D.A. Powell

D.A. Powell

Douglas A. Powell rose to prominence with three collections of poems that documented the gay scene in America and the death by AIDs of well-loved friends: Tea (1998), Lunch (2000) and Cocktails (2004). The style was one he made distinctly his own (and indeed won a clutch of prizes for): long fluid lines, untitled, no capitalization, extended metaphors, double-entendres and a vibrant mix of contemporary diction that included sexual explicitness and gay talk.

Take darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows from Lunch {1} it’s quieter than most poems but is often singled out for special mention.

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

It’s all great fun, in a rather gruesome, self-abasing way. Whatever remorse, anger, bewilderment, despair and a dozen other splintered emotions have occasioned  these lines about a lover dying of AIDs, their knock-about black humour has pretty much neutered their affective appeal. The pun on meager, the forced jollity of mickeymouse pillows, the banal tank/yank rhyme. . . become, well, rather embarrassing. Try placing them in a novel without your agent sending a polite email. ‘Doug, darling – could you rework/condense/excise this section? Find out what the scene is really doing to you or your character, and express those emotions a bit? Sure you understand. . . ‘

It’s usually expected that poetry be more closely crafted than prose, but that crafting can take strange forms. This from Cocktails {2}

I touched the raphe of your skin where once it had seamed into you:
amethyst jewels on your crown.  A skullcap on the crozier of your loins

the old wet clothing of trees lies on the forest floor: naked world
spreading underbrush and tendrils of the new vines moist

once, I buried the soft body of you in my mouth.

Just about works, I think, though might be thought voyeuristic in a heterosexual setting.  The following from Tea, is oddly detached and depersonalized: {3}

between scott’s asshole and his mouth I could not say which I preferred
   perfect similes
attention to cleanliness ran so deep. I imagined a gleaming highway
   through the donner pass of him
a chill settling in his eyes: brown sierras.   I entered starving
  I could east my weakest daughter.

Even online gay literature that enjoys no particular celebrity {4} tends to be more appealing than this, to put emotions before the mechanics in sex scenes. Those emotions most certainly do occur, of course, but are curiously unconnected with real events. The mickeymouse pillows section ends:

when I lose the feeling in my legs. When my hands won’t grip
and I’m a thread a reed a rack a ruin: a clap a flux and grippe

with your smack connections you could dose me .    as I start my decline
would you put a bullet through me.       angel: no light left that is mine
(for Sam Witt)

Ever keen to hail the distinctive American voice, Stephen Burt remarked: ‘Powell belongs, in fact, to the first generation of American poets who may have grown up without even a vestigial connection to the accentual-syllabic, rhyming English tradition: his inventive lines have this absence at their back.’ {8} Alas, no longer. Powell’s new collection, Chronic, now employ rhyme and rhythm, occasionally producing a beautiful line (the third here), though not sustained for long.

Time robs us of all, even of memory: oft as a boy I recall
that with song I would lay the long summer days to
rest. Now I have forgotten all my songs. {5}

down-turned mouth on whiteface. his droopy drawers
canvas the landscape. a band of tin whistles plays
pop the balloons. it’s a fine serenade. burst of applause.  
(“clown burial in winter :”)  {5}

Years ago, if I remember correctly, The New Criterion called Language poetry ‘partying on Parnassus’, but that’s a rather exalted view of this throw away style. Acting as court jester at state funerals might be closer here. Poems in the three volumes are spiced with explicitness and gay in-talk but they’re no threat to the literary or social order. Many academic articles have been written on this ‘voice of the HIV-AIDs crisis’, and their author has moved through teaching positions at Columbia University, Sonoma State University, San Francisco State University and Harvard to the University of San Francisco. {6}

Though Chronic has received mixed reviews, its poems are a natural progression of earlier pieces. It’s still a collage effect, the phrases strung up as bunting to bravely signal defiance in the clown burial in winter piece. Sometimes, as Joan Houlihan has observed, that bunting doesn’t say much: {5}

were lifted over the valley, its steepling dustdevils
the redwinged blackbirds convened
vibrant arc their swift, their dive against the filmy, the finite air
the profession of absence, of being absented, a lifting skyward
then gone
the moment of flight: another resignation from the sweep of earth
jackrabbit, swallowtail, harlequin duck: believe in this refuge
vivid tips of oleander
white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be   

Or seems to be curiously constituted, a contemporary diction mixed with nineteenth century Romanticism:  {5}

in a week you could watch me crumble to smut: spent hues
spent perfumes.      dust upon the lapel where a moment I rested
yes, the moths have visited and deposited their velvet egg mass
the gnats were here: they smelled the wilt and blight.      they salivated

in the folds of my garments: you could practically taste the rot
look at the pluck you’ve made of my heart: it broke open in your hands
oddments of ravished leaves: blossom blast and dieback: petals drooping
we kissed briefly in the deathless spring. the koi pond hummed with flies
unbutton me now from your grasp. no, hold tighter, let me disappear
into your nostrils, into your skin, a powdery smudge against your rough cheek. 
(‘sprig of lilac’)

But that is indeed to be expected from Language poets who use the everyday givens to echo a world that is itself built of cliché, sound bites and advertising jargon. The difficulty then is to say something serious – which here, in Chronic, is a lament for environmental degradation – without becoming an indistinguishable part of that unreal world. Hence The New Criterion remark: that poetry can’t use ready-mades or the  everyday speech exactly, but needs to be privileged with something more fundamental, perhaps a sort of meta-language. {7}

End Notes

1. Chronic by D. A. Powell: Reviewed by Kevin Prufer. Poetry Daily. (Cincinatti Review) http://poems.com/special_features/prose/essay_prufer.php
2. From Cocktails. Quoted in The New Poetics by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Also Google books.
3. From Tea. Quoted in The New Poetics by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Also Google books.
4. Cravings of a Teen Wolf. Fanfiction. https://www.fanfiction.net/s/7096139/1/Cravings-of-a-Teen-Wolf
5. Chronic by D.A. Powell. Reviewed by Joan Houlihan. Contemporary Poetry Review, 2009. http://www.cprw.com/Houlihan/powell2.htm
6. D.A. Powell. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._A._Powell
7. Donald Davidson. http://www.textetc.com/theory/donald-davidson.html
8. ‘Here is a Door Marked “Heaven”: D.A. Powell by Stephen Burt, in American Poets in the 21st Century: The New Poetics by Claudia Rankine and Lisa Sewell. Wesleyan University Press, 2007.

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