D. A. Powell's first two volumes, Tea (1998) and Lunch (2000), marked him as one of the most promising poets of his generation. “Promising” may even be a misleading word. Even in his first volume, Powell's skill was so evident and his originality so obvious that to speak of his work with the evolutionary metaphors used to describe early stages of careers seems patronizing.
Cocktails, the conclusion of Powell's trilogy concerning the modern gay experience, confirms the author's significance. Powell's poems often have to do with race and sexuality, especially gay sexuality. As a gay African American man, Powell writes poems that are politically aware and that acutely register the contradictions of homosexual and African American identity in American culture. The acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic is a frequent presence in his poems. Powell writes of survival and the affirmation of dignity in the face of illness. The assaults of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) which causes AIDS are resisted and even rebutted by the celebrations of beauty, joy, and spontaneity in Powell's poems.
Cocktails continues the association with food and meals in Powell's first two books. This is indicative of the lightness, the sense of fun, even, in the best application of the word, the frivolity of Powell's poetry. The titles also have deeper implications. Food, in its association with physical, bodily desires (for instance, in the third poem in Cocktails, the handling of eggs, tomatoes, and “delicate figs” is given clearly sexual connotations), is not so distant from the dire and painful physiological situations that confront those living with AIDS.
Moreover, the metaphor of a cocktail was often employed by the medical profession in the 1990's to describe combinations of drugs that doctors attempted to use as a therapy to neutralize HIV. (Powell says that he thought of the title for his eventual book before the term “cocktail” became popular in the medical literature, although he has indicated that the AIDS relevance of the title became pertinent as composition proceeded.) Powell is HIV positive, having been diagnosed while he was studying at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He was treated with cocktail therapy during the latter portion of his composition of this book. His rare ability to celebrate life and commemorate trauma side by side make him a poet of unusual distinction.
Powell is also notable as a formal technician. He does not adhere to standard practices of rhyme or meter. There is, however, frequent rhyme and off-rhyme in his poems, and there is an overall metrical consistency, even if every line does not have the same amount of beats or does not unfold a predetermined pattern in its scansion. Powell imposes uniform conditions on his poems that give them a sense of discipline and poise.
In all of his poems, the lines are very long. They are so long that the pages in his books are significantly wider than the norm, to enable him to put as many words as possible into a unit that will appear graphically on the page as one line. This practice, which, among other things, makes Powell's books stand out on bookstore shelves, challenges the reader to make something new of Powell's poems even in the preliminary stages of holding the book as a physical product.
This is echoed in the actual verse. For instance, other than capitalizing some (not all) proper names, Powell does not use capitalization in his poetry. The stanzas of his poems tend to have only two lines. At times, his stanzas are only one line. At other times, they extend to three, such stanzas often resembling a loose form of Italian poet Dante's terza rima. Combined with the length of the lines, this tends to give each stanza the imprecision of being a paratactic unit. A paratactic unit is one that exists side by side with those before and after it, rather than being an integral part of an overall unit. Powell uses an accretion of images and phrases rather than sequential exposition to convey meaning. The titles of each poem are also very long and are often phrases in themselves; such as “[the man in the front row: uniformed, ugly as my father the disillusioned]” or “[came a voice in my gullet; rise up and feet. Thunderous].” All the titles of individual poems are set off in brackets. This graphic gesture perhaps indicates that they do not exert the kind of categorical hegemony over the poem that a customary title...
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