Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, April 11, 2009

D. A. Powell, _Tea_

I HEARD THIS cited as a good example of a volume of poetry about illness, only to learn from the first sentence of the preface, "This is not a book about AIDS." An author is entitled to the first word on his or her book, but not the last -- nonetheless, Powell has a point. Tea is about the gay urban landscape of the 1990s (especially its Bay Area variant), which means AIDS is a kind of ground tone for the book, but no more (or less) the subject of the book than are the streets Powell walked, the clubs he went to, the music he danced to, the lover he lost.

The book was published in 1998, but takes a lot of its details from the 1980s, and reading it now thickens its temps perdus atmosphere. Names (Donna Summer and Sylvester, Halston and Beach Blanket Babylon, the Mineshaft) are savored, and the long-lines-composed-of-short-lines trick by some magic conveys speed, the tempo of the city, while at the same time lovingly lingering, stretching things out. The book even has its Albertine.

This may be one of those books whose fidelity to its moment turns out to be its greatest claim to the attention of posterity: a wall of Polaroids that seen from a distance becomes a tapestry.

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