All Seats Fifty Cents: Poems
by Stephen Roger Powers
Salmon Press, $14.33 paperback, 96 pages
Anyone who knows literature or Ireland understands the bond between the two. Where would the art of letters in the 20th Century be without the likes of Yeats, Joyce, or Heaney? So when I learned that Stephen Roger Powers—a Midwesterner transplanted to Georgia—had published three poetry collections through an Irish press, I knew something special was happening. I’m sure Ireland has no shortage of their own writers to support—even their government still sees fit to award stipends to talented wordsmiths! So what did this American have that Ireland was ready to throw such strident support behind him?
Well, the answer is one that fills my mouth with descriptors. Powers’ poems are intelligent and good-hearted. They’re funny, alive, and also capable of profound anger or quiet meditation. The speaker is forthcoming, yet transformative, intimate and well-acquainted with his personal history but just as familiar with the world of pop culture and even just the contemporary world as this collection travels with its speaker, letting us tag along from Jekyll Island to Ennistymon to the Cliffs of Moher, and even Columbia, a place “great for beans at Blue // Cactus, painted aliens on the sidewalk, yesterday’s back porches, Spanish moss and honeysuckle, empty iron stadium that looks like spider legs or hands praying to the sky depending on which way you look at it, bombers on the bottom of Lake Murray, the only man I ever met named Worthy[….]” The voice of this collection wrestles with an American identity, but is fully American, understanding the complex ancestral path that brought him here. And if you think that six sections to a collection could be cumbersome or an excessive amount of organization for a book without a central project or conceit, stop that thought. The framework of intriguing titles and each section’s willingness to alternately hold a single poem in its palm or embrace nearly twenty different pieces keeps the rhythm of the book shifting, the pacing from becoming predictable or mechanical.
In the beginning of a Powers book, you’re likely to see something that he calls a “Proem.” If I see Powers, I’m going to ask him about this convention he has invented to call his books to order. This one-poem section is not a prose poem as a reader might assume—the lines are quite clearly lines—but it does have the quality of an extended memory and such a detailed description of a family member that it can only be seen as a kind of ode and celebration of the recent generations who imparted wisdom and parts of themselves in the poet’s youth. In this piece, we watch a grandmother with Austrian roots who has initially been given the name “Unidentified Woman” by the title. But while the title shows restraint, the poem is generous with its details, even beginning with some dialect flavor from this matriarch: “‘You dasn’t do that,’” she told us / when we threw L’eggs eggs around.” And this poem, like many of the early poems in this collection, puts the alacrity of the speaker’s memory on full display.
I must confess, reading some of these poems, I feel a little ashamed at how poorly I remember many of my family members or even the basic day-to-day details of my childhood. What a sieve I am compared to this speaker. In the poem “Universal,” the speaker remembers his trip to the Universal Studios Theme Park in all its cinematic grandeur:
[…]After the escape
from the landing craft, I turned around
and watched the bisected Cylons
reassemble for the next tram.
Then I yelled to look out for the fin in the water,
but the man went under and the leaping shark
so scared me out of my seat the old lady
next to me got her white polyester
pants wet. The tour guide took us
past a thatch-roof set for a Gilligan’s Island
movie that was already forgotten.
To this day I remember an Incredible Hulk
brick-smashing on stage as filming with Bill Bixby,
even though it didn’t happen that way
and it wasn’t Lou Ferrigno in the make-up.
When we returned home to paper plate hot dog
and macaroni suppers, Muffit the Daggit
crawled through vents to bring life
masks to voyagers trapped by fire.
In this poem and many others (and I had to stop myself from quoting more; the details are all so full and rich), Powers finds these pop culture references to be activators of his own imagination, things that transform his life or put it into a greater context. They’re not just here to grab our attention or give us a common experience. I imagine that contemporaneousness may be a challenge to some readers who would prefer to read about Roman aqueducts or Grecian urns, but Powers knows how to cut past the common story to the human beings within or behind these characters. He knows how to see the ways in which they can change us. The speaker of these poems may be well-educated, but he’s no snob. I mean, a snob wouldn’t be allowed to have Dolly Parton as his muse.
If there is one thing that is a deal-breaker for this book (or any of Powers’ work, really) is that you must appreciate and respect one Dolly Parton. While she may not be quite as omnipresent as she was in his previous collections (his prior work Hello, Stephen even contains the poem “I Can’t Sleep with You if You Don’t Like Dolly Parton”), but her name still appears around forty times in this book. While the speaker’s childhood had a place for Gilligan’s Island, Star Wars, and The Incredible Hulk (I love the idea of “Lou Ferrigno’s Delicate Feet” getting their own poem), but it is Dolly Parton that he goes back to again and again for his muse and inspiration. And he’s fully committed to his idol, heading to Dollywood every summer with his season pass his cousin calls a “roller coaster license.” This is where he watches the Dollywood parade in his poem “Dolly Floats.” Like the Proem, this type of poem also appeared in his previous collection where “Dolly Floats” covered the years of 2004-2011. Now, Powers picks up to cover 2012-2018 when Dolly has announced she will give up her grand marshal gig. This could be a heartbreaking moment, the end of an era, a public icon retiring to a private life, but the speaker holds out hope:
[…] Maybe next year
the resonant frequency of everyone in the
world singing a Dolly song
at once will parade Dolly
out once more.
In the hands of a weaker poet, this kind of poem would contain the tedium of showing a slide-show of vacation photographs. Similarly, in the hands of a weaker poet, the poems of family could be like having a dusty photo album dropped in your lap as someone lists of the names of the folks in the images. I must confess, there are dozens of late-career southern poets that have steel-trap memories and details galore to their stories. What Stephen Roger Powers has that they lack, however, is a well-toned imagination that allows him to reimagine the world and let these detailed accounts transcend their circumstances.
One of my favorite poems for this is “Bear in Mind” from the book’s longest section entitled “Masquerades Such as These.” The poem begins:
Pita chips taste better when I act
as if each is a megalodon tooth.
I am a powerful beast to eat
such a jawful, my teeth hard enough to crack
the fossilized enamel and grind
the dentin to paste.
This speaker has an adult’s vocabulary, but the imagination of childhood hasn’t been strangled out of him. He even knows how to best serve himself by letting his imagination reframe things in curious wonderment rather than despair:
I draw the line at seeing a munchkin
suicide. Clearly a crane or emu is
spreading its wings.
Instead of letting his eyes believe the rumors of a depressed extra on The Wizard of Oz and a dangling body, he sees rare birds stretching before he eventually posits the theory that humanity requires us to step beyond the literal fact: “Maybe our common humanity begins / in the way we love / remembering what isn’t true.” For me, this signals an appreciation of potential being more important than just recording things with verisimilitude. His speaker keeps asking, What if? that resonates in the reader. I pity anyone who isn’t intrigued to know what happens next in a Stephen Roger Powers poem.
After all, the character he puts forth in these poems is sensitive to the world around him, but tough and resilient. He’s a man with significant hearing damage that loves Dolly Parton’s music, speaks multiple languages, and writes poetry that sings. When he writes about this in practical terms, though, it’s not to say woe is me, but instead to tell things as they are. In one poem, he observes “The Main Thing My Grandmother and I Had in Common Was Not Hearing Well.” In “Yelling with Gestures,” he gets more into the day-to-day difficulties that aren’t muffled noises or creatures and people sneaking up behind him. Instead, he writes:
Hearing loss dooms me to a lifetime
of slow-loud advice like
scrub your ears out good,
don’t use Q-tips
because pushing down wax
makes your hearing worse,
find out if you had a fever
when you were a baby
Hearing loss dooms me to a lifetime
loud-slow questions like
do you wish you were normal?
how can you listen to Dolly Parton?
have you tried asking god to heal you?
maybe if you loved god
as much as you love Dolly Parton
he would give your hearing back?
are you really deaf or just retarded?
the most outrageous question:
can you have sex with hearing people?
It’s an absurd world, and we’re all a little slow to understand others sometimes, but more often than isolation or despair I find delight in these poems. When we finally get to the serious world travel of the last few poems, I think we’ve all earned it. All Seats Fifty Cents has the warmth of a friend’s fireplace after walking through the snow and frozen tundra. Even the cover glows with a cross-fade of orange floor behind a close-up of sparkling ruby slippers with a bow near the toe. For once, I’m going to tell everyone to judge a book by its cover if it gets them to open it. This one’s bright, beautiful, perhaps a touch glamorous, but not afraid of a good time.