Brilliant poet/critic Nicole Walker's analysis is featured today. Be on the lookout for her debut book of poetry This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street Press, 2010).
In Cocktails D.A. Powell prepares us for his extended, wily metaphors. The word play with homilies, hominy and harmony, the allusions to 80’s pop music, Modern English and Air Supply, the puns, again with air supply and safeway, we’re ready for Powell’s poems “writing for a young man on the redline train: “to his coy mistress.” There, we incant Marvell’s mistress poem, letting the doubling we’d learned in the first few poems to read “ride this monster to the end.” A kind of vegetable love, this train. It’s the wry self-consciousness that keeps us from saying “ugh” about the puns. The speaker is already there. The “ruin” that Powell invokes reminds us of Marvell’s lines:
then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
Powell’s “already turning to ruin” makes it already too late. Powell can forecast the story told to him so many times, but so many other, equally fruitless pursuits.
Every chase turns everyone old. The future is already pre-imagined. “I’d lead him on a merry chase: pausing every few…we could while away the afternoon just so.” What was a brief, in the moment afternoon chasing turns to long term pursuit “the years of too many scotch sours. Think of another poem, Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” where the lovers our always pursuing but never catching. Here, there is that desperate resignation that there will always be pursuit, but unlike the Grecian Urn, time takes its ill effects. “Sprouting in chestnut-colored pubes is how I’d want him,” the speaker declares. The sprouting version of the man, young, not even fully plant yet, let alone vegetable, glosses Marvell’s poem—making it clear that in Marvell’s poem, not only is the here and now the important reason that the speaker and his boy mistress should get it on immediately but that in every case, one wants to get it on with the young version of that person.
Pursuit ages both the pursuer and the pursued. It’s the young body that’s wanted. Any beautiful body, even a beautiful corpse, is better than a long life. The de-eroticzied image cruelly and clearly makes it plain that the young body is pursuable only because he’s young. The dead bug image at the end “die young and leave a pretty corpse: die with his legs in the air” makes his body less than meat. There’s also, with the sexualized (though still unerotic) image of his legs in the air that even after he’s fucked, that will be the end of him. The fucking itself, the capture by the pursuer, itself makes the boy mistress old. Young, chestnut-colored sprouts are crushed and erased by the friction of time-taking sex.
Powell’s early preparations for these doublings couldn’t be achieved without his bad puns and de-brand-named allusions. It’s through these dorky 80’s references that the cliché, hollowed out as a dead bug, is rebranded as something classic and romantic. I’ll stop the world and melt with you is absolutely true for this speaker, except for the world stopping and the “with you” part.
Powell and Gertrude Stein make a good match. Stein, in “Narration: Lecture 2” performs in her essay “There are now several questions is there anything that is not narrative and what is narrative what has narrative gotten to be now” a similar evocation and erasure that Powell performs. We think we know what narrative means, then she repeats it and we don’t. She carves out a hollow space for the idea of narration both positing and evacuating what we thought she meant with what she means. It’s important here that the tenses change. Like the easy definition of narration—events that change over time—Stein seeks to disrupt that easy definition. Just as Powell invokes the easy cliché, he seeks to both make it happen (posit it) and evacuate it (make it empty so he can lay a new definition.) The catching of the boy mistress is the point (the posit, or more sexually, the deposit), is already ruined by the capturing (he’s already-laid, therefore already ruined, thus, already bug dead).
Both Stein and Powell question the idea of progress. You can’t get anywhere, either with narration or with chasing the beautiful boy, because what will you do when you catch him? The catching will kill the boy as fast as it will kill the story. The poem is the place where you can go forward and backtrack simultaneously. The poem refers backward, toward Marvell, toward Keats, and forward to the poem’s exit. It’s the cliché, the 80’s song, the safeway and the air supply, that pull you back again from leaving the poem entirely, thus saving the reader from being caught in the dead bug position. The cliché, posited, evacuated, and then reconstituted, keeps you young and in the poem.