AIDS, Almonds in Bloom, Book Review, D.A. Powell, Homosexuality, Literature, Luke Goebel, Poetry, Quarantine, Reaching Around For You, The Fluffer Talks of Eternity, Useless Landscapes or A Guide for Boys
Have you ever wondered what an almond petal would taste like on your tongue? What words, what stories, and what songs you could write in India ink on its fleshy white surface? Luke Goebel came to our class, he was guest lecturing/promoting, bringing with him an interview and a handful of poetry. At that time I was still an undergraduate, my own creative voice was a slim whisper of a developed iota, and I had been avoiding Luke because the man still scared and mystified me. He spoke of a man by the name of D.A. Powell, a poet who would be soon to give a reading at the University, and then played for us the interview. There’s not much else to this bathetic story except that I didn’t attended the reading because I was still dating my wife at the time and the options were to have dinner at her place or go listen to Mr. Powell. I do love my wife, and we did have a nice dinner, but missing that reading is one of those little regrets that is beginning to hound me. If I can gleam any didactic lesson from this story it’s this: if you get the opportunity to hear an artist, writer, poet, performer speak, go see them.
Now D.A. Powell has remained a name in the endless list of authors whose work I understand that I need to read, but there was no rush, because always time. Trust me, there isn’t. So when two of my very dear friends announced they were about to move I decided to take them out to coffee for a weekly meeting I’ve taken to calling Coffee With Jammer. Afterwards we went back to their place so they could show off their apartment, a strange room covered with swords, flails, maces, skeletons, and Nightmare Before Christmas paraphernalia. My kind of people. Anyway, sometimes between discussing Role Playing Board games and Rick and Morty, my friend Amy pulled out some of her books, one of which was D.A. Powell. I read one or two poems and realized it was time I read it. Borrowing her book I began two-day journey through the fifth work of a poet who, like Luke said, will most assuredly be in the thick literary anthologies within the near future. Powell’s fifth poetry collection Useless Landscapes, or A Guide For Boys explores two separate ideas. I should immediately note, these my own interpretations based upon my reading of the text. Since this is poetry individual opinions abound, so I do encourage you to read this book and write to me so you can tell me I’m full of shit. Powell seems in the first part to be exploring the various landscapes that make up our reality, and how our experiences of them are permeated by a sensitivity that lifts them up while at the same time remaining steeped in our skepticism. Take my friend Amy’s favorite poem in the collection. Quarantine:
Sounds like a miner’s melody. Or a gemstone set in platinum. A set of blonde ad imbricated petals. The perplexing swish of botany’s haste. A season originates, then gratifies and ends. Sounds like so many things that happen as beyond. (34).
I won’t try to analyze this poem, but just ask of the reader how does this observation through language make you more aware of the landscape of language. As I read this first stanza I become more aware of the word Quarantine. It does sound like a stone, and of course it should be platinum. It couldn’t be gold or malachite or mercury. There are many successful moments like this in Powell’s work, where his careful execution of language brings a fresh, almost biological new meaning to words and ideas. Take another example in a passage from Reaching Around For You:
Every invitation to lie back under concealing foliage Resembles in some way that earliest invitation To wander the heady orchard in the long sharp afternoon. Or to slip naked into the slough With that wiry boy who peeled each apricot— As if slightly uncertain how to partake of it— And savored: dribbling it down his damp chest, Between his long clammy legs, and moistening His whole delinquent body with pleasant juices. The river rocks globular and slick, The catfish body with its dark skin, And the afternoon’s durable glassy eyes. (80).
If you picked up on the sensuality of this piece like I did, it’s probably not for the same reason. D.A. Powell is openly gay, and has often explored his sexuality through his poetry. In this case in the typically beautiful subtle hints of language. Words like “body with pleasant juices” and “dribbling down his damp chest” create what would for many people be the obvious language of sex. But if you dig a little deeper and pay closer attention to the language you might find it. The “river rocks globular” seem a set of testicles while the “catfish body,” anybody who’s held an actual catfish in their hands knows that flesh muscular form, and then of course there’s the boy who “peeled each apricot–/as if slightly uncertain how to partake of it.” Without knowing the actual details, this could either suggest clothing or foreskin.
This exploration of the body is noted with some sadness if anyone knows anything about Powell himself. Powell is HIV positive, and in fact his first three books have been called “the AIDs trilogy” because of their exploration of the cultural and individual impact of the disease. How then does Powell explore his body with the idea of borrowed time? But too many critics and writers focus just on Powell’s identity as a gay man with AIDS. They spend so much time on that that they miss the man’s soul. His humor. I remember when Luke played us the interview in class he tried so hard to fast forward through the part where Powell described poetry akin to making pot brownies. He failed miserably and we all laughed. But therein lies one of the greatest appeals of Powell’s work, is that despite the moments where Powell is lifting the small details of existence up for reflection, he takes the reader to another place. Perhaps if you read his poem The Fluffer Talks of Eternity:
I can only give you back what you imagine.
I am a soulless man. When I take you
into my mouth, it is not my mouth. It is
an unlit pit, an aperture opened just enough
in the pinhole camera to capture the shade.
I have caused you to rise up to me, and I
have watched as you rose and waned.
Our times together have been innumerable. Still,
like a Capistrano swallow, you come back.
You understand: I understand you. Understand
each jiggle and tug. Your pudgy, mercurial wad.
I am simply a hand inexhaustible as yours
could never be. You’re nevertheless prepared to shoot.
If I could I’d finish you. Be more than just your rag. (9).
If you can’t laugh at the monologue of a man who “fluffs” men before a porno shoot, and at the same time wonder at the soul of this poem, then I believe you’ve missed one of Powell’s incredible talents. Powell is working in a voice spoken from a sensitivity of life, of its absurdity, or its all tiniest beautys. He is able to conjure sensations and imaginations that real poetry should do. Poetry should shock us out of our comfort so that we can then reassess our reality and determine what it actually is. In a world of poets talking about “sinking feeling in our guts” and “anger that boils” and “loneliness sublime supreme my penis aches with a dull ache…” Okay now I’m just making fun, but you get the point. Powell is one of the most brilliant contemporary poets I have ever read, because while he works with the usual form, he is remaking me through words. He is remaking my reality.
I won’t say much more, other than the fact that Useless Landscapes, or A Guide for Boys is one of the most important books in contemporary literature. In my mind this book is sure to stand alongside the collections of Emily Dickenson and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, for it a voice entirely it’s own. Powell is a bard singin his own American song, his own human tune, and it’s worth a listen. I’ll end with a selection from the fist poem in the collection Almonds in Bloom:
Who could sustain such pale plentitude And not want to shake the knopped white blossoms
From the swarthy branches.
The petals seem more parchment, and more pure,
In her upright phalanges
With a box of soap flakes, tackling the mud-cake
Somebody made on the quarter-sawn floor. (5).
Useless Landscapes, or A Guide For Boys is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and wherever books are sold.
I’ve included a link to an article by The New Yorker about D.A. Powell, if anyone is at all interested in learning more about the man and his work. http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/d-a-powell-poetry
I apologize for the cluttered nature of the sections of poetry provided in this review. WordPress doesn’t like words to be out of order or arranged differently than the standard format so the arrangement here amounts to bastardization of true art. I hope the reader will forgive me, and I hope Mr. Powell, if he ever finds this essay and is enraged by my reproduction, doesn’t find me and kick my ass too hard.