When he's on his game, Jim Powell has a finely tuned ear for voice, place, and period, which we can see with his poem "The Seamstress," which can be read here in Slate. A good poem, as it goes, nothing special in the long run, but Powell does a neat and not-so-obvious job of creating parallels between a holiday that commemorates the dead and keeps their memory alive (and in so doing preserving some order in the minds and morals of those remaining alive), and woman trying to bring a decorative skeleton figuratively "to life" so it might add impact and meaning to the celebration. Powell is rather good at implying that it is all for naught, under the noise and decoration; the dead will remain in their graves as dust despite collective conjuring, and the skeleton will just continue to look limp and tattered, a rattling assemblage held together with costumes thread and brocade. And so it sits as well with the seamstress, herself old, creaking at the joints to finesse a stitch, squinting in the night light as the seams get wider, less tight, loosened with age. Her bones ache, her eyesight fails by degrees, the skeleton is a limp and tattered symbol whose power has waned, and meaning has lessened to the level of Saturday morning cartoon. The dead themselves are even more deceased than they were before, memories of their existence buried under the same ground the children dance upon other than that children love to the dance for any reason or no reason at all because being alive is only its most fun and enthralling at those times and moments when there is no knowledge of limits, of what you can't do or what can't be done. Powell's poem "First Light." What about it?Perfectly suited for a slice-of-life poem, an observational piece focusing on the workplace, though it's problematic that the job described turns out to be in a bakery, alone baker just beginning his workday before light. The situation is a shade archetypal, and what is noticed in the lines "tufts dusted with a snow of flour," and especially "thick arms cradling rolls and crusty loaves, a gift for late-returning revelers..." for the derelict who washes in the creek under the bridge his daily bread at daybreak come off more as wish-fulfillment than as inspired vision.
The setting is too ideal; everything that you would expect to be in an early AM bakery tableau just happen to be there, right down to the homeless man who picturesquely "washes his hands under the bridge." The stops being a poem at this point and become instead one of those faux Impressionist paintings of Parisian cityscapes in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, filled with blurry, alienated figurines in their shops and on the slippery hued streets going about their anonymous chores. There is an idealization in this well-crafted piece that strikes me as wrong and inappropriately dreamy. This may be because Powell gave us one painterly detail too many in this hyper-literalized diorama. Had he omitted the line "under the bridge" -- the problem is that bridges and rain are ever such ready poetic words to use when inspiration falls midline -- and substituted another tactile element, something plausible, recognizable yet unexpected (garden hose, a playground water fountain, a janitor's mop, something that could credibly be in the scene), the poem may well have worked. Even so, one expects something more to be said about this situation than the idea that it swells, dreamy, and meant to make you go "oooooooohhhhhhh" and "ahhhhhhhhhhhhh." There is an underside here that is ignored, and Powell shuns an urge to get beyond his cozy poetics to discover something remarkable, disturbing, and finally memorable. This poem is not unlike those previously mentioned faux Impressionist paintings, which are produced by the hundreds for tourist dollars. Powell's poem reads as if he's written dozens of variations on it. That isn't writing; it's the only production.
Not every poem clicks, of course. Another poem published in Slate, "Two Million Feet of Vinyl," worries an idea instead of bringing it to life. A bit laborious, heavy on the obfuscated detailing of industrial manufacturing in the attempt to let convoluted descriptions yield strange, alienated poetry. But one sees rapidly where this going, where everything, including workers, is mere materials to be converted in endless, brutal processes and wind up as dust. Powerful, perhaps, in a poem that doesn't telegraph its tragic punchline so much--you can see it coming like the Underdog float in the Macy's Holiday Parade--but here it just hangs there. You want more, and it doesn't come. It appears that he's seen "Things to Come" recently and is enamored of "Modern Times" and tried to emulate their effects with his own reassembly of the deadening effects of a technological economy. But this is not a journey where Luddites and technocrats haven't gone before; it's a setup for a joke; man shapes his tools, after which the tools shape man. It's a poem based on first-semester political science lectures. The level of discourse is fine for freshmen. Still, by the time one gets around to be a published poet, there is the reasonable expectation that there's more than the gasping gee-whiz of it all occupying the writer's worried mind. What's being delivered is the moldy metaphor of alienation in Modern Times, that repetitive and mechanical means of production have made man a part of the machines he invented to save him labor and time. Yes, you get it, right, Marxism 101. The facile equations between machine processes and the rescinded world are irksome at best. I don't know if he intended this to be ironic, a parody of futurist rhetoric, or whether he merely wanted the glorification of brute, soulless contraption would itself yield remarkable poems of the "found" variety. This isn't the kind of ambiguity that makes for great art. It would have to point toward something and give a sense of direction if it were worth discussing longer than a terse dismissal. But this points nowhere other than at its clipped locutions. Powell is a good poet who must have dashed this off in an odd mood and didn't see fit to change it. Fine, I have dozens of poems that exactly like this; cryptic, spacy, unyielding in their impenetrable weirdness.
Jim Powell's poem "Dance Figure" resembles William Carlos Williams' poem "Poem (As the cat)" in its sharp, curt delineation of something observed; the difference, though, is that the Williams' poem is closer to the late poet's natural, evolved style. Williams worked a lifetime developing a poetics about poetry based on what he considered the American voice, a natural, un-embellished cadence that he considered the model for his Imagist inclination. Direct treatment of the material thing perceived was the goal:
As the catclimbed overthe top ofthe jamclosetfirst the rightforefootcarefullythen the hindstepped downinto the pit ofthe emptyflowerpot
It's short and not so sweet; something here reminds me of the still photograph experiments of Eadweard Muybridge, in his continuous photographs of a single action that, when seen in rapid sequence, replicates motion. We can see the cat padding about cautiously as it tests its balance on a precarious edge; we can sense the progress, stanza to stanza, the halting placement of the forefoot, the comedy of hind leg stepping into an empty flowerpot. This artfully, succinctly condenses visual information to essential actions, creating the feeling of the excited, rapid commentary of one friend nudging another to view a comic vision. One nudges the other, whispers, "get aloud of that. " Longer digressions are left behind, compound words and their alliterating implications are left on the workbench. Word selection and length are everything. The goal for Williams, I think, was to create a sense of the event happening in real or recent time, detailed with words that are fresh and pure of post-reflective abstraction. He hasn't larded up the perception with cracker barrel philosophizing.
Jim Powell accomplishes much the same effect as Williams, although he isn't as temperamentally taciturn as the late poet was. He does have, though, a strong sense of the lyric move and succeeds, in his strongest work, of knowing when the lines break, when the image commands the center of the work, and when the narrator's rumination filters through the descriptive arrangements, an insertion of a personality that sufficiently his subject more confounding. It's a delicate balance of the objective, the correlative, and the subjective. It's a nice seduction when the writing hand isn't overly eager to deliver a payoff.
and stoopsto make a saddleat knee levelof his palmswhere she placesher right footand steps upcontinuing to risewhile he straightensto liftand boosts herspringing from his handsarms extendedoverheadfingertips pointedarrowing skywardas she leapshigherthan eitherseparatelycould
Ah, but this is a crisp description of a delicate scene; like Williams, the concentration is on closely observed movement, the cupping of the male's hand to form a lift, a bridge for the woman to place her foot, the slow rising from the floor toward the sky, the final, cascade-seeming leap. What Powell has assumed from Williams are lessons well learned; the brief lines are an internalized beat, a slowly wound spring tensing up until an eventual, ceiling-bound release--the motions here are a seamless stream without the bumps and segmented grating a stitched-in abstraction would have brought to Powell's elegant outline.
One element rings false, if only slightly, the additional commentary at the conclusion "...she leaps / higher / than either / separately could." The narrator emerges from the wings, Rod Serling style, and offers up the summarizing afterward, and this an intrusion on the serene, zen-moment mood Powell had otherwise established here; it takes the reader away from a simple, sweetly arranged music, remarkable for its brevity and absence of loaded terms and freighted associations, and places us in the realm of argument. It's a jolt, as it was both unneeded--did anyone really need to be told, at poem's end, that this was a feat a dancer couldn't accomplish without a partner? The abrupt turn, shifting from the evocative to the editorial, would suggest that Powell has things in mind that the dance partners are symbolic of or symptomatic of, but I doubt that's the reason. He's too concrete a poet to become vague and allusive and allude to invisible concerns outside his actual writing if there wasn't anything in work to give the insinuations a tangible presence. I suspect it's merely a case of the instinctual habit to sum things up; this is a habit that can be effective in longer works, where a brief paraphrase of a poem's tropes can illuminate how imagery and theme have been reconfigured in the process of bringing to an articulate expression, but "Dance Partners" is too brief for effect. The minor failing of the ending illustrates my belief that a large factor in a good poet's working philosophy is the instinct to know when to stop writing--often, a poem is complete before the writer thinks he's finished with it. The point of these tense, brief lyrics is to leave well enough alone.