On the Desire to Levitate: Poems.
Ohio University Press. 2013. 51 pp.
Sometimes a reviewer must flat-out disagree with a blurb—or at least with a bit of it. When Charles Hood writes of On the Desire to Levitate: Poems that the book is "never grim," I feel the need to counter by pointing to lines like these:
She is angry and soiled, thin. Perfumed
with smoke, urine, and liquor. Liver-spotted
like a cheetah and half-bald. The bottom row
won't hold, so she's half-teethed, laughs
at nothing or the wrong things.
For me this description of the narrator's grandmother in her last days is more than grim. Blurbs use the word unflinching; I think brutal is closer to the mark. I have my own reasons to know how families are brutalized by the experience of dementia and death; I've lived it too recently, as have a great many other poets, who have also written about it. So I understand when the speaker turns the brutality on herself at the poem's end with the lines "This is your/ inheritance, my mother whispers...." And I know the emotional truth of the book's ending, the state of mind of people who have seen dissolution up close and know what it portends: "...in separate, poised ways/ we lie on our beds and wait."
Meditations like these, on age, death, and the encounter with the past, are the core of the final and most powerful section of Alison Powell's first book. That section is one of three, all having to do with different takes on the same longing for flight. "Flight" has both the sense of taking off, up and away from sublunary life by means of ecstatic intimacy, and the sense of escape from what shackles us, be it childhood, or the dullness of flyover country, or the facts of mortality. The book is compact in the extreme, hewing to one theme, with only forty-one pages of poetry. The capstone poem that precedes the three sections is imagistic and surreal and difficult to excerpt briefly, but its images tell us what the book wants—
...to go heavenward, drunk, delighted,
electric lights bursting in the street. What strength
in silence, to lift like that, over so many Nos....
—and they tie its longings into a unity. They set out clearly the craving for escape that hisses underneath poems that are sometimes plain spoken, sometimes surreal, often pained, and on occasion vividly ugly.
All three sections of the book give us glimpses of a semi-rural childhood. The third section slides back and forth from the grandmother's present decrepitude to the child in the parents' and grandparents' houses, playing then against now. The second uses the childhood setting as a jumping-off point for ancient stories. Place names like "Eminence" point to Kentucky or Missouri, and mention of copperheads places us not in the central Midwest but in the south. Through bored children's eyes, we see the locale in the full strength of its roughness:
We would fly over it if we could, sure enough—
each night perched up high on the barn's
tin roof, we wanted to be the swallows sailing over
the wheat, refuse, cul-de-sacs, and deer carcasses.
And from another poem:
My grandfather in overalls the wild
blue of a storm sky....
The first section segues from that childhood into the adolescent discoveries of intimacy that are its main subject. For me there's a whiplash effect as we move between types of versifying. On the one hand is the matter-of-fact—
The first time I did it I was fourteen,
the boy was from Eminence: in the fields
behind the house, behind a toolshed leaning
over with turpentine, copperheads (two beagles
died that June from rooting up in those nests).
—and on the other the exalted:
Draw Shangri-La, you did, did you, the year you left
with only the blues: lucky, but still. The fine girl
in the grass. We've been laid down, yes yes, say yes,
a mouth rubbed all in tequila and sea salt...
The story's arc is down; the relationship (is it only one?) disintegrates, yet the ache for the high of it, the desire to levitate, persists:
that desire to be eaten, mantis-
like, to lose your head proudly. I did once.
It was grand....
Of the three sections, only the second includes poems that seem less connected to this theme. "Canon poems," poems that treat or converse with myth, are risky at the outset; in trade for their advantage of being universal and familiar and accessible, we get their disadvantage of being in competition with centuries of older favorites on the same subjects. This group of poems roams wide: Greek myths, Genesis, folktale/urban legend murderer. The section's opening poem does its best to link the here-and-now to the myths.
One spring day the great god of his dreams
descends and, exploding, fills
the new tar streets with rainwater.
...He opens his arms to the yelping sky
and cries back Oh! Great harbor, I am
your tin ship!...
But not all the poems feel securely tied in. One that does is "Hylas," with its opening line, "Some days life is so slow..." and its pointed reference to the wish to get beyond the plain and ordinary: "Who hasn't,/ on the way to a practical task, ended up/ distracted by some surprise...?" "The Fall" succeeds too, making it plain "how hard it is to bear the hazy gentleness/ of the daily routine, the in-between life...." Yet something about the generalness of myth makes these poems feel slightly washed out by comparison with the intensely present first and third sections.
The great strengths of those sections, and of the book, are vividness, striking images, a sense of place, and a forthright approach to the normal ambivalence in families' experience of age and death. But one thing I do miss in the book, in spite of its cohesion and the power of its visuals, is music. The one spot where Powell gingerly approaches rhyme and form is the pair of pseudo-sonnets spoken by Eurydice and Orpheus to one another; I say pseudo-sonnets because there is only the ghost of meter, and by the end of the second poem there is only the rumor of a ghost, and the rhyme scheme that seemed to be there in the first poem has evaporated. For all the strength of image and idea in these poems, they never foreground sound, and they sometimes seem careless about the integrity of the line, breaking units of sense across lines, couplets, and tercets in ways that wrench.
These are my biases speaking, biases rather definitely outvoted by the successes the book has had as a manuscript, gaining a number of finalist positions before winning the Hollis Summers Prize in 2013. Clearly the book has appealed to critical readers in a number of contests and over a number of years. In fact, it's interesting to see how certain poems have been revised or omitted by looking at excerpts posted on the site of The Waywiser Press; versions of the manuscript were semifinalists or finalists in the Hecht Prize contest in three different years, and it placed in the SFWP awards program contest in 2011.
The book won those readers over for good reasons. It will appeal to any reader discontented enough to feel the drive for escape that powers it.
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