This is part of a series called Dispatches from an MFA, which details my experiences in the low-residency MFA program at Lesley University. In the second semester, I studied with poet Kevin Prufer. We spent the semester looking at narrative versus lyric poetry.
[NOTE: The original version of this paper was set to landscape orientation to accommodate D.A. Powell’s long lines. Viewing this article on a large monitor will preserve the longer lines]
D.A. Powell’s work teaches me about the power of taking risks and trusting one’s own voice. Reading him reminds me of reading C.K. Williams, a poet who helped me break out of tightly controlled lines and hyperfocused subject matter and made it possible for me to write something sprawling like “Pastoral, Pougkeepsie” – a poem that is far from finished, but one that is much more ambitious than anything I would have attempted before I started at Lesley. But where Williams’s vignettes carry within them a consistent narrative, Powell’s move much more at the speed of thought – a phrase I’ve heard used to describe lyric poetry more than once. That’s not to say that Powell’s work doesn’t carry a narrative, but it’s one told via strobe light: short bursts of language, associated by sound or image or seemingly random leaps of intuition that make sense after the fact. I respond to it because it’s the way my own mind works.
As I reported in a previous essay on the subject of narrative poetry, literary tastes in the poetry world bent toward the associative mode in reaction to the ascendancy of the post-confessional narrative form. But Powell shows how powerful this mode can be as a form of storytelling. Says Powell of his work in the introduction to Repast, a collection of three previous books titled Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails:
Because I was unable to contain the first lines I wrote, I turned my notebook sideways, pushing into what would traditionally be thought the margin of the page. These lines, with their peculiar leaps and awkward silences, became the strangely apt vessel into which I could pour my thoughts. I took fragments and made new statements from them, just as I wished to reshape my life from its incomplete bits.
I first came across the idea of re-membering the dismembered (and the silenced) while researching my undergraduate thesis on Adrienne Rich’s work. It dovetails nicely with Powell’s comments about his words entering the margins of his notebook, word spoken from the margins of society and a community dismembered by the AIDS epidemic.
Powell’s mature poems have a logic of their own; they’re not simply rapid-fire, random phrases. He leaves the majority of his poems unnamed, allowing the first line of the poem to stand in as a title. Lines contain two to three distinct parts separated by white space, and stanzas generally run from one to three lines. You can see him still developing his distinctive voice in Lunch, which he wrote prior to Tea and Cocktails.
I notice a certain Anglo-Saxon alliteration stitching together his lines. From “[epithalamion],” one of the few titled poems in the book:
say amen somebody. the pews are hickory-hard I’m sick of sitting. sick of hazy secondhand god
I’m gawky and greedy. full of longing like frankie in “a member of the wedding,” here comes andy
alabaster betrothed: his pierced wooden groom casts a doleful glance. his eye is on the sparrow
Sibilant S’s run through the first line, as do hard H’s. G’s pull together the first third of the second line, and “longing” echoes “gawky.” F’s alliterate the second third of the second line. In the third line, B’s repeat in “alabaster betrothed” and O sounds run through “betrothed,” “wooden groom,” and “doleful.”[i] This poem also has a clear narrative: the title “epithalamion” indicates it’s a celebration of a marriage; it’s taking place in a church (“the pews are hickory-hard”); they are singing hymns (“his eye is on the sparrow”) and performing the ritual of the Eucharist (Powell gives the ritual a twist: instead of bread, “they took my heart gave thanks and brake it. they are wounded by love”). The narrative takes an unexpected turn in the last few lines: “andy is lifted by outstretched arms,” can be read as either the blessing of the congregation or the act of pallbearers, especially when considered within the larger context of the collection, set during the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. Is this truly a wedding or is it a funeral? “I’m no more afraid / secretly I’ve brought my valise …. together we’ll steal away steal away.” Is the speaker planning to elope with the groom? Or anticipating his own mortality?
Images from club life and disco songs run through Powell’s poetry, most strikingly in the section of Tea called “Tea Dance,” which he prefaces with a list of “Eleven Disco Songs that Equate Sex and Death through an Elaborate Metaphor Called ‘Heaven.’” One that particularly resonated with me was “[now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the world through dryice fog.]” “come let me show you a sweep of constellations,” says the speaker, recounting ages 16 through 20 with the characteristic brief, strobing images, each one tagged with a disco song. In Cocktails, he uses a similar structural tool with sections named “Mixology,” “Filmography,” and “Bibliography”[ii]– although the poems often stray far from their starting points.
Sometimes it’s not just alliteration but also an image that holds a poem together, as in “[he’d make my bed jumble and squeak. a parrot must have lit inside. potty mouthed].” In this poem, the speaker is the parrot, saying “quaquaquaquaqua,” blessing “the beak the tiny beak,” while the “he” of the poem carries darker imagery: “buzzarding,” with “long black lashes like wings.”
In addition to his fractured, layered style, Powell uses wordplay to leaven his work’s serious subject matter. Surprising associations of sound and meaning abound, but also puns: “we rubbed each other out: a pair of erasers,”[iii] “you who have more to spend than the rest of your life: busfare for instance,”[iv] “love in the time of caulifleur,”[v] “o that this tutu of solid flesh,”[vi] “I take my drinks stiff and stuffed with plastic. like my lovers.”[vii]
One of the things that strikes me about Powell’s work is the sheer joy it takes in language, both in meaning and in sound. It’s a quality that first drew me to poetry. I hope I never lose sight of it. He also shows that there is more than one way to include narrative in one’s work, and that alternatives to straightforward narrative can produce powerful results.
Powell, D.A. Repast: Tea, Lunch, Cocktails. Graywolf Press, 2014. Print.
[i] A epithalamion is a poem celebrating a marriage. When you consider the historical context of this poem—written long before the legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States—its alternating notes of snark and longing make it especially poignant.
[ii] The “Biblio” in this case is not just any book book, but the Bible, and he retells the familiar stories in his characteristic strobe-like, layered, and sensual voice.
[iii] [what happened to “significant” out of bed: abolished in the act of standing. like a “lap”]. p. 41.
[iv] [what direction will you take when the universe collapses. you who when you go must go someplace]. p. 45.
[v] [not just that I got starry-eyed—an epidemic of romanced was sweeping around us. a falling]. p. 58.
[vi] [we all carry signs of our obsessions]. p. 131.
[vii] [the cocktail hour finally arrives: whether ending a day at the office]. p. 143.