Published together for the first time, D. A. Powell's landmark trilogy of Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails make up a three-course Divine Comedy for our day. With a new introduction by novelist David Leavitt, Repast presents a major achievement in contemporary poetry.
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About the Author
D. A. Powell is the author of five collections of poetry, including Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He lives in San Francisco, California.
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Tea, Lunch, Cocktails
By D. A. Powell
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2014 D. A. Powell
All rights reserved.
THE TEA ON TEA
This is not a book about Aids. I offer this at the outset, because I know that in the short-hand way in which books are discussed, catalogued, reviewed, marketed, introduced, Aids will inevitably be touted as one of the cries of the book's occasion. I do not deny this disease its impact. But I deny its dominion.
I began Tea as a chronicle of a relationship. Having not written for a year following the relationship's terminus, I was compelled to begin writing again, and I took my failed relationship as subject. Because I was unable to contain the first lines I wrote, I turned my notebook sideways, pushing into what would traditionally be the margins of the page. These lines, with their peculiar leaps and awkward silences, became the strangely apt vessel into which I could pour my thoughts. I took fragments and made new statements from them, just as I wished to reshape my life from its incomplete bits.
For every thought I had of Scott in writing the first poems, I had as many thoughts of other loves—friends, lovers, "tricks"—who had passed through my life. And so I wrote of them also, reenacting the serial polygamy that had characterized my life. I do not mean for this condition to signify anyone's experience but my own: I had moved through the world a sexual libertine, unfaithful even in the way I conflated the touch of one lover with thoughts about another.
As memory required me to revisit the deaths of many of these men, I realized that I ran the danger of writing a collection in which death was a consequence of my "lifestyle." (I use quotes here, because I do not really understand the difference between a life and a lifestyle, aside from the fingerpointing. I am nevertheless happy to be accused of the style.) Some who read or who do not read this book will hold that opinion. But the truth was—is—that my life is a consequence of those deaths. My relationship with Scott was in part a failure of our understanding of the times. Our fear of knowing our own HIV status was one of the powerful forces that held us together and drove us apart: we saw each other alternately as the possibility of salvation and as the possible instrument of destruction. Because of this, we simultaneously loved and hated each other with a kind of emotional violence.
While I was writing these poems, a well-known poet, who is also queer, cautioned me against "using Aids as a metaphor for a consumptive relationship." I do not understand "metaphor." I have the sort of mind that lumps together odd events, that enjoys the simultaneity of experience. My parents divorced during the Watergate hearings. The backlash against disco coincided with the Reagan administration. I was hospitalized for a nearly fatal accident while my friend Andy was dying, the first of many I would lose to Aids. If two objects occupy the same space, is one a metaphor for the other? If so, then life is the cause of death; love, the root of unhappiness.
Yet there is a way in which Aids moves through the text, just as other forces, events, and characters move through it. Because I based these poems on my own experience, I had to uncover the subject that drove the writing; and so I had to walk down many corridors in order to find what was at center. Along the way, I had to write about failed love, destitution, prostitution, disease, homelessness, and a myriad other subjects in order to discover that the true hero of the poems is survival. This is how I came to put the elegies at the front of the book. I rise out of ashes. To survive is an astonishing gift. The price of that gift is memory.
* * *
The title of the book may puzzle some. Before I wrote Tea I had written a collection entitled Lunch. Tea seemed to be the next logical step. I chose tea as a central figure not only for this reason, but also because it has such wonderful resonance for me. "Tea" was a term from pre-Stonewall days that is still a part of the queer argot. Originally, when queers still referred to ourselves as "queens," "having tea" was a natural extension of one's royal masquerade. However, "tea" the beverage was not necessarily involved in "having tea." Instead, "tea" was a session of gossip exchange. If one was invited to "tea," this usually meant that one was going to be privy to some scandalous information.
A public area in which men gathered for sex (and gossip too) was hence a "tea room." And the last trip to the bars before the weekend ended—on Sunday afternoons—became the "tea dance." Tea. A wonderfully glamorous word to adorn rather unglamorous rituals.
With all of these coded meanings, I suppose one might be tempted to read the title as a furtive gesture. I did not intend to be furtive. Rather, I wished to bring into the language of the poems all of the kinds of speech that I have heard around me—tall speech and short speech, the proper and the vernacular. I honor my dead in the attempt to recapture their voices.
* * *
Despite any hardship, I see what a blessing my life has been. I have written this book for the men who did not live to write their own stories: David Damon, Ricky Encinas, Michael Montero, Fidel Bady, Daehn Lebhardt, Lewis Friedman, Victor Martinez, Nick Wilson, Ken Penny, Andy Moore, Jeff Mahoney, Jon Burnett, Ernie Lopes, Sylvester James, Gary Deal: a list that once begun has resisted closure. This is not about being queer and dying. It is about being human and living.
—D. A. Powell, 1997
Such are the final, unenviable forms that survival assumes.
—Marcel Proust, The Past Recaptured
[to end and to open with a field: andy buried under a
hunter's moon. deer born of headlights]
to end and to open with a field: andy buried under a hunter's moon. deer
born of headlights
I had meant to be first among us dead. swerve toward atonal tinkle of
death puked me back out of its paunch: indigestible clump. naked and
suffering the return of sense
in a separate ward andy made no smash: wrack of lung. scrap of chassis.
towed to the yard
what cried out in the woods between us. the owl that shrieked: I was the
one who shined into the ground
the ground refused me. the ground that would leave the easy prey to be
scavenged and take and take
[gary asleep in his recliner. this prison work
clobbers him. today let the men stand unguarded]
gary asleep in his recliner. this prison work clobbers him. today let the
men stand unguarded
he is overwhelmed by his own cells. a furtive shiv behind his eyes:
searchbeams opaque and anil
he dreams a wall: desert beyond where nothing is not jagged or barbed.
breathing hard he scales
hands numb nopales: swollen but withering inward nerveless. the
sensation of pinpricks
one long last watch: ectomorphic lockdown. he draws the early pension.
incomplete his sentence
[nicholas the ridiculous: you will always be 27 and
impossible. no more expectations]
nicholas the ridiculous: you will always be 27 and impossible. no more
you didn't carry those who went in long cars after you. stacking lie upon
lie as with children
swearing "no" to pain and "yes" to eternity. you would have been a
bastard: told the truth
afternoons I knelt beside your hiding place [this is the part where you
speak to me from beyond]
and he walks with me and he talks with me. he tells me that I am his
nothing. oh sure once in a while a dream. a half-instant. but you are no
angel you are
repeating the same episodes: nick at night. tricky nick. nicholas at
halloween a giant tampon
don't make me mature by myself: redundancy of losing common ground.
for once be serious
[kenny lost in the
mineshaft among silver stalactites. his
irises bloom in darkness]
I would give up all my life for just one kiss, I would
surely die ...
—Freddie Mercury, "You Take My Breath
kenny lost in the mineshaft among silver stalactites. his irises
bloom in darkness
the night is an open "o." he caverns and groans engulfing:
leaking from the socket of his anus: cocytus. he stands apart involuntary.
false dreams it is often said take the entrance to this world for a home:
how he is led
of course nobody loves him. except the few who do. broad spaces of
kenny crossing on the ferry. the ungenerous light of a moon hidden from
he knows the way. he trembles bracing: the hollow of his body delicately
[the thicknesses of victor decreased: blanket -> sheet
-> floss. until no material would do]
the thicknesses of victor decreased: blanket -> sheet -> floss. until no
material would do
in the shedding season: the few of us who had not turned had found his
remote room in mercy
he wriggled slight as a silkworm on its mulberry bed. his lips spun
slathering thread. he sleaved
we waited for his release and he was released: yellow and radiant
mariposa. don't let us mend
[dead boys make the sweetest lovers. relationships
unfold like stroke mags: tales less complex]
... who could ever think—in particular, at this
time, what gay man—that someone's death ever
stopped the elaboration of someone else's fantasy about
—D. A. Miller, Bringing Out Barthes
dead boys make the sweetest lovers. relationships unfold like stroke
mags: tales less complex
because they lack a certain tension. several might be possessed and
managed at once: properties
to be landed upon turn after turn: baltic ave. st. james place. time to roll
those bones again
clean-cut jock in your treasure box: he is only ghost and polaroid. your
fist assumes his face:
the señor winces puppet trick. his crack on the back so you can go both
ways: brief resurrection
nudes prop themselves against the bed. games evolve into storylines.
moments both pure and impure
the novel you write ends in many tragedies. from which autobiography
tall and thin and young and lovely the
michael with kaposi's sarcoma goes
tall and thin and young and lovely the michael with
kaposi's sarcoma goes walking
and when he passes each one he passes goes
"whisperwhisperwhisper." star of beach blanket babylon
the sea washes his ankles with its white hair. he sambas past the empty
days like these who wouldn't swim at own risk: the horizon smiles like a
karaoke drag queen
broad shoulders of surf shimmy forth as if to say "aw baby, sell it, sell it."
he's working again
towels lie farther apart. the final stages: he can still do a dazzling
turn but each day
smiles grow a little sharper. he blames it on the bossanova. he writes his
own new arrangements
Eleven Disco Songs That Equate Sex and Death through an Elaborate Metaphor Called "Heaven":
1. "Paradise" [Change]
2. "Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel" [Tavares]
3. "Angel Eyes" [Lime]
4. "Heaven Must Have Sent You" [Bonnie Pointer]
5. "Take Me to Heaven" [Sylvester]
6. "So Close to Heaven" [Trix]
7. "Be with You" [Sylvester]
8. "Tripping on the Moon" [Cerrone]
9. "Earth Can Be Just Like Heaven" [The Weather Girls]
10. "Lift Off" [Patrick Cowley]
11. "Heaven's Where My Heart Is" [Marsha Raven]
—my personal "book of lists"
[heaven is a discotheque [why don't
you take me] you could believe anything
if you could believe]
heaven is a discotheque [why don't you take me ] you could
believe anything if you could believe
god is conveniently present when we need to shake our fists at someone.
strike the tambourine
because you are a comicstrip version of your earthly self: cussing in
maladicta balloons: [??]
exaggerated in posture/in glide/in blurgits. even the clouds feel like
getting lucky with you
let alone all those hermes. yours for the plucking: lining up from
side to side on sunset
you have strobed moments of elegance: sipping for example whatever
kickapoo joy juice is there
"3 x's" brand perhaps. haloed in the light from the billiard room. you
torture each panel
with your fine looks. the possibilities puzzle you: deeper into
sundays go by the same as ever: funnies and glittery tea dances. you still
don't get the punchline
[now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered
light: I once entered the world through dryice fog]
this was the season disco finally died
—Kevin Killian, Bedrooms Have Windows
now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the
world through dryice fog
not quite fabulous. just young and dumb and full. come let me show you
a sweep of constellations:
16, I was anybody's. favorite song: dance into my life [donna
summer] and they did dance
17, first fake i.d. I liked walk away [donna summer] I ran with
the big boys
18, by now I knew how to move. on top of the speakers. give me a
break [vivien vee]
19, no one could touch me. donna summer found god. I didn't care.
state of independence
20, the year I went through the windshield. sylvester sang I want to
be with you in heaven
I said "you go" and "scared of you." I listened to pamala stanley I
don't want to talk about it
[the goodbye to nasty habits annual ball: scott
smoking and drinking]
the goodbye to nasty habits annual ball: scott smoking and drinking
a new good riddance complete with that factory smell. I wish them
and o, how we danced on the night we divorced. the ashtrays brimmed
bottles emptied into us: like thimbles to fill punchbowls. and we sweated
each other away
that was the morning of burnt out butts: dumpsters tall with those
the central nervous system cultivates a garden of tropisms about. yes, it
was a monday
who says that everything is explained in cycles. work we once laid aside
is taken up again
even the poorest taste has been developed: thirst defined by what
a bad penny can be spent: on the useless. or flattened by the weight of a
to be taken out of circulation. chain letter comes back unopened. no: an
[he'd make my bed jumble and squeak. a parrot
must have lit inside. potty mouthed]
a song of Regan MacNeil
he'd make my bed jumble and squeak. a parrot must have lit inside.
I wouldn't have said, "quaquaquaquaqua" but his fingers pushed the
dark: sores raised like letters
he wanted to gather all the air: buzzarding. cold air flaps against the back
of my skull
perched upon as a child bride: I felt my abdomen surge. captain
howdy is kicking me
hurt red pulp of a melon. I bless the beak the tiny beak. he has long
black lashes like wings
[this is my last trick: if he has eyes they are escaping.
the neighbors won't be able to describe]
a song of Sal Mineo
this is my last trick: if he has eyes they are escaping. the neighbors won't
be able to describe
when he flees his mane fans through the alley. jerusalem palms beating
against the doorway
in the blue hollywood hills behind the white hollywood sign where the
falcons nest: I had lain
every letter shivered delighted under the swooping. my feet drawn up
into a careful vee
in the restroom at the probe I welcomed a sweet thrust.
pomegranate droplets dotted the commode
he was the disembodied voice of the planetarium. I want to pretend it did
not happen in the dark
[jackbooted. buttonflyed. hungering out of muni
stations. spilling into clubs as sweet sweet tea]
a song of Patrick Cowley
jackbooted. buttonflyed. hungering out of muni stations. spilling into
clubs as sweet sweet tea
they chose me for a host: I was already carrying this choir in my head.
the language we share
the music had to magnify: silence would be unbear/unthinkable. consider
how sounds bodies make
now I lay me down these fierce tracks: bloodbeat & panting. overtop
an aspiration like release
music poured from me relentless. no rest. no rest. a rapture bleating in
the hills. going home
joy for he whose song is done. shirtless. before they say last
call. I'm out among the multitude
[scott's at arm's length: I hold him at mirror
distance. his pelt is familiar is my own skin]
scott at arm's length: I hold him at mirror distance. his pelt is familiar is
my own skin
my fingers undo him. I wonder what I'll look like inside his flesh. tight
at latex as thing
our hands gather at our middle: a corsage. a leather coin pouch. the
zipper's poking tongue
he is almost colorless. I have faded things that suit him. his face is my
face but young
ruts already deepening between us. cannot stand to watch. we both make
fists of our eyes
when I leave he is discarded chrysalis. what have I become:
[change] I'll take you to paradise
Excerpted from Repast by D. A. Powell. Copyright © 2014 D. A. Powell. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsIntroduction: the sad part of living is eating and dying by David Leavitt,
Softly and Tenderly,
Sweet By and By,
Gather at the River,
In the Middle of the Air,