A Review of: Cocktails by D.A. Powell

CENTRAL QUESTION:What is death but a lover held at bay?

A Review of: Cocktails by D.A. Powell

Sarah Manguso
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D.A. Powell’s third book, Cocktails (think drinks, pills, cocks), does include some lines of terza rima, and its last word is stars, but I wish its promo copy didn’t announce the book “closes Powell’s contemporary Divine Comedy.” His books are anything but an update of Dante’s chaperoned trip heavenward; Powell invents and assembles from more ingredients than three familiar Italian tunes.

Cocktails resembles Tea (1998), Powell’s grieving-yet-hoping first book, more than the more playful Lunch (2000). Divided into “Mixology,” “Filmography,” and “Bibliography,” his third book’s drinks and films and biblios seep together, through each other, both in and out of their dedicated sections. The fourth line of the first Mixological poem ends with “plenty of chipped ice,” which is what Vivien Leigh, in the film version of Streetcar, tells sister Kim Hunter that her lemon Coke should contain. (Once upon a time, Tennessee Williams wrote a play that was made into a film scrubbed clean of the book’s queer subtext. And in this film there was a drink. And this drink traveled safely past the membrane separating books’ dangerous world and films’ safe one.)

Section titles and epigraphs create a disarming amount of clutter, but that may be just Powell’s point: as the speaker intones in “[the cocktail hour finally arrives: whether ending a day at the office],” “…I take my drinks stiff and stuffed with plastic. like my lovers…” In such a death-aware book, by such a historically death-aware writer, the sometimes decorative epigraphs provide memorable epitaphs for these almost always titleless poems.

The last poem in the first section, “[my lover my phlebotomist. his elastic fingers encircle my arm],” limns a savage affair with a touch that’s lighter than the swipe of an alcohol swab. It preserves the project’s rhythmic rigor of threes—“cutaneous ➛ subcutaneous ➛ intravenous” beat and echo one-two-three (three wishes, three Fates, count three before the plunge)—but then beauty strikes and lifts the poem above its prosodic game: “maybe he wants to hold me to his brutal chest.” The end of the poem is even more sadly unfunny than Chet Baker singing “My Funny Valentine.”

Film titles precede each of the thirteen poems in Filmography. Some of the movies don’t contain recognizably gay characters, but the promo catchphrase for Papa’s Delicate Condition (1963) is “Follow the gay parade!” In Hook (1991), Peter Pan must return to Neverland to reassume leadership of the Lost Boys. In Fantastic Journey (1966), a microscopically shrunken medical team (with saboteur onboard!) must travel intravenously to a man’s brain to remove a blood clot. Its clever readers will be rewarded, but this book reminds us that a girl, a boy, or a book can be both pretty and smart—and by pretty I mean true, as Keats taught, and by smart I mean as great in scope as the trip to Paradise from Hell. Bibliography contains seventeen corollaries to the Gospels— new songs sung by New Testament voices. The gesture of this three-sectioned (think person’d ) trilogy-ender toward a certain collection of four books renders the section an upward-gazing exit speech followed by a gently bittersweet “[coda & discography]” that restates the book’s arc in song titles. What stays with me past the end: camp’s delightfully unshakable arrogance, a remark- ably simultaneous grappling with actual emotions, and the fact that this book of “AIDS poetry” mentions the dread acronym not once.


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