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Weekly Poem: Alison Powell dissects myths to uncover human complexity

Alison Powell

Alison Powell has always been a fan of the underdog. In her debut collection of poetry, “On the Desire to Levitate,” the writer takes that attraction as inspiration for her work.

“I think that poetry, especially in the Western world, has such a tradition of celebrating beauty and celebrating passion and love. I’ve always been particularly drawn to and interested in poetry that sort of digs its way into the crevices of life that may be less attractive, less traditionally attractive,” Powell told Art Beat.

“Many of my poems are preoccupied with trying to find sympathetic perspectives on characters that may not be so sympathetic.”

The poet, a winner of Ohio University’s Hollis Summer Poetry Prize, explored a variety of subjects, from the protagonists of iconic Greek myths to different versions of herself from her own childhood. She harkened it to “approaching these topics in reverse.”

“It’s normally the mythic character from great Western literature that we read about and expect to be heroic and exalted. Instead I’m trying to bring them down to earth and have Hercules lamenting what his wife does to him; Eurydice’s snarky with Orpheus,” said Powell.

One such poem is “After Paradise Lost,” where Powell seeks to understand Satan.

“As many people have said, the character of Satan, despite Milton’s best intention, comes off as infinitely more interesting than the character of God. It’s a wonderful accident, but he’s also tremendously sympathetic. He’s a fallen angel, he’s jealous, but he loved God and that’s how he became who he became.”

Powell used poetry to think through Satan’s shift “from love to jealousy to destruction.”

Listen to Alison Powell reads her poem “After Paradise Lost” from her debut collection “On the Desire to Levitate.”

After Paradise Lost

When the evil army comes it is accompanied
by a deceptively novel trumpet, as a woman

wears white and believes in it. An angel
is not spiteful without cause, having been flung

from the hand of God, whose engine, reportedly,
is love itself. How badly the crippled angel

wanted to be first in everything, God’s
man Friday! He is not without scruple;

he envies the earth. The earth is just
beyond chaos, and rests against chaos,

yet everything that comes from the earth’s Garden
can be tended, pulled, made orderly—

blanches and laid before a guest—
the earth has something called an offering.

The story of the Garden is allegorical
An allegory is like a forked tongue;

an allegory is an infant bastard who is fitful.
The Garden becomes linked with a feeling

of sickness and trepidation: a dream
of taking an air balloon ride over a river

because the bridge is burning.

Powell grew up in rural Indiana, a past she draws on to create new mythic characters.

“The way I grew up was such that girls had a certain place and were supposed to be relatively nurturing and docile creatures. And I’m trying to make them into rebellious characters, not unlike what I am trying to do with Eurydice and Satan and Hercules.”

In each instance, Powell, who will teach poetry at Oakland University in Michigan in the fall, is attracted to the nuances of the human experience, “acknowledging the things about us that are not pious or generous or exalted.”

“What it means to be a human being is to be profoundly complex and conflicted. I would definitely not say it’s out of any urge to be cathartic — that if we face these things, we can better deal with it. It’s more that we should look at them and even celebrate them, celebrate our passions, even the ones that lead us astray,” said Powell.

“When we turn to poetry it’s because we want to be reminded how to slow it down and pay attention. I think that’s especially true now. And part of that paying attention means looking at things that we might not want to look at — or that we’ve trained ourselves not to look at — and appreciating what those things are as well.”

“After Paradise Lost” was excerpted from the book “On the Desire to Levitate” by Alison Powell. Copyright © 2014 by Alison Powell. Reprinted courtesy Ohio University Press.

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