Excerpts > Winter 2004
Ted Kooser

Lynn Powell, The Zones of Paradise, The University of Akron Press

Reviewed by Ted Kooser

You’ve probably seen Charles Wilson Peale’s self-portrait-with-props, “The Artist in his Museum.” Painted in 1822, it’s been reproduced in nearly every history of American art. Peale, the father of a family of noted artists, stands at center foreground, a dignified man in his sixties wearing a black frock coat and extending a hand to us in welcome and invitation. With the other hand he lifts a red damask curtain to display his new museum of natural history -- the first of its kind -- lying beyond this portal, its multi-tiered displays receding in dramatic one-point perspective. The painting’s message is, as I see it, Welcome to what I’ve collected. Remember, though, that it is I who collected these curios.

Peale and the hanging curtain, which make up the frontal plane of the picture, take up almost half of the space on the canvas. Thus we are presented with a nice balance between our attention to the artist and the exhibits he’s inviting us to view.

This balance is something I like to see in poems -- what is revealed about the poet neatly posed against what that poet has collected from the outer world to offer us. Too much personal revelation, too much space in the foreground given over to the poet, and the poem becomes tedious and self-indulgent. Too much attention to the exhibits and not enough authorial revelation, and the poem is little more than a passionless museum of images.

Here is a nicely balanced poem from Lynn Powell’s lovely new book:


I'd gotten used to the goldenrod rattling
its empty cup, the bony maples, the prostrate
garden, the wind bothering the oak
for one last brown indulgence of leaves.

Now the yard's changed its hair shirt to velveteen,
and dogwoods tire quickly of their legend, tire
of blood-tipped crosses they have to bear, heavier
than the redbud's, old Judas tree redeemed in pink.

There's rejoicing among the violets
when the backslid earth comes home to the green gospel.
I want to lie down and let them lay their hands on me;
I want to take April as my personal savior.

Consider the tulips, washed in the blood,
the forget-me-nots blue-eyeing heaven,
the privet, the briar, the prodigal weed ready
to be born again, and again.

This poem, which was originally published in The Southern Review, is typical of Powell’s work, with engaging, absorbing exhibits taken from the world beyond the poet, plus measured revelations about the poet’s personality and concerns.

Careful, exacting writing runs cover to cover in The Zones of Paradise. And, if I may be permitted, I’d like to call upon those tired old words, charming and delightful, as part of my description of this book. The poems have charm, in its original sense, partaking of the magical, and, balancing that, they give us a full measure of the poet’s delight in her life and the remarkable world she offers up to us. Look at this one:


When nothing’s left of the green enthusiasm,
no dropped silks of magnolia,
no sweet rumps of plums,
when all the scarlet denouements
have blown to brown, and desire
has spent itself down to its net worth
of white --

that’s when someone ought to tell the hussy
cardinal to give that red a rest, to learn
the cold discretion of camouflage.
Otherwise, the mind still flares --
and cannot drift into the soft amnesia,
the ample nothing else.

If we were to take this poem as a lesson in how to write, we might say that there’s always a danger in having too much color on the surface, too much dazzle, and there’s no doubt that Lynn Powell with her prodigious playfulness could dazzle us to distraction. In fact, that can happen if this collection is read too quickly, image piling upon image. But reading slowly, savoring the poems, one finds that balanced against the Roman candles and fountains of sparks is everywhere a resonant, solid humanity.

Powell’s first book, Old & New Testaments, won the prestigious Brittingham Award, and I am hopeful that the national prize commitees take time to look at this one.

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