Poems in a Strobe: D.A. Powell’s Repast

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.

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[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.

Works Cited

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.

Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative

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.

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I’ve been approaching this semester with an alternating focus on the lyrical and narrative modes of poetry. But how exactly does one differentiate between the two? And is it even a valid dichotomy? As with the prose-poetry divide, the more one tries to define it, the more slippery it becomes. In an essay published in 2006, Tony Hoagland writes about “a widespread mistrust of narrative forms and, in fact, a pervasive sense of the inadequacy or exhaustion of all modes other than the associative.” He also acknowledges the difficulty of defining the term: “Under the label of ‘narrative,’ all kinds of poetry currently get lumped misleadingly together: not just story but discursion, argument, even descriptive lyrics. They might better be called the ‘Poetries of Continuity.’”

Published in 2004, Rachel Zucker’s The Last Clear Narrative certainly demonstrates the zeitgeist Hoagland describes. At first pass, the title seems like a joke on the reader. Zucker’s language is disruptive, fragmented. It uses not only syntax but white space and idiosyncratic punctuation – all to skillful effect, but hardly the definition of what most people would call a clear narrative.

Continue reading “Rachel Zucker’s Unclear Narrative”

Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet

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. This is the cover letter to the second packet.

Dear Kevin:

For some reason, finishing this packet was very difficult. I’ve been suffering under the specter of self-doubt – both with the craft annotations and with the original work. I hope you don’t mind that the Zucker annotation runs a bit over. She uses a lot of white space, and word placement and white space are integral to the meaning of her poems. So quoting her meant that I had less space than usual for the actual annotation. I feel like I was able to delve into the text of Zucker’s work, but am less sure about the annotation on Matejka’s book. I found myself fascinated with the conversation about “lyric narrative” poetry in the essays I cite in the Matejka annotation, and I’m afraid it took over the paper a bit. But these meta-issues were important for me to consider: the legacy of Confessionalism, the narrative “I,” and the current literary trends toward language-focused work and away from narrative. One of the thing that I liked best about Dante Di Stefano’s piece was the way that he put into context the arc of poetry in the 20th century, from Imagism to High Modernism to Confessionalism, and beyond.[1] When I studied poetry as an undergrad, the latter half of those shifts were still underway. I didn’t have the perspective to consider them from Di Stefano’s point of view. Continue reading “Dispatches from an MFA: Semester Two, Second Packet”