The first collection published by D.A. Powell, Tea (1998), looked oddly like a smart restaurant menu: Wesleyan University Press manufactured a shiny, green and gilt hardback, six inches tall and nine inches wide, to accommodate Powell’s very short poems and very long lines. The promise the cover gave was borne out inside, where those long lines flaunted multiple midline stops, unruly punctuation (stopping where the grammar said go), terse yet explicit depictions of gay sex and profuse quotation from disco hits:
now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the world through dryice fog
not quite fabulous. just young and dumb and full. come let me show you a sweep of constellations:
16, I was anybody’s. favorite song: dance into my life [donna summer] and they did dance
17, first fake i.d. I liked walk away [donna summer] I ran with the big boys …
20, the year I went through the windshield. sylvester sang I want to be with you in heaven.
Powell’s phrases worked like pick-up lines or pop hooks, designed to get attention in a crowd. You could put those phrases together to read about lives defined by a certain gay male sexuality, by its codes (‘I wore the green bandanna as often as I could’), by its conspiratorial exhilarations and – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – by the early deaths and constant mourning occasioned by HIV and Aids.
Powell grew up working class, if not flat broke, in the rural American South and then in agricultural California: his teenage years were marked by a car crash that killed a close friend (‘andy buried under a hunter’s moon … I had meant to be first among us dead’). His apprenticeship included the usual poetry workshops (at Sonoma State University, and then at the University of Iowa) but also days on the street: ‘There were times when I was younger,’ he has said, ‘when I had limited options and had to prostitute myself. It’s something that is not very far beyond my life.’ A poem from Chronic entitled ‘central valley’ describes his California youth this way:
kids like me blowing black snot into sleeves and checked bandannas
the farmers – almost extinct – wheezing along the earthen dikes
and the sky a mass of black lung: spittle settling upon the nutsedge
Like almost everything else in Powell, such bleak places may be rescued for the imagination by sex, in the same moments that stamp them as frightening:
here I inhaled first plum blossoms and took the yellowjacket stings
saying ‘sticks, I live in the sticks, don’t drive me home I’ll sleep instead
on your rug, be your boy, just ask me to spread my legs, I’ll spread’
The self as teenage prostitute, as body for sale, physically open for inspection, becomes the self-appeasing, self-delighting soul who finally writes the poem, and delights in its internal rhymes.
Tea was a coming-of-age book, a fractured autobiography, but also a group elegy, the strangest and most vivid, it seems now, of the many books from the 1990s in which gay poets described the early deaths of their friends; an elegy, but also a celebration, whose choppy, lengthy, remixed lines showed how some gay men of (more or less) his generation put together a subculture in which they might rebuild lives. Powell learned that he had HIV shortly after he finished writing Tea: his unusual lines could model his friends’ (and his friends’ friends’ friends) bricolage, their efforts and his own (as he wrote in prose) ‘to reshape my life from its incomplete bits’.
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