A Lesson in Craft: The Yellow Birds

If you have not read The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, go buy it and start reading it today. It’s that good. Maybe I loved it because Powers is a poet, and his poetry flows into the language on every page. Maybe I loved it because I have similar fears as the mothers portrayed in this book. At least one of my sons will join the Army in a year.

Whatever the reason, I love this novel, and I know many of my students will appreciate the beauty of it, too.

Many passages are worthy of study, but when I read myself into this one, I knew that the discussion around it in class would be powerful. What do you think students might discover about language by reading this?

I hadn’t know what I was doing then, but my memories of Murph were a kind of misguided archaeology. Sifting through the remains of what I remembered about him was a denial of the fact that a hole was really all that was left, an absence I had attempted to reverse but found that I could not. There was simply not enough material to account for what had been removed. The closer I got to reconstructing him in my mind, the more the picture I was tying to re-create receded. For every memory I was able to pull up, another seemed to fall away forever. There was some proportion about it all, though. It was like putting a puzzle together from behind: the shapes familiar, the picture quickly fading, the muted tan of the cardboard backing a tease at wholeness and completion. I’d think of a time when we sat in the evening in the guard tower, watching the war go by in streaks of read and green and other, briefer lights, and he’d tell me of an afternoon in the little hillside apple orchard that his mother worked, the turn and flash of a paring knife along a wrap of gauze as they grafted uppers to rootstocks and new branches to blossom, or the time he saw but could not explain his awe when his father brought a dozen caged canaries home from the mine and let them loose in the hollow where they lived, how the canaries only flitted and sang awhile before perching back atop their cages, which had been arranged in rows, his father likely thinking that the birds would not return by choice to their captivity, and that the cages should be used for something else: a pretty bed for vegetables, perhaps a place to string up candles between the trees, and in what strange silences the world worked, Murph must have wondered, as the birds settled peaceably in their formation and ceased to sing. And I’d try to recall things until nothing came, which I quickly found was my only certainty, until what was left of him was a sketch in shadow, a skeleton falling apart, and my friend Murph was no more friend to me than the strangest stranger.

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One thought on “A Lesson in Craft: The Yellow Birds

  1. […] the last time I read something that struck me so emotionally was Yellow Birds, and I rave about it, […]


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