Diving into the atmosphere of Kerry-Lee Powell’s fierce debut, Inheritance, requires some practice. As though entering a wormhole or underwater cavern, I had trouble at first making out the dark shapes of Powell’s “ancient ruins” and “drowned villages”. Gradually, in this world that is “God-lit. Dimmed by Germanic gloom,” the reader begins to recognize the features of an unearthly poetic landscape, replete with carved masks, vocal, untamed women, silent father-gods. Powell is a kind of diver and a diviner through memory and time. Some readers may never feel comfortable with these subliminal depths, but if you are willing to submerge yourself, you may see and hear something both dangerous and divine.
Drawing from the painful legacy of her father’s trauma and death– her “inheritance,” so to speak– Powell transmutes these experiences into passionate elegies with chorus-like repetitions and singing lines. She explores how fathers become symbolic presences, omnipresent yet ultimately impotent. In the sequence, “In the Halls of My Fathers”, the speaker wanders through a psychic space with “no exits, only entrances and hallways.” It is a masculine and violent space with the music of muskets, portraits of dukes, philosophers and composers, “the Greats” who “swagger on the horizon” where a “whistling girl, crowing hen” is “graced and effaced by dead men.” Yet the speaker’s “bellicose heart” and strong stomach can cope with the tragic scope of her father’s death and the diminishment of masculine authority and power.
Conversely, a section of Inheritance depicts a chorus of fierce brides and “hen-nighters,” and the holy lives of make-up counter girls. Unlike the fathers with their expressions like masks, these females are vivid in floaty nightgowns and bits of sparkle. Powell refuses to let their uncelebrated lives slip beneath the surface. The poems feel like they are hauling something felonious or precious from the depths of forgetfulness, where it twists on the page. They are full of “dimly lit presences,” blurs and tricks that contrast the terse couplets and compressed rhythms. “Malefic,” about a murdered woman and her kidnapper and attacker, unspools in one long sentence, like the “loosely strung narratives” it contains. The reader becomes a complicit witness to these extreme lives. Like the audience to Electra or Antigone, we may feel horrified, then cleansed and purged with pity and fear at Powell’s portrayal of the human and the holy.
Powell leans on formal structures and echoes circular patterns of 18th century poetry. Most of the time, these structures provide a rhythmic lift to her language. Only in a few instances does a sonnet or regular pattern feel too laboured, too set-up. Powell prefers to cut away the inessential, paring down her stanza into a lean, lightning rod. There’s not much room for crescendos and changes in volume, though there’s lots of variation in tone from poem to poem. I also hear echoes of Gwendolyn MacEwan in a poem such as “Whiskey Mantra” with its elemental mystery and rocking, repeated lines: “I went through the whiskey,/ I passed through the fire,” and the keenings of Sexton, Plath and Glick in “Perdita”: “the hull of the whole hard world/ grinds me to the bone, breaks me like sticks.” Against the background of her predecessors, Powell’s voice carries. I believe I will hear it for some time.
Phoebe Wang is a graduate of University of Toronto’s MA in Creative Writing program, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared this fall with Odourless Press. More of her work can be found at www.alittleprint.com.
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