a literary review
Stephen Roger Powers, a poet/writer hailing from the state of Wisconsin, began his first full length book, The Follower’s Tale, while still working on his PhD. Often his poems become a collection of bluegrass inspired lyric and narrative poems centered on his muse, the singer/actress, Dolly Parton. Powers’ newest collection of poetry, which is set to be published in the summer of 2014 by Salmon Poetry, is called Hello, Stephen, and continues this journey down the road to Dollywood, again using Parton as his muse. With poems that weave Dolly into and out of the speaker’s life and adventures, Hello, Stephen, constantly surprises the reader with its sense of humor, colorful detailed imagery, pop-culture references, and impressive narrative storytelling. It is a body of work that provides something for every poetry reader from novice to the well-read.
In Hello, Stephen, Powers transports us not only into the deep south of the United States, but around the world, from common cities like Chicago, to exotic places such as Hawaii, India, and Paris, where Dolly sometimes peeks her head in and out in his narratives. In his poem, “If You Ask Dolly to Take Off Her Shoes in Hawaii She’ll Cross the Threshold,” the speaker describes Dolly as she
balanced on stilettos for so long
she can no longer walk flatfooted, that
she has rubber heels for the shower?
And in “The Great Chicago Earthquake of 2002, Dolly teeters on yet another pair of her famous shoes:
The ghost of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow spared the House of Blue
the night Dolly Parton teetered into that toddlin’ town
in her pointed-toe mules with mile-high heels. . . .
Dolly finds herself poking into the speaker’s love life, travels, and has even found a permanent home on his tattooed arms.
In “Dolly Sees Dolly”, the speaker describes a fantasy meeting, where Dolly comes face to face with her image permanently etched on his arms:
So let’s talk about that Dolly tattoo getting inked.
The first thing it sang to me in healing, when the flaky
skin around her mouth fell away a few days later,
was, “He’s got a wandering eye and a traveling mind
big ideas and a little behind.” How funny when things
we’ve always known become known. . .
In the moment of eye contact, the Dolly cartoonized
on my right arm from elbow to wrist flares hot,
tingles green and yellow, balloons life-size and more,
flames in full Dollyized make-up color, hair teased,
lips red as two ruts through a wet Georgia
junkyard, puff of smoke and flashing spotlights,
neon pink signature logo a glow-stick butterfly
looping in the air around you & me.
Not only is Powers’ poetry full of Dolly imagery and humor, but he is not just a one trick pony. His use of real, identifiable details and imagery, his sense of humor, his distinctive voice, interesting titles, and poems of lost loves call to all of us on one level or another. His poems go from humorous and witty to pieces full of the angst of a lost love without skipping a beat.
In, “Sunday After,” Powers is simple and to the point in his poignant description of the losing of a love:
If I could misplace a single morning
It would be this one. . .
Where can I fold up
and put away today’s
morning, so vast and wide the falling tablecloth
in my chest cannot settle over it all?
In the poem, “Withdrawal,” Powers constant references to the pop culture in our everyday lives creates so much imagery and concreteness that we can’t help but relate to the times and objects he is referring to:
. . . and Lawrence Welk chisels
Kathy Ireland out of a half-eaten
Klondike Bar, her sickly skinny fudge
Legs melt down a playground slide
In the hot Columbia sun and
Drip like Beethoven’s piano notes. . .
Not only does Powers entrance us with his humorous word-pictures, but the imagery and words he uses make us feel like he himself is writing songs to the reader, creating rhythms and roller-coasters of surprising word phrases that continue to draw us in line by line as can be heard in like wet shoes bouncing / down a laundry chute.
Patrick Hicks, author of The Commandant of Lubizec and This London, writes that Stephen’s work is “full of hot Georgia nights, wonderment in India, and tattoos—both real and emotional—that have been stitched onto skin. His language burns with the same joy and heat of a firework sizzling up from Dollywood.”
Compared to his first book, The Followers Tale, this second book is an even more mature take on the Dolly muse. While Dolly is certainly present, her role is more a phantom figure or guardian angel who jumps from the background to the forefront and then back to the background. Here, Powers takes more risks and has the speaker open himself up with more vulnerability than the first work. What makes this book even more poignant and telling is a sense of loss, whether it be lost loves or loss of innocence. This thread woven throughout the book isn’t depressing, dwelling only on regret, rather there is also a surprising sense of hope that Dolly will continue to be there to influence and inspire Powers. Dolly, the muse like the legend herself will forever be etched in his heart and in his work.
As Thomas Lux wrote in tribute to the book, “Brooding, funny, sensuous, textured, drunk on language, this book is a wonder of precision of a passionate involvement with the world and many of its (shall we say “unique”) humans.” Powers is a talented and up and coming young poet with many more years of stories to tell us in his uniquely powerful, image-filled, humorous and detailed writing. There is something here for everyone who loves fully fleshed out narratives, lyrical poems, those who just love the music of words, and poetry that makes you think. My sense is that we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg with his talent.
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Sandra Cohen Margulius is a poet/writer residing in Bayside, Wisconsin with her husband, Simon. She has had works published in the Holocaust anthology Blood to Remember, edited by Charles Fishman, in 2005, and most recently in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, in 2013. Her poem “Women and Birds”, was selected the 2005 winner in RUNES, a Review of Poetry, Literary Journal, Signals edition. Her work has also appeared in Family Pictures: Poems & Photographs Celebrating Our Loved Ones, edited by Kwame Alexander, The Cream City Review, Radiance Magazine, Hodge Podge Poetry, Women Writing, Buffalo Bones, Robin’s Nest, A Wise Women’s Garden, Hey Listen, Laughing Boy, The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, and Sparkle, Sizzle, Hiss. She completed her MA in Creative Writing in December, 2001 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, inspired by poets/ teachers, Susan Firer and William Harrold. She is the mother of three grown children and proud grandmother of six.