Book Award finalist.
In his debut novel, "The Yellow Birds," readers followed Private Bartle's haunting journey in Iraq. With "Letter," Powers has written his way back to Richmond.
The Chesterfield County native served as a machine gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. He drew from this experience to create "The Yellow Birds," which he began writing while working at Capital One and attending Virginia Commonwealth University at night. The novel received near universal praise upon its release, winning the PEN/Hemingway Award.
"I was looking for some kind of clarity or understanding," Powers says of his novel, which is being adapted into a film starring Benedict Cumberbatch. "Probably more than any other experience, [war] gives you exposure to a full range of emotion. You're getting a lifetime's worth of experience compressed."
"Letter" also pertains to war, but puts more focus on the difficulties of returning home. Though Powers says the works are separate, there is overlap. In the collection's titular poem the novel's protagonist makes an appearance, with the narrator relating: "I tell her how Private Bartle says, offhand, that war is just us / making little pieces of metal / pass through each other."
"I'm sure his presence links the two works in a way," says Powers, who drafted the books concurrently. "I guess in a lot of ways that poem was kind of the seed of what the novel would become."
As "Letter" progresses, the relating of wartime experience gradually gives way to broader questions of its aftereffects. Powers makes the case that history isn't something made but decided on after the fact. He's also concerned with disconnect between ideas and their real-life implications.
"Some of it comes from hearing people on the news talking about war, being interviewed," he says. "Somehow [speaking in the abstract] relieves us of the obligation to acknowledge the reality of it. We're talking about figures or statistics, foreign policy. We're not talking about the real lives that are affected by those kinds of decisions."
Richmond and Virginia appear frequently in Powers' poetry, with "Independence Day" taking place in the shadow of the Carillon and "The Locks of the James" aiming a critical eye at the Canal Walk and the history that we tell ourselves. "Church Hill" ruminates on the violence with which both the neighborhood and the country were founded.
"We in Richmond have this really complicated history which I find fascinating and sometimes disturbing," he says. "By setting a story there you get to have all those complications under the surface. You can think about questions of violence which have certainly been there throughout history."
Upon returning from Iraq, Powers lived with friends on the Boulevard, and it's these friends to whom he dedicates the book.
"That transition coming home was challenging," Powers says. "I had some good friends there, and I felt like their friendship was really important to me."
Powers is at work on a novel that takes place after the Civil War. "I have questions about that period, what happened and why," he says. "It kind of got to decide what the next 150 years of our country would look like."
Like Bartle, Powers has returned to Richmond. He and his wife have purchased a house in Jackson Ward, and are living in Shockoe Bottom while renovations are being made.
"It's home," he says of Richmond. "Always has been, always will be." S