349. (Jim Powell)

If readers come across Jim Powell, it is most likely to be in his translation of Sappho—his only work in print. But his original poetry, gathered into two collections, It Was Fever That Made The World and Substrate, is as good as any I know by an American born in the second half of the 20th century. It is poetry that took my head off without any fuss or great ado; it is simply exemplary of how good poetry can be. What fame he has is due, I imagine, to Thom Gunn, who wrote an excellent essay on him, and whose letters return to Powell as one of the only young American poets he admires. Gunn’s critical eye is superb—all the more when he writes, as he does here, on a poet whose work is, in its formal exertions and Horatian detachment, similar to Gunn’s own. (When Gunn praises Basil Bunting or Robert Duncan, it’s hard not to suspect that they represent something that Gunn not only could not do, but would not do, if he were led to the point of doing it).

Here I’ll write on the first collection, It Was Fever That Made The World (1989), itself a gathering of two smaller collections, The Crooked House and Fire Signs.  There are very few of Powell’s poems to be found online, and so I will include in its entirety several that  that immediately impressed itself on me.

Home Free


In the documentary, one scientist

tells how, with the same skill

that let him help to make that light,

he used the angle of blind-slats

whose shadows had been burned

into a schoolroom wall

to calculate the altitude

of detonation and confirm

that the device had functioned as

it should above Hiroshima.


The low October overcast that leaned

above the blacktop and torn

grass of our playground a generation

later seemed to conceal a weight

that would soon fall on us.

In ordered drill we entered

the huddled smell of sneakers and

eraser dust till the All Clear,

crouched in our shadows where

the desks were bolted to the floor,


and late that hot fall afternoon daydreamed

over arithmetic

we would survive into an aftermath

of freedom, the bomb inaugurate

a frontier of long orchards

and no parents calling:

there, we could be wild Indians

prowling behind the vanished fences

of a new suburban wilderness

we’d riot in all night long.


But in the chronic sky of real dreams

big as a Thanksgiving Day

Macy’s parade balloon, Khrushchev

straddled a bomb-shaped zeppelin bareback.

Its prop drone cut across

the sleep I ran from, wrestling

to escape. No longer himself,

he came to manifest a figure

fixed in heaven before he came

to wave his sickle down at us—


like Kronos, who ate his newborn children till

Rhea fed him a stone

instead of Zeus, father of light

and degeneration. Zeus handled him

as he has Ouranos:

shearing his genitals

with a flint sickle, he flung them out

over the sea and took the gods’ throne

(but from the waves he’d broadcast with

red seed, some say, Aphrodite was born).


It was easy, later, to think it made us different:

we could call ourselves

the first to ripen toward the light

of a general annihilation

we could believe we shared

and wore like a mayday crown

of paste and paper roses: if we imagined

its bright burst always above our heads

we’d cast no shadows, like the children

absent from that schoolroom wall


becoming exemplary—like Khrushchev

dismembered in our nightmare.

Making a shelter in that difference

we came to terms that set us free

not to remember where

we stand, which rescued us

from ever denouement until

those terms became our story. Trust

nothing, we said, to the next day.

It might not come. We dwelt on that.


The title and the poem unite two of Powell’s characteristic preoccupations: the yearning to dwell in place and time, and the craving, at times harrowing and at times life-affirming, to glimpse, and feel, without fully conscious articulation, something that is free from place or time—something transcendent, or otherworldly, or immaterial. A similar tension is felt in the poetry of Larkin, but in Larkin dwelling is often claustrophobic, and the opening beyond place and time is often a void or a blank wall of fog. In Powell’s poetry, both the situated, time-and-place and the transcendent reinforce one another, so that freedom and dwelling are found in both: home is free, and freedom, speaking with admitted vagueness, is home. Hence the  ambiguities of the final lines of “Home Free”: “trust nothing,” we said to the future; “trust nothing to the future,” we said. “Nothing might come,” since it is up to the next day to decide whether the nothingness of annihilation happens; or “The next day might not come” since the annihilation might happen sooner. The “that” of “We dwelt on that” is especially open: The words,the future, the sentiment, the ambiguity itself. “We dwelt on” similarly has two senses: “mulled over,” “perseverated,” or else “lived upon,” “resided on.” But these two senses are complementary in a way that reveals the mutual sustenance of all of the earlier ambiguities: we live upon the uncertainty of our restless expectation of a future that might not come; the openness, the freedom from certainty, in that doubt of what might come, becomes a freedom in which the poet can dwell. These final ambiguities are superbly controlled recognition of what, in an essay on Robert Duncan, Thom Gunn called “the duplicity of the situation.” That duplicity is not duplicitous for Powell, but instead provides a charge to the poetry, like the two poles of a battery; or rather, the poem brings them together as a battery unites two poles, so as to draw out their charge, showing them to run to and through one another. The poem makes “a shelter in that difference,” its final lines providing closure that shelters the poem from its own exuberant energies, most vividly present  in the phantasmagoria of Khrushchev. But that is not to say that the poem finds a resting place or settles into itself only in the last stanza: the entire poem dwells with generosity, temperance, and fortitude within the breadth of its situation.

Surprisingly, I only now realize that I’ve written myself into the terms that might be a principle of selection for the Powell poems I’ve wanted to discuss. Intending, as I wrote them out, to demonstrate and explore Powell’s variety, I see now that the poems circle the same mutually sustaining tension between dwelling in freedom and the freedom found in dwelling.

The Crooked House


This is a lacquer tea tray

my father brought from China.

Home sick in bed from school I’d eat lunch off it,

in convalescent daydreams uncovering

an inland sea with islands


ideogram junks sail home

across its wine dark calm

enamel surface—each character a cage

of golden brush strokes, skeleton hull

and bamboo battened canvas,


each splay of shining bristles

capturing one touch,

one gesture of a hand no more than bones now.

And there’s a rickety pagoda teetering

from the tufted headland


where one craft returns

bringing gifts to close

the gape of absence and perpetuate its scar

—a ramshackle rustic temple, though a boy

lives there: he goes fishing


from the skiff, dangling his line

inside the curling, beveled

edges, and overlooks the floating wreckage

of estrangement and the scene that takes place here

I can’t remember—but why,


over and over, peering

from the threshold of this room

I’ve backed into, why must I construe

this single sentence? Must I settle down for keeps

inside this crooked house?


This poem has absorbed, thoughtfully and entirely, the influence of Elizabeth Bishop—and it may be that Bishop is as important a touchstone for Powell as Larkin. It lives from its first lines, but it opens up into itself, strange and suggestive, in the final three stanzas, where the “characters” of the ideograms give way to the characters of a fiction that Powell constructs. It opens into itself at a cost of syntactical coherence:  “the floating wreckage | of estrangement and the scene that takes place here | I can’t remember”  I will defend my locution: “opens into itself” because the poem seems to open up at this moment, away from the lacquer tray, but also looks inwards, into the memory of the fantasy as a memory of a fantasy. The poem becomes potently symptomatic even as it turns to self-diagnosis: “estrangement” suggests something between father and son (“the gape of absence” is relevant here), but also between the fantasy of the scene and the reality of the tray; and for a moment, the syntax suggests that the boy fishing overlooks both the wreckage of estrangement and the scene that takes place on the tray—only, as the next line picks up the phrase, for the language to be doing something else: the poet is speaking aloud, dramatizing his own incapacity to carry on the description of the boy fishing and overlooking the wreckage of estrangement. And so we realize that the poet has become estranged from his own memory and from the sentence of his own poem: he has ceased to dwell in the poem, at the moment he imagines a dwelling place (“the ramshackle rustic temple”) for the boy in the poem, capable of withstanding the “gape of absence” and the scar. The poem now becomes scarred by some psychic event that lies beyond its telling. The dash leaps to a question that looks existentially out to the blank of the page (“but why”) until in the next stanza revealing Powell as the double of the boy in the temple, but not “overlooking” so much as repeatedly, “over and over,” looking at the wreckage of what he is attempting to write and cannot finish. His question, in the end, is why he must go on attempting to “construe this single sentence,” where the single sentence is the description of the wreckage of estrangement that he broke off before. The poem ends not with a resolution, but with an exhausted defiance that asks why he must do what he in some sense feels compelled or obligated to do: “settle down for keeps.” “For keeps” means permanently but also can suggest indefinitely: the colloquial slang recalls the games of childhood, the youth of the poet, which has both passed and returned with a vengeance, and it also implies, in the word “keeps,” that something cannot be kept, or that the poet himself is kept, against his will, in looking back.

In that final question, “this crooked house” is the ramshackle temple of the scene he describes, the memory of the tray, the house where he writes—the place where he is brought to remember—and the poem itself. This is a poem about and emblematic of confinement rather than dwelling (it is itself a “keep,” a dungeon), with memory and fantasy, syntax and language, and object and image all pressing against and around the poet. The movement is from the convalescent childhood dream of voyages occasioned by the solid artistry of an object (Baudelaire’s poetry des departs is relevant) to the corrosive pain of recollecting in a poem that refuses to resolve in formal completion. It ends with vagueness that refuses closure rather than the ambiguity of timbers that lock in place.

The formal rupture of “The Crooked House” is the poem’s subject; it is a dramatized break  (well-choreographed) against the carefully controlled movement of thought, language, and feeling that characterizes most of Powell’s verse. Even where he allows for blurred impressions and runs into what cannot be articulated (see below, from “Time and Light”), the structure containing and relating such effects feels assured and complete. There are, though, poems in which Powell tolerates dead-ends and loose-ends of structure: his epistolary verse. Here, he writes so as to represent the freedom of letter-writing, but that freedom is itself braced against, and contained by, the implied intimacy with his addressees; the relationship is a residence, a haven for thoughts that cannot find completion in the poetry, or beyond; and the freedom of thought, the willingness to stand exposed in incompletion and uncertainty, is a foundation of mutual understanding in other ways.  It’s difficult to excerpt concisely from the verse-letters, and difficult in excerpts to demonstrate how hazy and unmapped the relationship between parts. I will instead quote from a section that I believe very nearly stands on its own merits, but that nonetheless refuses to circumscribe or confirm the relations of all of its parts:

from Inscriptions: a letter for my sister, Kath

A friend of mine just left

for the Sierras on a dig; last time

her group unearthed a miner’s tongueless boot,

two dented lanterns that still keep a whiff

of kerosene, and several red iron spikes—

things harder to read than funerary inscriptions.

But the same narcissism calls her back, I think,

as kept me reading them—or keeps you

after your lab is over, imagining

the convoluted flesh inside a skill,

hoping to uncover some cursive imprint

down a digressive path worked through grey matter

to conduct you past the dissolution

of its lethal earth. That’s why my friend’s

eyes and curious touch are so drawn to

those railroad spikes: though they bear the signs

of their long burial through the heavy years

since a blacksmith tonged one from the forge,

clamped it down on the anvil and raised his hammer—

half-gnawn by the wet earth, each flanged head shows

the careful print of his sledge blow still, and something

of contact with his fabricating hands:

a rusting incarnation of his will

lodged in the soil like a splinter in the palm

and dug out as a token for the time

that others of our kind have left, lost or planted here.

In this poem, and this section especially, Powell acts as intermediary, writing to his sister and invoking a friend she does not know. Already, relation and relevance is strained; he wants to compare the archaeological work of the friend with the neuro-anatomical investigations of his sister, and he relates her work in turn to his preoccupation reading funerary inscriptions in old Parisian churches, which his sister will soon visit. This section holds together so well that it could stand on its own. The final four lines are especially impressive for their accommodation of abstraction and religious possibility in a fully-realized concrete description. But the final line hedges, and the hedging is quite other than the anguish of “The Crooked House” or the ambiguity of “Home Free.”  “Left, lost or planted here” provide three distinct possibilities, held in suspension without any attempt at adjudication; and similarly “others of our kind” asks us to ask where the limits of “our kind” are found: in family, in shared passion for excavation, or in all humanity. The cadence and measure do not bristle at what is not determined; they instead are at ease in the indeterminacy, handing it off, as it were, to his sister.

The ultimate concept or question in the poem concerns what sort of selfhood or soul anchors a life. The poem’s openness, its nebulous edges, felt even in the onward flow of its rough pentameter, is itself an answer to the question, as its own formal unity, and disunity, is an implicit analogy for a soul: the soul is not a central presence, but a relational entity. As the final lines of the poem make clear, it cannot be found by introspection, and cannot perceive itself—the thought of such a soul is broken, something that people could once imagine, but that no longer remains intact:

Still, I can’t close this letter,

I suppose, without an image of the soul.

Others at times, I know, would pick

differently, but because you’ll soon

be going there yourself, today I’ll choose

a statue called The Venus of Arles—just

as she stands, twenty feet from one high wall

in the enormous public space of the Salle

des Cariatides in the Louvre, gazing

reflectively down at a marble mirror

broken away a thousand years ago,

only its handle left now in her grip.

The former image of a soul retains meaning by being preserved in the Louvre; but also by being preserved in the imaginary museum of the poet; it is both broken by time, no longer possessing a mirror in its grip, but offering a handle for the poet’s reflection nonetheless. What interests me especially in these lines is the phrase “I suppose,” which is the sort of hesitation entirely characteristic of Larkin, but so different here; whereas in Larkin it detaches the poet from a certainty of a proposition or feeling, here it operates on the poet’s own sense of what he can and can’t do; it attaches to “I can’t close.” He supposes what he says of himself is true; it is a close that is uncertain of its own inevitability, of its own force of closure; and at the same time, it registers the poet’s uneasiness with himself, a reflection that is not sure of what it sees, and that is consonant with the final image of the poem, which suggests this is entirely appropriate as an image of closure because of its enduring incompletion—perhaps incomplete as all letter, before it reaches an addressee, must be.

            “Time and Light” is an elegy in several parts, for the photographer Mark Goodman:

From “Time and Light”


From your movie projector the white sheaf

would open its cone into the darkness,

petals of color

falling to meet the screen.

Light changed to shadow and flowed there,

in a fullness, under our gaze, as the flowers,

peacocks and an open grave

now transmuted had moved once under yours


in this heavy world our fitful imaginations

feed on, play over in blue flame:

the alien light

where we dwell most, always

about to overflow and find

rest in a place answering our desires

—a bright pool that reflects

lips always about to meet their thirst.


That’s how it must have been when you finally knew

you were dying, knew you would dwell

in that light’s

expansion no longer. The grace

of speech that holds us withdrawn,

falling back into this world to stay, did you reach

desire’s unchanging end—stuck

meeting yourself at last while the light burns through?


The imagery of light both suggests the sublime and transcendent—that which dissolves place and time—but also the specific vocation of its subject: a photographer, whose medium, another section of the poem tells us, was time and light. That subject is especially well-suited to Powell’s art, apart from the affection Powell feels for this individual. Light itself becomes duplicit: alien but also natural to human dwelling, cast by the projector of the screen, where we see ourselves but also are distant from ourselves . “The alien light | where we dwell most, always” is the heart not only of this poem but of Powell’s poetry in general. “Most” is the crucial touch: we do not dwell entirely, we are both at home and displaced in any place we find ourselves; that is a source of grief but also, potentially, liberating, in so far as it promises a “rest in a place answering our desires,” without arriving there. The poem confronts the absolute loss of death by imagining a light that is present as something coming into being, a retreating presence, an approaching absence—a home we cannot claim but that is as near to home as we can find, in its expansive possibility of fulfillment. It is apt that this poem, too, ends with a questions: a question that genuinely yearns for an answer that it knows, in its phrasing, cannot be found.

            Here, as a final word, is “Housekeeping”:



After the old man fell

and broke his hip working in the garden

the shrubs next door grew free,

each year the pale new leaves

crowding denser shade against the walls


all summer, ivy over

spilling the eaves, the old couple both grown

too frail to trim it, and later

gone to a home and the house

left vacant, blinds drawn for nine months, then cleared out,


painted and sold. Today

when my new neighbors woke me, cutting back

the overgrowth, on the sill

beside my head dead bees

lay clustered—half a dozen, their dark wings


folded, their bronze fur

gold dusted in the sun on  a white ledge

above the buzz and sudden

shriek of electric saw

teeth biting down on green wood, faltering


against a pyracantha

limb’s sinewy resistance. At their breakfast last fall

before they hung their shades

I used to see them through

those thorny branches setting up housekeeping,


arranging rooms, and once

that December when her mother came

to help them settle in

she sat at their back window

rocking her infant grandson in her lap


for hours—whispering over

his smooth head, or sometimes signing, I wonder

if his grandmother told him

as mine did me in her still

small voice that the law of this world is woundedness


and that all these shining

presences are put here for signs and keep

their secrets in the folds

of a fire enticing

as the wavering blue circles of gas flame


under the heater grate

down the hall, the ones lit there to blister

little fingers, ones

that grasp too greedily

and won’t be taught to mind and not to touch


but look through semblances

to find the portents and commandments shadowed

there, veiled out of reach

of time. Virgil says

that in the underworld where each of us


suffers his own shade

our unborn souls are stung  by such dire lust

to see the blinding daylight

that we swarm like bees

to drink the waters of oblivion,


furious to resume

the weight of incarnation and forget

past lives taking up

residence in new bodies,

helpless. Or cradling his oblivious bald head


in her arms did she gentle him,

nursing her promise with a song in her ragged

alto about the new shoots

that would be waving outside

in the breeze to welcome him this spring rolling


laughing on the grass

while in his father’s hands beneath the eaves

the long bright blades

of the pruning shears are snicking

at the ivy, letting sunlight in the windows.


There is no question-mark in the final stanzas of the poem, even though the syntax (“did she gentle him”) suggests a question is being asked. It is as if the thought passed beyond a question into a settled thought, or as if the question became irrelevant. The poem never strays from the house where it is experienced, but its range of thought is speculative, verging on the mystical, as well as mythical. Its structure is inlaid, a story within a story, songs within the poem, and yet it seems to move by contingency and association—as happenstance as the chance of dead bees in a windowsill recalling Virgil’s swarm of dead souls. The poem is not only about, but establishes, in how it proceeds, all that is active and unknown in dwelling; all that dwells there, generative of, and exceeding, time and place.


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