A Terrible Beauty

As Reviewed By: Joan Houlihan

Lunch, by D.A. Powell. Wesleyan University Press, 2000. 62 pages. paper, $12.95

Tea, by D.A. Powell. Wesleyan University Press, 1998. 71 pages. paper, $19.95

Cocktails, by D.A. Powell, Graywolf Press, 2004. 66 pages. paper, $14.00

In the world of cross-cut, jump-cut, cut-up and uncut poetry over the past five or so years, I haven’t experienced anything close to the pleasures poetry is capable of delivering, so I was happily surprised to find D.A. Powell’s three books: LunchTea, and Cocktails. Despite inexplicable indents, extra spaces between words, brackets in the titles and periods within the line; despite the potentially straight-jacketed classification of the books under “gay studies”; and despite a serious nod to some mentor-poets I can no longer read without sinking into a deep funk, Powell has produced the real thing: poetry that compels, entertains, enlightens, moves, and, especially, changes the reader. In fact, its very aliveness to, awareness of that overlooked entity, the reader, its tacit acknowledgement that there is someone to be talked to from the page, that there are humans involved in the making and reading of poems, is evidenced in some way in nearly every poem. Such acknowledgement infuses his inventiveness, his re-invention of the line and re-animation of syntax with purpose such that his poems are not mere displays of technique. In fact, when Powell breaks conventional grammar, instead of leaving the page littered with the usual clever debris, he forces the sense of something fresh and real to emerge.[private]

As with anything truly new, his poems take some getting used to, and they need to be read with an open mind, felt first, thought about later. More than superficially novel, these poems yield substance, expose layers of feeling and thought, and sustain associations and ideas that reward, rather than defy, further reflection.

Chronologically, Lunch is the first in the trilogy, since it was written first, thoughTea was published first.  Lunch is the point of origin, then, for the narrative arc of the next two “dining” books-this point of origin being the “plague of our times” as Powell puts it, the HIV virus, and how its diagnosis informs, deforms, even, in some cases, sanctifies, a life. By putting the immediacy, the reality of death before us, we hear it as an unavoidable background (“the winged chariot”), and the context of sickness and death is always the unspoken given. From this given context, a liberating, nearly intoxicating kind of truth about the self and its relation to the world and others emerges.  There is, for example, a lyrical tenderness in the portraits of those who are dying:

maybe he wears my trousers: lagniappe

he is the same age as my memory of him. leaning

into the menial wage. the pockets tattered

sorghum and sour apples barely keep him

bony: an architecture of tentposts. supporting

constellations. the points where light

enters: frayed patches. weakening seams

from: [maybe he wears my trousers: lagniappe]

And there is a richness to the focus that ensues from the given context of death; it is often mixed with a wickedly dark humor, a sassiness that makes for a potent admixture of grief and bitterness. Add to this a desire for redemption unlike anything since Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and you have come face to face with a masterful elegist of contemporary life:

darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows

when I’m a meager man. with your exhaust pipe and hose

could you put me out: when I’m a mite splinter a grain

a tatter a snip a sliver a whit a tittle. habited by pain

would you pop me on the noggin: with a two by four

the trifle of me pissing myself. slobbering infantile: or

wheezing in an oxygen tent. won’t you shut off the tank

mightn’t you disconnect the plug: give the cord a proper yank

when I lose the feeling in my legs. when my hands won’t grip

and I’m a thread a reed a wrack a ruin: of clap and flux and grippe

with your smack connections could you dose me. as I start my decline

would you put a bullet through me. angel: no light left that is mine

from: [darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows]

This mix of humor, childlikeness and stark grief is potent in several poems, for example in the playful counting off of the dead of [my fingers have performed their services: church steeple people].

Although informed by the AIDS pandemic, Powell’s poems are about AIDS in the same way that Hopkins’ poems are about God.  It is what comes of the poetry’s occasion of origin that is remarkable, not the occasion of origin itself. In fact, Powell’s poems deal with the classic subject matter of all great poetry-the universals of love, death, grief, joy-and what hovers over all the work, the knowledge of mortality, is reminiscent of the seventeenth century metaphysical poets. Donne comes to mind, as does Herbert.

Nor is comparison to Hopkins gratuitous or based only on their similar focus on the so-called last things-Hopkins is also present in Powell’s technical skills, his use of cumulative internal rhyme and sprung rhythms, as well as in his penetrating gaze on the particulars of contemporary life which echoes Hopkins’ gaze on “All things counter, original, spare, strange”, the minute particulars, the “thingness” of things. When Powell’s poems rise, as they often do, to a lofty place, it is both a surprise (given the often bitter grief and deadly wit at work) and a satisfaction.  To ignite his concerns with the human and the divine, Powell supplies the spark of wordplay, resonance of rhyme and deft turning of the line, as well as a mordant humor, that is both rare and welcome in contemporary American poetry.

In Lunch‘s poems, the breaks within a line are not distracting, but rather seem orchestrated to create a kind of staccato, a tempo both musical and atonal, while the breaks at the end often yield rich half-meanings, the emjambments resolving into multiple meanings as they connect with the succeeding line:

Constellations. the points where light

enters: frayed patches. weakening seams.

from: [maybe he wears my trousers: laginappe]

The punctuation also serves to isolate and spotlight certain phrases and words and confer an importance on them that serves the overall poem, as in the following excerpts from three poems:

not the treats of quince blossoms. in this rainy cycle the yards

are so much muck.


sometimes a prayer escapes: we are more

and less religious.


chairs and desks disappear one by one. needle lifted

off the phonograph: all positions have been filled

Lush and lyrical and haunted, Lunch proceeds inevitably towards its end as a scattering of titles from its last section “in the middle of the air” indicates:

[we all carry signs of our obsessions]
[in the new genesis: a part of his skeleton became me. shaped me]
[you don’t have syphillis. the doctor says]
[when dementia begins: almost makes sense like hamburger translations]

As lunch comes before the attenuated ceremony called “tea” (and the word itself is explored by Powell in his introduction where he lets the reader in on its additional meaning in the gay world as a gossip session), so Powell’s beautifully packaged Tea comes next in this progression toward the end of the day.  And, as appropriate for a gossip session, many of the poems here focus on the particulars of particular people, many of them portraits of devastating loss:

the thicknesses of victor decreased: blanket –> sheet –> floss. until no material would do

in the shedding season: the few of us who had not turned had found his remote room in mercy

he wriggled slight as a silkworm on its mulberry bed. his lips spun slathering thread. he sleaved

we waited for his release and he was released: yellow and radiant mariposa. don’t let us mend.

from: [the thicknesses of victor decreased: blanket à sheet à floss. until no material would do]

The masterful use of deteriorating material as metaphor for this person’s decline is everywhere made poignant and the image of the ill man as a silkworm unraveling (“he sleaved”) is both frightening and moving. Surely, the last line “don’t let us mend” is one of the most freighted with grief and denial in the poem, if not the book, and the image of the ill man’s release into “yellow and radiant mariposa” unforgettable (the word “mariposa” redolent of both flower and butterfly and with the Latin root to pause being especially apt).

And here too, are the names-andy, kenny, nicholas, victor, gary-the portraits they inhabit framed with a loving and despairing gaze. Meanwhile, a wild and passionate debate with death ensues in this book, giving the poems a metaphysical reach uncommon in contemporary poetry:

sleek mechanical dart: the syringe noses into the blue vein marking the target of me

haven’t I always looked away. don’t want to see what’s inside me. inside me or coming out

older than balder: older than I’d planned to be. aliveness jars me. what’s sticking what sticks

from: [sleek mechanical dart: the syringe noses into the blue vein marking the target of me]

As with Lunch, there is an unstoppable self-awareness and wit in Tea, a willingness, a need, to do battle with the inevitable. Sometimes in this collection, however, technique threatens to eclipse substance, the poems becoming more turned in, overly private or self-conscious-the devices seeming, therefore, less purposeful and yet more contrived.  For example:

my stasis must confound you. If you have worshipped at all you must know what patience is required

see how the epicene tadzio trails behind the others: aware of your gaze and slightly bemused

you don’t leave. like that pitiful composer you’re hooked. yes you want to touch his hair

I must be fair now: the cobblestones are washed with bleach. bedding smoulders in the piazza

irresistibility of endings: what if a flawless lad succumbs. what if you catch your train on time

from: [my stasis must confound you. If you have worshipped at all you must know what patience is required]

In this poem, as in some others, there is a slackness to the language and the focus seems less sharp, inviting more attention to the form. Of course, when the form has so much attention, it seems tiresome. When this happens, Powell’s work can be seen as having a tendency to favor too much eccentricity; the weaker poems have the same kind of weakness as, say, a weak ee cummings poem, where format threatens to be all. But these instances are infrequent and not indicative of the book as a whole.

Still, I think Tea, though captivating and ingenious, is not as fine or fully realized as either Lunch, or the newly-released Cocktails.  I also have a complaint about the design: gorgeous as the book is, and so obviously well-planned section by section, the notes at the end, while very enlightening and important to the poems, needed to be emphasized at the outset, or pointed to in the foreword (which is excellent) or, perhaps, pointed to from a separate page at the beginning of the book, before the poems.

Cocktails surprises in two major ways: first, the poems are less idiosyncratically formatted than in either Lunch or Tea, and so they move toward more connectedness and a more traditional sweep of line, and, second, an unexpectedly traditional religious world-view emerges, but one salted with experience. Powell has, wisely I think, pulled back from an overly fragmented line and there are fewer internal periods and spaces. Less force is applied to the syntax, and the result has a more leisurely feel-but the poems are no less harrowing for that. In fact, Powell seems to have opened up another vein in the body of lyric tradition with transports of ecstatic love, a witty and earthy eroticism, all tinged with the sense of the future and of failure:

gardenhouse dilated with rain: a puff adder
so we retreat like tigers. tails between our legs

summer: so crazy about peaches we’re crazy
driving through orchards and the brown silt
clings to us. flesh clings to pit: our hearts are woody

from: [gardenhouse dilated with rain: a puff adder]

He takes us through several downright frightening poems that are almost Sexton-like in their causticity, their bawdy and bawling struggle with the will to survive:

[when you touch down upon this earth. little reindeers]
[this little treatment has side effects: side effects]
[hope you like this new doctor: rachel says in hopeful tones]
[my lover my phlebotomist. his elastic fingers encircle my arm]

and the section that takes its inspiration from movies (“Filmography”) is especially rich and associative, exhibiting great control and pacing in its lines. But it is in “Bibliography” that something bold and astonishing happens: a wedding of the holy and profane that is remarkably powerful.

Here, Powell takes the lexicon of the bible (glister, loaf, grape, purple, veil, rent garment, fine harp, wine and so on), the lessons from sermons and lives of the saints, and gathers it all into a kind of righteous oratory both beautiful and ironic, a complex yearning for-and disdain of-redemption:

because I were ready before destruction. bearing the sign of his affliction
in my laggard arms: the sign was made as the stretching limbs of him

oh, my chasms were afraid of this wooded place and sang over it:
“loose liver, mouth, roots, member” a bellowing about our head

from: [because I were ready before destruction. bearing the sign of his affliction]

As in the dark poems of Hopkins (“No Worst, There Is None”, “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day”) there is a desperate plea for help, and an identification with the suffering Christ, spoken here through the persona of various religious figures:

I am putting on his robe. I clothe his sinew and drape from it and he loves me
here is the garland that moves not upon our head: impales. razor thorns

and as that crown sits firmly so I sit firm. and if everything should perish:
as bridegroom reckoned in his likeness I go. rock, river, permeable flesh.

from: [because I were ready before destruction. bearing the sign of his affliction]

The sheer emotional power of this last section is inextricably-and inexplicably- part of its form-I cannot imagine these poems written in another form and still be as powerful. Powell achieves something real and new with his form because it seems to make the content inevitable, to force it to its present shape and power:

listen mother, he punched the air: I am not your son dying
the day fades and the starlings roost: a body’s a husk a nest of goodbye

his wrist colorless and soft was not a stick of chewing gum
how tell? well a plastic bracelet with his name for one. & no mint
his eyes distinguishable from oysters how? only when pried open

she at times felt the needle going in. felt her own sides cave. she rasped
she twitched with a palsy: tectonic plates grumbled under her feet

soiled his sheets clogged the yellow BIOHAZARD bin: later to be burned
soot clouds billowed out over the city: a stole. a pillbox hat [smart city]
and wouldn’t the taxis stop now. and wouldn’t a hush smother us all

the vascular walls graffitied and scarred. a clotted rend in the muscle
wend through the avenues throttled t-cells. processional staph and thrush

the scourge the spike a stab a shending bile the grace the quenching
mother who brought me here, muddler: open the window. let birds in

from: [listen mother, he punched the air: I am not your son dying]

In Powell’s apocalyptic trilogy, from its understated and witty titles referring to those most human and ordinary of activities, when people sit and eat and drink and talk together, comes a remarkably complex, brutal and lyrical cycle of poems that could only have been written in this time and that connects us with all times.[/private]

About Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at Bostoncomment.com and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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