Powell's third, and best, book completes his much-talked-about trilogy about growing up gay and uneasy in the age of HIV—and about living with the virus himself. "Cocktails" signifies both drinks on the town and a mix of anti-AIDS drugs; the pun is the first of many effective (if showy) doublings, ambiguities and slippery phrases throughout the book, some brightly flirtatious, others grave indeed. Powell divides the volume into "mixology," "filmography" and "bibliography": the poems of the first part begin from scenes, songs and friends, the second appropriate famously queer-centric films, and the third rings changes on episodes from the New Testament. Powell can allude and evade with the best of them, but he shows equal skill in pleas from the heart: "listen mother, he punched the air: I am not your son dying"; "what's the use of being pretty if I won't get better?" As in Tea , Powell (who now teaches at Harvard) uses the ultra-long line he deployed for agile grammatical feints and leaps; these poems, however, show a greater range, and far more versatile use of old-school precedents (from the Gospels to Renaissance pastoral), skillfully mixed with pop culture of all kinds. In one ode, emulating Odysseus, Powell croons "a dusty springfield song" to "a scant crew of leukocytes/ who have not mutinied"; "the mermaids beckon from the cape." It is not a journey to miss. (Mar.)
Forecast: Powell's debut, Tea, fired up a critical following, some of which found the follow-up, Lunch, disappointing. Cocktails, by contrast, should land him national awards. Its strong theme could also translate to considerable coverage outside the usual poetry venues; if that happens, look for very expanded sales.
Release date: 03/01/2004