Critical Mass

In Retrospect: Kevin Prufer on D.A. Powell


The following essay by NBCC board member Kevin Prufer, editor of Pleiades, on D.A. Powell’s “Cocktails,” a finalist for the 2004 NBCC award in poetry, is part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series on Critical Mass, in which critics and writers revisit NBCC award winners and finalists from previous years.

Reading D. A. Powell’s poetry for the first time was something of a watershed moment for me.  Later, I would learn that many other poets of my generation felt the same way.

It wasn’t just that D. A. Powell’s poems approached the AIDS pandemic in a way that was strange, manic, harrowing, and utterly new.  At the time, 1997, I was in my mid-twenties, living in rural Missouri, and didn’t know anyone who suffered from the disease—or, to the best of my knowledge, anyone who had even been directly affected by it.  And though there was, of course, a wide body of literature about AIDS already, I hadn’t read very deeply into it.  (That would all change over the years, only deepening my affection for, and understanding of, Powell’s work.)

What stunned me first was the strange marriage in Powell’s poems between what looked like an experimental aesthetic and what sounded like confessional poetry.  On the one hand, the poems were visually unusual, the lines so long and jangly that his first book had to be bound sideways to fit them. These were rhythmically incredibly intricate poems, fraught with allusion and pastiche, highly mannered at times, filled with high-art erudition and pop-cultural reference.(One could be sung to the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema”: “tall and thin and young and lovely the michael with kaposi’s sarcoma goes walking …”) But beneath all the artifice of experimentation and play was a deeply personal, terribly sad speaker, a voice that could find no clearer expression for its pain than in the vacuum created by its retreat from direct statement into music, play and complexity. This poet had lost many friends to AIDS and, for all the glitter that surrounded it, his poetry was both a deeply elegiac and confessional, a catalog of memory and loss.

Over a period of six years, Powell would publish three books:“Tea” (1998), “Lunch”2000), and, in 2004, “Cocktails,” the last book in the trilogy and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award. “Cocktails” is also a crowning achievement, expanding on the themes of the first two collections while maintaining the virtuosic subtleties of rhythm, image and allusion. Himself diagnosed with HIV as he composed the trilogy, Powell interjects in “Cocktails” a deeply, elaborately religious sensibility, a note of not only having grown into greater understanding of the disease, but of having found in it eloquent, spiritual release.  At times erotic, at times mordantly funny (in one poem, Powell imagines his life in a series of images from “The Poseidon Adventure,” the poet climbing upward through the hell-like levels of the overturned ship; another, riffing on Andrew Marvell, playfully cites “To His Boy Mistress”), these were ambitious poems straining to describe for us not just one poet’s response to tragedy, but, as in the best elegiac or confessional work, what that tragedy might also mean for us and for our age.

Many poets have written about AIDS with brilliance and wit. Some (NBCC finalist Tory Dent comes to mind) will, I think, have a lasting impact on poetry and the way we discuss the disease.  But rereading D. A. Powell’s harrowing and beautiful trilogy these last few days has reconfirmed for me that he is perhaps my generation’s best bet for a poet whose work will last, only growing more meaningful as our perspective on the AIDS pandemic broadens and deepens.—Kevin Prufer

Read an interview with D. A. Powell conducted by Sam Witt here.

The poet reads “[morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead]“from “Cocktails” here.