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Veritas In Vino

Cocktails (Graywolf, 65 pages)
by D.A. Powell 

Reviewed by Adam L. Dressler

Through a mesmerizing mesh of pop-culture references, biblical allusions, and intimate confessions, D.A. Powell's Cocktails, his third and latest collection, continues his exploration of the AIDS epidemic in a style that such a broad subject demands—one both intimate and public, specific and universal. Whether describing the chalk outline outside a gay nightclub or the calyxes of poppies, Powell's restrained, complex voice records a landscape of lust and loss with such accuracy and honesty, such music and wit, that one is almost forced (or should I say seduced?) into reading the poems several times over, with pleasure. Not only is Powell a master, but he is also an innovator, managing, through strange punctuation (and lack thereof), sudden bursts of lyricism, and a certain fractured formalism, to create works that, for all their readily apparent craftsmanship, feel utterly natural and unforced.

The book is divided into three main sections, “Mixology,” “Filmography,” and “Bibliography,” but while they take as their nominal subjects love life, movies, and biblical figures, respectively, the sections defy easy categorization. In “Mixology,” several poems deal with traditional tropes of lust, none better than the following:

[writing for a young man on the redline train: “to his boy mistress”]

           All the bodies we cannot touch
           are like harps. Toucht by the mind

                     —Robert Duncan, “Fragments of a Disordered Devotion”

writing for a young man on the redline train: “to his boy mistress”
first to praise his frame: pliable as hickory. his greasy locks waxy ears
I'll stop the world and melt with you brustling through a nearby headset

if I had time to ride this monster to the end I would: hung by handstraps
jostle through the downtown stations. each stop bringing us closer
to what? gether? perhaps: or that exit of the tunnel where I look back

and poof: no lover. men have led shameful lives for less proportioned fare
tossing greetings thick as rapunzel's hair: “anybody ever told you that you
[ugh, here it comes lads, stifle those chortles] resemble a young james dean?”

why fiddle-dee-dee, he bats his lids: the fantasy already turning to ruin
what if he debarked at my destination of pure coincidence? followed
through the coppice of the square: fox and hound, fox and hound

I'd lead him on a merry chase: pausing every few: admire a fedora
check the windows of the haberdashers and cruise the sartorial shops
until I felt his winded breathing on my neck: yawned and departed again

we could while away the afternoon just so. but at my back, etc

fresh and sprouting in chestnut-colored pubes is how I'd want him
not after the dregs of cigarettes. the years of too many scotch sours
why, I wouldn't even know what to say to one who drinks scotch sours

except, “sir.” and “tough luck about those redsox” [which it always is]
now I've spent myself in lines and lost. where is that boy of yesteryear?
let him die young and leave a pretty corpse: die with his legs in the air

From the first-line title in brackets to the inconsistent and mysterious use of the colon (now to introduce speech, now to provide a defeated expectation of a list, now to indicate perhaps a mental pause or reconsideration, now to imply the passage of time, now to propose equality and/or apposition) to the lack of initial capitalization and the flexibility of line-breaks (often there is no indication save context whether a line is end-stopped or enjambed), this writing keeps you on your toes, and its up-in-the-air, free-flowing energy is perfectly suited to its humor and verve. At the same time, the sheer variability of Powell's style allows him to treat darker subjects without abandoning his savage wit, describing loss with a power that is no less devastating (perhaps it is even more so) because we have been allowed our bitter smiles. For example, take the following from the “Filmography” section, in which every poem bears a connection, however tenuous, to a particular movie:

[morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead]

           The Poseidon Adventure (1972, Ronald Neame, dir.)

morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead
fine kettle of fish, I'd tell myself, could I have pinpointed the date

marked SERO-CONVERSION in my pocket gregorian calendar. [a guess?
sometime between the day lady day died and the day lady di died]

my lymphocyte is no gillyflower. respiration no nightingale trilling in the dark
to those who hear crickets in sputum and the nightwind rasping in breath

I say: there is no positive in being positive. all that glitters is glitter

and so we have...                                         the climb:

first, think of all that can be jettisoned. cumbersome clothes for example
[always the one thing I'd think of doing without] when I was young

in borrowed 501s: had to have pants so someone could want to get in them
without boxers for weeks I could make do. not beyond wearing slinky panties

if the occasion arose. some drunk hetro plying me with schnapps: dress up, doll
what lies did he tell himself, biting his way down to that brass propeller shaft

also abandoned: retiring to miami [though I won't miss the guns or snakes]
or tel aviv [though I wouldn't miss the vipers. or the snipers]

dreams of a hot husband in a hot tub who'd complain “honey, I shrunk my kids”
and drink fresca all day & rub my feet. dreams of growing cantankerously old

shouting down the drainspout at a neighbor's brats. clipping my ruby begonias
haggling over the price of nectarines at the pick 'n pack 'n scrimp 'n save

but climbing always: as up the trellis and overshrouding the eaves, wisteria
spreads in clusters of carcinoma-colored bells. cascading epithelial light

up the spiral staircase of recombinant chromosomes. no one wants these genes
the double helix that swam through treacherous night: aching to be held again

you couldn't know the disaster this voyage has been. the shvimen, the shvitzen
yard by yard the little deaths accrued [imagine your twin towers over and over and]

out: that glorious sky darkly hung with newspaper lanterns. scalpel-shaped chimes

—what am I meaning to tell in this cramped space? bubble suspended in glass—

the reckoning beyond this cargo hold. dear god, who hears the pounding on the hull

The gift of inclusion, of placing a joke—“my lymphocyte is no gillyflower”, or “no one wants these genes”—on the same level as an earnest declaration of the incipience of death—“dear god who hears the pounding on the hull”—without having either come off as false or contradictory to the other is a talent reminiscent of Berryman and Shakespeare.

Powell's open style also allows him to seamlessly combine the ancient and religious with the modern and secular without calling too much attention to the fact, as he does in this book's final main section. The secret of his success is, on the surface, paradoxical: his craft verges on ostentation, but the structure, tone, and music are subtle, and one cannot help but feel that whether the events of the poems are actual or not, the sentiment is an honest one. How does he do it? I would suggest a simple answer—that honesty cannot be faked, even when a poet is lying. If he is faithful to the emotion of his experience, accurate in its depiction, and compelling in its expression, he will have come as close as one can to communicating a truth through the inherently flawed medium of language. There is no pretension (in the most literal sense of the word) in Powell's work, even when the diction is lofty and the vocabulary sesquipedalian. Take, for example, the following, from the “Bibliography” section:

[they hear the clapping of the bell and are afraid]

                     a song of Lazarus the leper

they hear the clapping of the bell and are afraid
houses untenanted: bedslops spill from the windows
a clump of myrtle. a scarlet ribbon against the jamb

look to the threshold: house of figs and of affliction
we whom you loved is sick. maculed and papuled
our extremities knotted and breaking: the cypress bends

we was a beautiful lad once: not putrefactive nor foul
not blistering in the lips and nose. not punctuate: spots scaling
not mammillated with boils. nor carbuncled. not ulcerated

we also wore purple and byssus: we had carousing arms
jeweled and sexy. required no nurse to dress we sores

and we'd easily slake: undeformed, without, immaculato

The high diction—“scarlet ribbon,” “byssus,” “immaculato”—is tempered (as it is throughout the book) by jazzy modern lingo—“beautiful lad,” “carousing arms / jeweled and sexy,” and throughout the restrained yet explicit voice infuses the poem with humility and dignity. This is true art—the voice that struggles to speak of pain without allowing the struggle to take over, and in fact makes beauty of the struggle with grace, as a dancer does with gravity. This is honesty—a breath of fresh air in the literary world we inhabit, one rife with narrow egoism and pretension. This is Powell's highest gift—the ability to reveal the astonishing beauty of truth.

Adam L. Dressler graduated from Harvard with an A.B. in Classics in 1997. Since then he has received an MA from Boston University and is currently attending the MFA program in poetry at Columbia University.


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