Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Yellow Birds

A yellow bird
With a yellow bill
Was perched upon
My windowsill

I lured him in
With a piece of bread
And then I smashed
His fucking head...

That's what this book is all about.  You're going along peacefully, wondering what's coming next and then KABOOM there's shrapnel and fear and confusion.  Most of all, there's confusion.

Kevin Powers opens his spare novel with that traditional U.S. Army marching cadence.  It jolted me. Literally, my head shot up, my eyes widened, TBG wondered what was going on. I shook my head, reread the lines in march time, and found myself getting smaller.

My shoulders were hugging my neck. My arms were pressed into my sides.  My head shook from side to side, trying to remove the image from my brain  and then my eyes went to the second part of the frontispiece:
To be ignorant of evils to come, and forgetfull of evils past, is a mercifull provision in nature, whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil dayes, and our delivered senses not relapsing into cutting remembrances, our sorrows are not kept raw by the edge of repetitions. 
Sir Thomas Browne, the 17th century English philosopher, physician, and ecyclopedist, knew what he was talking about.  Sorrows kept raw by the edge of repetitions succinctly describes my life after bullets intersected with Christina-Taylor and me. I couldn't close my eyes; the hospital or the sidewalk appeared as my lids lowered.  Too bruised to exorcise my demons through exercise, too exhausted and drugged to concentrate on reading, unable to lose myself in film or radio, I played an endless loop of what if as the images raced on and on, bouncing against the corners of my heart.

Less eloquently, I would tell my social work clients that the awful aches would dissipate, because only the mentally ill stay in crisis forever.  As Adam Arkin's West Wing psychiatrist reminds us, We get better.

But what if the getting better has to happen overnight?  What if you are in a war zone, being deviant, focused only on surviving on Monday, and on Wednesday your mother wants you to fix the fence in her backyard?  How do you leave behind the sights and smells and vigilance which were your reality?  What if, in doing so, you are forced to look deeper and accept responsibility for actions which are reprehensible in the same moment that they are completely understandable.  Is heroism warranted when all you wanted to do was become as small as possible?

One thing that never left me was how very young they all were.  Eighteen, twenty-one, grizzled at twenty-four, their rituals and worries were of those who had seen too much and not seen enough, at all.  The Yellow Birds left me with sand under my shoes, gasping for breath, teary and smiling and stuck in the chair until I finished all 226 of its small pages.

I've got to read the other National Book Award Finalists; I certainly didn't read a better book in 2012.


  1. Holy crap! That truly startled me and I wasn't expecting that. Will have to check this book out. Thanks!

    Megan xxx

    1. That's just what the book did to me, through 226 pages.
      Hope I didn't offend anyone.... but I thought that a warning at the top of the post would spoil the effect.

  2. It's from his frequent attendance of medical duties in a fairly grim era that Dr. Browne is so psychologically acute; i can't resist the whole quote with its repeated medical imagery, 'whereby we digest the mixture of our few and evil days and our delivered senses are not cut raw by the edge of repetitions'. Always good to see Sir T.B. quoted, especially in less obvious contexts !

    1. He was new to me, Kevin. Glad to make you smile.


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