Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, May 23, 2010

D. A. Powell, _Cocktails_

I STILL HAVE yet to read Lunch, the first book in the trilogy Cocktails completes, and I may yet, since Cocktails, like its predecessor Tea, was a richly engaging read.

Thom Gunn, in a blurb on the paperback cover, connects Powell to Richard Crashaw, which intrigued me and focused my attention as I read on anything that seemed 17th century-Anglo-baroque. Sure enough, there's a striking conceit in the first poem, where the speaker's mouth becomes a "tiny neon lounge," and some nifty verbal juggling in the second ("homilies and hominy and decidedly no harmony"). Sometimes the nifty verbal juggling opens up chasms, as in this phrase, the speaker's answer to the question of when he caught HIV, which sketches an arch bridging the pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall eras of gay life: "sometime between the day lady day died and the day lady di died."

The middle section, "Filmography," is a biography (possibly auto-) in thirteen poems, each in the key, so to speak, of a particular film: "Hook," "Ode to Billie Joe," "My Own Private Idaho," "Fantastic Voyage," "My Beautiful Laundrette," and so on. This is a wonderful sequence -- Powell does a pas de deux with the conventions of camp, letting Hollywood serve as lens on key episodes of a life, yet Powell is leading, not being led, and he makes every swirl and flourish count. To my own surprise, I kept thinking of the Hill's "Mercian Hymns" in this section -- it's that good.

Since Dante, every trilogy has to end up in heaven, so "Bibliography," the closing section, is all-stops-out Crashaw. Talk about camp -- there's a certain vein of English literary queerness, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous (Newman, Pater, Hopkins, Wilde, "Baron Corvo," Firbank), that loves Roman Catholic ritual and iconography, or High Church Anglican dilutions of the same (Eliot, Auden), and Powell has decided to try it on. The first poem in this section is addressed to Mary -- that is, the BVM (is Powell evoking archaic gay slang here? One wouldn't put it past him). The poem seems dipped rather too long in the language of the aesthetes of the 1890s ("the fine seric of the east was brought to me / soft and unfinished. dyed in the tyrian manner // of purpura and janthina the violet snail." We'll have two more bowls of absinthe, please). Then in the next poem we seem in full pursuit of the eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli: "tanned youths track his scent."

But Powell can make even this work. The third poem in this section, "he tastes the air with his tongue, his eyes a gory kitling," blends John's baptism of Jesus with a man's tending to his ill or dying beloved and is the strongest thing in the book. The succeeding pieces are very nearly as strong, and "Bibliography" ends up as a powerful conclusion to a powerful book.

I really should read Lunch. But then there's a new one, too... Chronic. Sometimes it seems there's just too much good stuff out there to read.


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