Hard Earth by Joseph Powell. March Street Press. 99 pp., $9.00.
Lessons of Earth
Joseph Powell has had a steady but quiet writing career. Even as he is ensconced on his farm in Kittitas County in Washington State, amid the chickens, horses, cattle, and many fruit trees, he also teaches English and creative writing at Central Washington University. He is the author of four collections of poetry and several chapbooks, and his poems have long focused on the challenges and bourgeonings of living by, and close to, the land, its blights and harvests tied up with the “local mythologies” of his world. The poem with that title begins: “Who to tell the old stories of nerve, sinew,/the raw ignorances of survival?”—question which Powell’s latest book, Hard Earth, seems to be most urgently interested in addressing.
While Hard Earth tells the many stories of Powell’s corner of the world, from the locals who frequent a small town café, to observations on a bull, an Angus cow’s effort to kill one of its twin offspring, or a turkey hen’s gradual demise in “Pecking Order,” the poems expand their worlds to the always larger questions of what it means to live by the lessons learned in the local, from the natural world around us. Powell’s speakers are especially attentive to the modest gestures of the ordinary, whether they take place in his rural world or as far away as the islands and cities of Greece. That Powell makes equal lyricism of a son’s “whimpering in the night” as he does of “The Poseidon at Artemision” in Greece attests to his poems’ gift for finding truths that transcend the fallible, whether a poignantly human moment, or an artifact’s timeworn story whose occasion is an “eternity glimpsed.” As in the case of “The Poseidon of Artemision,” many of Powell’s poems are an effort to give “the things of sense” a form that will allow us to “reach out / body to body” and “run our hands” over the possibilities of what can become “manifest to sight.”
The body’s inevitable transformations, like the cycles and rhythms of seasons, and the layerings of what survive of art and its making, are some of the elements Powell uses to investigate the theme of passage. The second section of the book is devoted largely to poems about death, and a dying rural father; it shares a location with Powell’s first section that deals more exclusively with farm life and its animals, as well as a keen eye for the detail that expands the poem beyond its central narrative. “The Cancer Ward,” for example, is a chilling depiction of death’s gradual encroachment, but Powell focuses less on a seventeen-year-old’s dying than on the eerie separating of the body from the world of things and sounds:
Neither his mother’s hand
nor her stiff empty words
can contain this loneliness
With only two months left
his eyes can only be define
by what they’re not,
but might have been
A slack terrible strangeness
keeps him from himself
and lights one corner of his face,
this journey has no provisions for
In this room, the machine’s pulse is blue
. . . the elevator bell rings and rings
While individual poems often adopt the long-standing poetic technique of a movement from an opening detail or scene to a larger preoccupation that sneaks up on the reader toward the poem’s end, (sometimes only after the poem has been read in its entirety), the book as a whole also seems to imitate this method of divulging its larger concerns. The book’s third section, for example, which deals with Greece and its islands, makes the most of the less obvious details of myth-imbued places: In “The Lilies of Ios” a man carries a bouquet “like a torch from God” and in “Blue Monkeys” the speaker
knows why the Minoans
painted two separate monkeys
the color of distance,
. . . That their fish leapt not for joy
but what cruised
just beneath the surface.
The weightier themes—of death, heroism, art’s efforts to capture the sublime—are always present in the physical ephemera that Powell’s generous image-making makes apparent.
“A Skirmish in Varnava,” another poem from Greece, exhibits this strategy of weaving a modest idea, or moment, into an epiphany of larger resonances. The poem’s occasion begins with two boys, one the poet’s son, sparring with plastic tubes with clay spitwads at a local tavern in Athens, and ends with a child’s bedtime version of The Iliad and his son asking: “why Agamemnon slew the sheep, / why he slit the boar’s throat / and threw it into the sea, ‘bait for fish.’” The speaker/father closes the poem hoping that this boy who has “at least three monsters / in his blood that could level ramparts/like sand castles . . . ” and “one good heart” will be able to “walk like Priam across the battlefield” and “kiss the hand of wrath, / . . . and stand in awe like a shepherd / before a full night of stars.” Such expressions of sentiment unburdened by stylistic complications make the poems interesting in their contemporary moment, and, I would venture, daring. Powell’s craft is, one suspects deliberately, almost invisible. The clarity of his verse lets the narrative elements come through; he has an unabashed engagement with the content of his material.
When, meeting Powell once, I asked him who some of his influences were—having suspected Ted Kooser after reading the poem “Adolescent Deermouse”—his list had some surprises. But then I started to see those poets in Powell’s work—especially the swath of their ambitions: William Stafford, Ted Hughes, Maxine Kumin, Lisel Mueller, Robert Lowell, and Albert Goldbarth, all on his list, span the kinds of technical and thematic preoccupations of Powell’s world. And, as influences, they seem to come in that order, too, as the book moves from its very firmly placed spaces in rural Washington towards geographies as far as Greece, and then, in the book’s last section, the more abstract language of postmodern juxtapositions that wed inner and outer worlds. Lines like “Birds trailed their names through the sky / like thoughts their scent of feeling,” and “I rode the surf of my blood all the way back”, from the poem “Rooster Morning,” are startling. A rather sly poem, “The Un,” makes some lightness of the fact that “We’ve so little chance for reversals, / to unsuffer, unline, undo, unsay —” as “Our armchair contemplations grind out revisions / of uneating, unfucking. . . “.
What finally stays with me throughout Powell’s many forays into the “old stories of nerve, sinew,” and “raw ignorances of survival” that come out of his experiences and experiments is something that I read in Czeslaw Milosz’s prose memoir, Native Realm, a reflection by another poet firmly rooted in a land he carried with him throughout his own journeyings into place and identityBut what fiery sword protects the artist? Only his faith in an objective value. For those who live passively, values melt away; they wane in the encounter with what is considered ‘real’…the creative act of an artist…lifts them above themselves by demanding full surrender.
There is much in Powell’s encounters with hard earth to remind the reader why it is that we go after those fleeting values of life, and love, and I only wish (small quibble) that his publisher had not tried to squash the poems into their rather small print to fit this ample collection into those ninety-seven small-trim pages. That said, the strength of these poems, like their craft, prove all the more solid for the fact that the reader forgets these inconveniences while traveling Powell’s many terrains.
Adrianne Kalfopoulou is the author of two books of poetry—Wild Greens and
Passion Maps—as well as two chapbooks and a memoir, Broken Greek. She teaches at Hellenic American University in Athens and in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.
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