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Anatomy of a Poem: D.A. Powell

D.A. Powell’s fourth book of poetry Chronic (Graywolf, 2009) received the Kingsley Tufts Award and was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. The following poem is the last in the book. Interview follows. (the poem is a sonnet, the fourteen lines are unbroken, but formatting would not allow this)

corydon & alexis, redux

and yet we think that song outlasts us all:  wrecked devotion
the wept face of desire, a kind of savage caring that reseeds itself and grows in clusters

oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself
how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs

what else but to linger in the slight shade of those sapling branches
yearning for that vernal beau.   for don’t birds covet the seeds of the honey locust
and doesn’t the ewe have a nose for wet filaree and slender oats foraged in the meadow
kit foxes crave the blacktailed hare:  how this longing grabs me by the nape

guess I figured to be done with desire, if I could write it out
dispense with any evidence, the way one burns a pile of twigs and brush

what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns and charming smile
the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him on my tongue

silly poet, silly man:  thought I could master nature like a misguided preacher
as if banishing love is a fix.   as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes



Gerke: This poem is an outgrowth of one titled corydon & alexis. Is the Redux version because you were not done? How much revision did you do?

Powell: Well, “not done” with the relationship I was in. I was done with the first version, which seemed to tie things up as well as I could tie them up. But I forgot to factor in the persistence of this particular man. He had a way of getting me back into the relationship and then knocking me out again–kind of like when a cat will catch a mouse and toy with it mercilessly before killing it. So, the “redux” was me writing my way back into the relationship after the first time he cheated on me. I was so much stupider then.

Gerke: The first word in corydon & alexis is “shepherdboy?” The character names come from ancient Greek pastoral poems, most notably Virgil’s Eclogues, with Corydon being a stock name for “shepherd.” Had you studied these older texts much before using them as a jumping off point for the poems?

Powell: I was initially drawn to the character of Corydon through the work of André Gide. And then I read the Virgil, in numerous translations. I suppose in the back of my mind I kept reworking the story of Corydon and Alexis as I was working through this relationship. And I remember thinking about Corydon and Alexis when we went to see Brokeback Mountain, when he and I first started dating. Those seem to be the strange constellation points that began the composition of this poem.

Gerke: The “pause” seems very important in your work. When you read out loud in public, you do so very slowly, with a perfect calm and in this poem there are extra spaces in the lines to slow the reader down. Can you talk about pauses and spaces in terms of what you want them to do and how they affect the words and phrases on the page?

Powell: For me, silence is a reminder of certain kinds of absence I perceive in the world. I don’t know that I would want to enumerate them. But I do feel them as palpable forces in my work. So much of poetry is an act of calling. And so much of poetry is a balance between calling and responding. This is the third way: calling, responding, reflection. The reflection can come as a well-placed caesura or as an articulation of discovery. It’s not necessary to prefer one form over the other. But just as much as we honor insight and intellect, we should honor feeling and inarticulateness. None of these need supplant any of the others. Poetry has room for both voice and silence.

Gerke: The poem tries to understand desire and love. It concludes with the speaker of the poem chides themselves, saying that to try to banish love will not work. One has to let what was wash over and dry out in it’s own time, otherwise the pain redoubles. Is the fight against desire and feeling ultimately doomed? Why do people often say that love makes us “crazy”?

Powell: Oh, well…I’m no expert on love. I guess I can speak a little bit about “crazy”. I spent three and half years in a relationship with Haines Eason, who was faking his desire for me in order to have me as his personal reader, advocate, promoter. I suppose at some level I knew this. But he was also such a persistent liar. I mean: he lied with his body as well as with his words. So what was I to believe except perhaps the better version of what he claimed to be his motives. But, lest there be any doubt, when I threw him out he said, “Every time we’ve had sex I’ve had to think about women. It’s not right.” And I thought, well, that certainly isn’t right. He must have been thinking about flat-chested women with penises.

Well, aside from all the hatred I feel toward him now, I have to say I was in love with him. Or at least I was in love with the version of himself that he presented. But what is it McLuhan said? “If I hadn’t have believed it, I wouldn’t have seen it?” We don’t really get to ride herd on our emotions. And trying to suppress what we feel doesn’t really work. Ultimately, you can’t really fake love, and you also can’t really fight it. Ugh. I hate aphorisms. Poems are, fortunately, better at saying these kinds of things indirectly.

Gerke: In the middle four-line stanza, the speaker of the poem looks to nature for guidance in the questions around wanting and desire—and they find no holding back. Birds, ewes, foxes—they all go about quenching. Your poems are filled with nature imagery. In interviews you’ve talked about wildflowers, how you like that they grow and blossom in the more inhospitable places. As humans we grew up learning from the earth—watching animals, building cities by looking at the constellations. We can’t separate ourselves, but it seems we can’t help destroying it either. Can you talk about the role of nature in your work and your relationship to it?

Powell: I lived most of my younger life in rural areas. The natural world was simply one of the texts I would read. I still do. Even living in a city, I find myself attuned to the lives of shrubs, trees, birds. The way light changes throughout the seasons, and the moisture in the air rises and falls. But of course this is a world I’ve found my way back into. I’ve been mostly an urban poet for my readers. And they’ve therefore had to come on the journey with me. It’s not easy for any of us. But I want to take people back to the land to show how fragile life is. I do think that art is capable of all sorts of things. One of those things might as well be an attempt not to steer people’s thinking (because I doubt very much I could ever do that) but to present a mode of thinking. A mind working through the complexities of living. It doesn’t have to be the correct mode of thinking. The point isn’t to decide a question. But rather: to present the question. Kick it around a bit. Ask others to help solve it. Desire? That’s just a fancy way of talking about what we hold dear and what disappears.

4 thoughts on “Anatomy of a Poem: D.A. Powell

  1. I like this especially, “Poetry has room for both voice and silence.”

    Love this series, Greg – the piece of fiction or poetry with a quick interview with the writer – very revealing.

  2. The excerpted poem and the interview make a great text/context combination– thanks, Greg, for this contribution.

    The line about time being a “cruel banker” makes me think of a conceit from Eliot’s _Four Quartets_:

    “The whole earth is our hospital
    Endowed by the ruined millionaire,”

  3. I really like this interview, Greg. I like the combination of ideas and personal experience. It feels very candid and open. The ideas come to seem like personal revelations, like they’re rooted, not just abstract ideas.

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