Tuesday, April 21, 2009

My Favorite Recent Books of Poems: D. A. Powell's Cocktails

when he comes he is neither sun nor shade: a china doll
a perfect orb. when he comes he speaks upon the sea

when he speaks his voice is an island to rest upon. he sings
[he sings like france joli: come to me, and I will comfort you. when he

when he comes I receive him in my apartment: messy, yes
but he blinds himself for my sake [no he wouldn't trip, would he?]

AND SO BEGINS "[when he comes he is neither sun nor shade: a china doll]," my favorite poem from my favorite book of poems of 2004--D. A. Powell's Cocktails.

Powell's poetry pulls from so many genres, it's impossible to classify, and this book is a perfect example of that proficiency, though the Graywolf blurb on the back does a pretty good job: "These poems, both harrowing and beautiful, strive toward redemption and light within the transformative and often conflicting worlds of the cocktail lounge, the cinema, and the Gospels." If the book sounds like a poetic version of a Matthew Barney exhibit, that may not be totally off base.

Divided into three parts, the book explores the three topics mentioned above. The most poignant interplay happens between the first and third branches of this trinity--the cocktail and gospel poems. The former deploys the denotative power of both standard cocktails and the less fizzy but still powerful AIDS cocktail to make a statement about love, bodies, medication, and intoxication. Interestingly enough, the last section from which the opening poem comes, navigates in the same frothy confluence.

Nowhere in contemporary poetry--not Billy Collins, not Charles Wright, not Bob Hickok--is there a poet who merges popular culture, humor, and the contemplative tradition better than Powell:

you'd want to go to the reunion: see
who got heavy. who got bald. see

who has KS lesions on the face and listen
to the same old tunes: there'll be a dj sure as anything

you'd want to show off your boyfriend who's spare
as a girlscout cookie.

The lightness of these poems, their wit, doesn't really bring levity. Like Donne, wit means weirdness, discordance, and inappropriate juxtapositions. In all good poetry, such wit isn't about levity but gravity. We may think we're being served a light spritzer, but we're imbibing heavier stuff.

And oh how we love the strong stuff on our tongues. Powell knows this, and so mouths and swallowing and digesting and drinking and consuming consume the poems.

But, cocktails are also about mixing. Powell's many tastes blend deliciously in this book. As fun and as oddly juxtaposed as these pieces might be, they are almost always also about sustenance and rejuvenation, as in the astonishing closing couplets of "[when he comes . . ."

I am not special: have stolen fought. have been unkind
when I await him in the dark I'm not without lascivious thoughts

and yet he comes to me in dreams: "I would not let you marry."
He says: "for I did love you so and kept you for my own."

his breath is a little sour. his clothes a bit dingy
he is not golden and robed in light and he smells a bit

but he comes. and the furnace grows dim the devil and his neighbors
and traffic along market street: all go silent. the disease

and all he has given me he takes back. laying his sturdy bones
on top of me: a cloak an ache a thief in the night. he comes.

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