You might find it hard to keep your footing if you charge at the poems in Ted Powers’s new collection Manners in the conventional way. Breaking into the first line and barreling straight down to the bottom doesn’t work. If you read these poems from beginning to end, it’s easy to get lost and turned around, until you start chasing after yourself in a recursive loop.
I find it’s easier to flip through Manners, to cast your eyes about and wait for them to hook onto something muscular and twitchy. The poem “Small Talk in Darkness” revealed itself to me from the inside out. There’s a line in almost the immediate center of the poem — “dirty from sunlight” — that caught my attention. Such a great image, so counterintuitive and prickly!
From there, my eyes pinwheeled around, looking for the meaning behind that line. They caught on the last two lines: “and this isn’t our first rodeo/it isn’t even a rodeo.” A phenomenal way to end a poem, with a great big question mark. Those two images, the dirtying sunlight and the not-our-first-not-rodeo, provide a twinned pair of points with which you can map the rest of the poem out using a kind of literary geometry.
“Small Talk in Darkness” is a poem about thinking you’ve figured it all out when you clearly haven’t figured anything out. Once you can use those two lines to orient yourself, the first lines of the poem crack open like a ripe coconut: “In the mirror/I brush my teeth wrong.” We’ve all had that moment, maybe coaxed by a little chemical inducement, to truly see the backwardness of our mirror selves. It’s a sick-making observation, making us feel, Powers continues, “like one who has popped/out of a birthday cake/into a windowless room.” The airless surprise of that ghastly mirrored moment, a suffocating celebration. Powers continues:
would I be different
if I was someone else
I am someone else
It becomes very clear: the mirror, the things that are like other things that aren’t like other things at all, the realization that “you’re my best friend/my other best friend” and its attendant understanding that “….our default mode/is endless nameless need.” This is a poem about realizing that you don’t know yourself at all. Even that need, howling at the core of your being, seems to be keening at a different pitch than you recall. On second inspection, those closing lines about the rodeo that isn’t a rodeo don’t seem funny or wise. They seem sad, and kind of dangerous, and about as familiar as, well, your own face in a mirror.
Manners is full of poems like that. You know how Zeno’s Arrow theorizes that if you keep dividing the distance an arrow travels in half, that arrow will never reach its target? Powers seems to be saying something similar about people: since it’s impossible to really be ourselves, we’ll never really be part of a group of people larger than ourselves. You can’t make yourself whole when you’re a bunch of halves, each smaller than the one before it.
Once you start throwing your eyes around Manners, it’s not an easy thing to stop. The trails your eyes leave, connecting the middle of this poem to the first stanza in that poem to the lonely girl sitting in the window that floats above an alien landscape in one of Powers’s collages spread throughout the book, begin to resemble those yarn-and-thumbtack corkboard schemata that serial killers make in the movies. Are you spinning order out of chaos, or are you just connecting this random photograph of a goldfish to that random mention of “celebrating the anniversary/of forgetting something we were/trying to forget” because your brain wants to create order out of chaos? What if it really is just a collection of poems amalgamated together out of snappy one-liners and nothing else?
But Powers leaves a few obvious signs that he’s serving a greater purpose with Manners. “The Box Arrived in the Mail” is perhaps the most straightforward poem in the batch, a narrative account of the arrival of a package with “no return address, just a drawing/of a human heart." The recipient tries to open the package, but it’s layers of tape on top of layers of tape, and no tool can find purchase:
…I tried a knife. The box broke
my knife. It bent my pliers. A crack shivered
through the handle of my hammer. My
shovel’s head dented in. The box filed
down the fine teeth of my hacksaw.
What’s at the center? Unclear. The only thing that’s obvious, Powers writes in the last line, is “There were people here when I started.” Beautiful: he notes their absence by remembering their presence. It’s a poem with as much ambition, as much single-minded obsession, as Captain Ahab, and its story ends with similar desolation and loneliness.
The ache in this book is real. “Earlier today I thought I saw you alive…” begins “I Don’t Want To But Then I Do,” and then the poem continues, “…but it was just a trick/the light plays/on the world.” That resurrection trick is a good one, but the laughter it inspires is raw and wounded. You can’t stop staring at the Powers in these poems — bleeding, clutching his side, driving race cars, popping out to surprise you like a common circus clown — because he’s exactly as funny and sad and ridiculous and tragic as you are — only just a little different.
In the end, after you let your eyes ride diagonally and backwards and upside-down through Manners, you're likely to finally settle on that one word on the cover. Manners. Like, etiquette? As in, “comedy of...?” Is this a puzzle book that comes with its own solution right there on the cover? Is Powers saying that even though none of us know what we’re doing or who we are, perhaps it’s our manners, our obligations to others, no matter how minor, that give us our meaning as we stumble through the world?
Damned if I know. But that would be a pretty good conclusion to draw, wouldn’t it?
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant