annotation by Dane Larsen
After flipping past the table of contents in D.A. Powell’s Tea, the reader is presented with a simple, concise warning from the author himself: “This is not a book about AIDS,” (xi). I was struck by such a straight-forward yet unconventional opening statement—writers in general tend to avoid statements detailing what a book is or is not about. Yet, in this particular case, I think it works. I, at least, hold the same belief as D.A. Powell that poetry (and art in general) produced by members of the LGBT community (gay men in particular) is always interpreted/presented/ marketed as necessarily being “about AIDS.” While this book of poetry does, in part, tell the stories of men who died of AIDS, and while it contains allusions to AIDS elsewhere, it is not so much about AIDS as it is affected by AIDS. The book as a whole is a moving entity, a serpent which winds its way through life and death, love and loss, at times illuminated with such levity as only someone who has survived and come to appreciate life can do.
The first thing to be noticed about the poetry in Tea is Powell’s propensity for spreading his poems out across a page, beyond the typical margins of a portrait-oriented sheet of 8×11 paper. To accommodate such an unconventional physical form, the book is set in landscape orientation. The way these poems are spread across each page, in conjunction with the typically short sentence structure, forces a particular pace of reading. It is a rapid pace, littered with pauses and punctuation which cause the reader to stop and think about what he just read: “the truth: he was no monument. sockets I plugged into. warm circles I could make with my fingers” (21). The reader cannot simply breeze through such lines; there is no flowing musicality to lift the tone of a particular line or phrase with jocular lyricism. Yet there is still a kind of motion involved in each poem, stemming from the fact that Powell does not punctuate the end of each line. As one line ends and another begins, there is a momentary sense of continuity in which the reader feels as if the two lines are joined in some artistic grand scheme; and sometimes they are, but typically they are not. Powell brilliantly dances around line breaks, sometimes almost carrying on a thought,––“perhaps the same grit finished us / drawing us together…” (49) – but usually choosing to only suggest the continuation of a thought –“who’s doing all this hair? this lack of hair? at the salon we flip through oncology today / some looks we look forward to looking back on…” (48).
Reading through the poems in Tea, there is a sense of humor that seems to belie a book whose first section is composed of elegies for men taken by AIDS from Powell’s life. Powell makes references to disco divas and cartoon curses, Batman and Robin and The Exorcist, and even turns the sound of a certain derogatory epithet into a made-up word: “[admission: I am a phag: afflicted with phagophagia]” (22). (Phagophagia essentially meaning “eating eating.”) He works in numerous references to the 70s discotheque scene and gay culture, and in doing so paints a picture rife with movement, sex, and life. Yet for all of that sound and light, there is always an undercurrent of death: “the city is dying to be stylish” (48); “into the reliquary of my mattress” (20); “all of your best composing is lament” (57). Still, Powell never allows his poetry to stay under the influence of death for too long: “say amen somebody. the pews are hickory-hard I’m sick of sitting” (65).
Powell’s word selection is particularly important in accomplishing all of the things I have discussed so far. He has a gift for choosing just the right word which will convey a multitude of things at once. This is portrayed to great effect in the title of the book and its individual sections. Tea, aside from being a delicious beverage to be served hot or cold, morning or night, is a term once used in gay culture to mean “gossip.” Now it is more commonly used among drag queens, often abbreviated to simply “t” as in “what’s the t?” (or “what’s the talk of the town?”). “Tea Leaves,” the first, elegiac section of Tea, employs the dual-meaning of “leaves” as both a plant leaf and the action of leaving (as in death); “Spilling Tea” is a rather gossipy section of poetry; and “Tea Rooms” is full of sexual encounters and general sexuality (tea rooms were places where men would meet for sex). In this way, the initially simple title of the book carries so many meanings, all of which are explored and portrayed by the poetry within the leaves of this book.
In the end, Tea is a stunningly beautiful portrayal of personal experiences, seasoned with death, love, life, joy, and motion, and always presented with a twist of humor. It is (as many books of poetry are) a journey, though not necessarily presented in chronological order. Rather, it is a journey of the mind, a journey which D.A. Powell embarked on in order to recognize where he has been and where he was at time the book was compiled. In his own words: “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,” (xiii). And we as readers are glad to pay that price with him, for just as the stories in these poems have shaped Powell’s life, so, too, can they shape our own.