Powell, D.A. “Repast: Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails”, Graywolf Press, 2014.
Three of D.A. Powell’s collections of poetry comprise “Repast”; “Tea”, “Lunch”, and “Cocktails”. Included also is an introduction by author David Leavitt. I understand that the books were conceived of and written as a trilogy. We immediately realize that the common thread is HIV/AIDS.
What Powell so brilliantly captures in his poetry is “the joy of queer experience”. He manages to do this even when the community is devastated by tremendous loss of life. He does this through the use of gorgeous language and fantastic wit and puns. It is through this that we see how much we need and depend upon comfort and understanding especially while facing severe criticism and marginalization. His language is metaphorical and literal at the same time yet is also daring and flirtatious. He writes with an imagination that we rarely see these days. He is an open book in terms of his sexuality and some might find this daring considering that he writes during an epidemic that took so many of our gay heroes from us. I could not help but see the influence of the poets that I love—William Carlos Williams and T.S. Eliot as well as H.D. and cummings. Somehow he manages to have his voice arise about theirs and that could be because he shares the truth with us.
“Repast” is a powerful look at and statement about the anti-legacy of AIDS— it is homoerotic and graphically so. I have always found it difficult to talk about that period in our history and many of us still are unable to deal with it even though it no longer is a death sentence. It is still so very hard to accept that so many died and that they died as a result of pleasing their desires by what caused their marginalization.
This is not the first elegy to AIDS and I am sure it not the last. We have Paul Monette, Mark Doty and Tony Kushner write about AIDS, each in his own special way. The difference between them and others like them and Powell is his use of language.
“Tea”, Powell’s first collection of poetry was published in 1998 when here in America; AIDS was still taking our men. It and the other two volumes are Powell’s early poems and something of a personal testimony. We can look at what Powell has achieved by lining them up to the history of the AIDS epidemic. When in 1981, he became 18, it was shortly before the first reports of AIDS were published in the New York Times. He was awarded his M.F.A. in 1996, the year that we had the first major decline in numbers of AIDS deaths. The trilogy spans the period from when Powell himself learned that he was H.I.V.-positive and the rise of the antiretroviral “cocktail” that made life for many people with H.I.V. or AIDS less about dying than about surviving with complications. Powell never thought of being known as an AIDS writer and he has never wanted his writing to be constrained by that.
It was once important to deny that AIDS had dominion over us even though it brought about its own literature. It is interesting to note that at that time, Powell writes the words AIDS in lower case in order to “minimize its stature on the page”. There were other artistic issues as well and in literature and drama, the disease was sentimentalized and to write about it meant entering an area where emotions were manipulated. It is quite different today and we can read the poems and see clearly the centrality of AIDS. The focus is on survival and this does not have to include suffering and death.
“Repast” opens with a poem about the author going through the windshield of a car in a near-fatal crash while his friend Andy lay in a hospital dying of AIDS. The poem ends with no punctuation on the last line because his elegies do not definitely end. Unruly as it is, it is the first of other unruly poems here. There are no traditional titles—Powell uses the first line after putting it in brackets and giving it top space on the page.
The lines of this first poem have no margins and Powell says that because he could not contain the lines of his first poem, he wrote sideways in his notebook. With deliberation he uses two spaces after a colon and three following a period and these open spaces in the middle of the lines become interruptions and absences of unusual power. There is music and there is talk in the lines of Powell’s poetry. His inspiration comes from culture, celebrity romance Walt Whitman, the bible, and gay hankies and the Weather Girls just to cite a few. He uses the peach as a metaphor for a young gay Georgian and he appears in many of the poems. Young gays are like peaches in their sensuousness and we see that ripeness and rotten cannot live in the same peach. This becomes quite a symbol for the young AIDS infected gay men.
“Cocktails” the last third of the trilogy came out in 2004 when AIDS patients received different prognoses. Powell gives them meaning and redemption and it is there poems that find a place in the Christian tradition for the men he loves— their illnesses give them nobility and they gain what they need to move forward.
“Repast,” reminds us of a time that we have too easily forgotten.