Chase Dimock: A Review of All Seats Fifty Cents, by Stephen Roger Powers

 

Although Stephen Roger Powers’ latest book All Seats Fifty Cents contains some poems that aren’t about Dolly Parton, once she enters your mind, she commands your imagination like the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. So, it’s impossible to begin this review in any other way but to marvel over Powers’ many Dolly meditations. And, it’s a good place to start because the Dolly Parton poems are a microcosm of Powers’ overall vision of the inalienable relationship between popular culture and personal identity in the American 20th and 21st centuries.

The story of Dolly Parton’s evolution as a pop icon is simultaneously Powers’ own coming of age narrative illuminated by the televised glow of Dolly’s radiant blonde. In a section titled “Burst My Bubbles,” Powers recalls the moment Dolly captured his adolescent fantasy:

I credit Dolly Parton in a bubble bath
for popping my Catholic cornfield bubble
I was hating my Sunday altar boy costume
and sore knees from all that kneeling

Like for so many other young people in the 70s and 80s, Dolly Parton’s television appearances in conservative households snuck in a vision of an alternative to the American culture of repression and limited ambition. For Powers, this is an erotic, but not objectifying awakening:

Sunday night, the 27th of September, 1987-
lather, bare shoulders, and a great big smile

Parton speaks directly to Powers from a bathtub, alluding to the promise of a world of something more glamorous and desirable than the duties of the Catholic altar boy.

While it’s doubtless that millions of adolescent boys had certain new stirrings when first seeing Dolly’s farm girl charm, luxurious appeal, and ample bosom, for Powers, this is not a story about a typical pin up object of desire. Rather, his fixation on Dolly is about how her transcendent talent and creative vision offer a lifestyle that breaks through gender and class barriers in ways few celebrities allowed in the conservative world could. In “Step It Up a Little,” Powers testifies to the appeal of Dolly’s agency, “Every man should learn to walk in stilettos as high as Dolly Parton’s.” It is refreshing to hear a straight man praise a female artist as something he aspires to be like. Dolly is a gay icon like Judy, Liza, Cher, Diana, Joan and Bette, all strong women who forged the steel of femininity. Yet, the appeal is universal, and what gay men got out of modeling themselves after these women is what straight men have long needed and have recently become more comfortable in expressing. That’s the power of Dolly Parton; she radiates universal qualities we all admire, and yet we all feel as though we have uniquely intimate relationships with her art.

 

 

Powers’ Dolly poems understand how we craft our identities through the complexities of the celebrity/fan relationship. There have been plenty of odes to heroes in the history of poetry, but not as many about the nuances of 21st century fan culture. Beyond the scope of Dolly as an idol to worship, Powers’ poems also explore how she is a lifestyle to live and a commodity to purchase. Dolly is not just a singer and celebrity; she’s also a businesswoman with her own themepark, Dollywood, where the fan can live in a world of her own design.  In “Dolly Floats,” first published here on As It Ought To Be Magazine, Powers writes a year by year chronicle of Dolly’s appearances in parades at the Dollywood theme park, accompanied by annotations about his personal life:

2015

Dreams come true when Dolly, garnished in red
with gold trim, jack-in-the-boxed from cake,
her great big yellow wig a flaming candle.

With the majestic vision of Dolly, always as much fantasy as she is human, Powers own humanity and flesh, as prone to weakness as all us other mortals, comes between him and Dolly:

2017

Antibiotics pinholed my right hip.
“If I take it easy do you think I could
go to Pigeon Forge on Friday
for Dolly’s annual parade?”
“No.”
Steroids picked my left hip.
“But you don’t understand–”
“Absolutely not.”

Powers most powerfully juxtaposes the goddess with the mere mortal in his poem “Never Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story.” Here, he recounts a brief encounter with Dolly in her Dollywood dreamland, known as the “sausage story.” He gives us first a mundane version in which he merely sees her walk by, and then this version “unshackled from the truth” that may be fiction, but better expresses the impact of seeing her while eating a sausage.

the greasy peppers and onions slid.
the moment the reigning queen of Nashville
graced all us fans standing around waiting
in the Dollywood devilry she gave us.
She was so sunny and funny
she hollered to her bodyguard to pour
club soda on me before the stain set.

Powers builds a connection with Parton through mythologization. We retell stories until the facts of the story transform into the meaning it holds for the teller. Powers further explores how celebrities do the same, and because their words are recorded, we can actually track this phenomena. He unpacks the story behind Jolene’s evolution from mere fan to vixen along side the multiple retellings and revisions of his sausage story:

Dolly lets her stories take
on a life of their own like this too…

Listen to Dolly tell it now–
Jolene is a fiery-headed hussy
at the bank who tried to steal
her husband one day when he cashed
a royalty check for
“I Will Always Love You.”

A celebrity is always a collaborative mythology created between the woman beneath the wig and the collective imagination of the audience. In these poems, we see Dolly as she is, and as she is imagined. Both of these Dollys are equally real.

I hope Powers will Parton me (get it???) for obsessing over Dolly in my review as much as he does in his poems. This American icon who my grandmother proudly refers to as “your grandfather’s secret girlfriend” cannot ever not be the focus of any media she graces. That said, the balance of Powers poems achieves equally brilliant insights into the relationship between pop culture and individual/family identity through considerations of other televised spectacles. In a poem about Lou Ferrigno’s feet, Powers writes:

My brother and his strawberry Kool Aid mustache
peeked out just in time to see
the hulk’s green slippers–unedited, overlooked,
unraveled illusion impossible to un-see–slap
the concrete, slow motion run away.
The Hulk wears green slippers
It wasn’t long before I learned trust
means different things to children and adults.
Even now I can’t un-see Challenger crumbling
in the sky like a clump of wet sand.

In the past few years, Hollywood seems to have kept itself afloat by repackaging 80s and 90s nostalgia to those who lived through it. Without a critical eye, or more social relevance than giving the heroes smartphones, this nostalgic regurgitation has been more of a security blanket roof over a couch cushion fort than any artistic tribute or reimagination. This is why I appreciate Powers’ pop culture poems so much. While they touch on nostalgia, they avoid the uncritical sentimentality of nostalgia that takes shots of Crystal Pepsi until you can’t hear the news about climate change anymore. Powers’ poems are not an escape from reality; rather, they detail the sad ache of nostalgia and the beauty of somehow knowing, even in one’s golden years, that the tarnish is inevitable and possibly already there. Nostalgia, as Powers engages with it, can be a powerful and informative way to trace the origins of our values and explore how we became who we are.

Everyone in a Dolly Parton concert has sausage stains and arthritic hips. Powers shows that Dolly’s presence doesn’t change this reality, but with her Backwoods Barbie persona, she knows Club Soda is a miracle potion and that the sparkle of her sequins is majestic, and on sale at Joann Fabrics.

 

All Seats Fifty Cents is available via Salmon Poetry

 

About the Author: Chase Dimock is the Managing Editor of As It Ought To Be Magazine. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Illinois and his scholarship has appeared in College LiteratureWestern American Literature, and numerous edited anthologies. His works of literary criticism have appeared in Mayday MagazineThe Lambda Literary ReviewModern American Poetry, and Dissertation Reviews. His poetry has appeared in Waccamaw, New Mexico Review, Faultline, Hot Metal Bridge, Saw Palm, and San Pedro River Review among othersFor more of his work, check out ChaseDimock.com.

 

More by Chase Dimock: 

A Review of John Dorsey’s Your Daughter’s Country

A Review of Jumping Bridges in Technicolor by Mike James

Leadwood: A Conversation With Poet Daniel Crocker

“Dolly Floats” By Stephen Roger Powers

 

Dolly Floats

              2012

Pigeon Forge raised Dolly
up on eagle’s wings, and she flew
on those wings of an eagle while
the eagle stared down its nest at the front of the float
and followed it like a donkey after a carrot.
When the parade was over,
Dolly took the stairs through the eagle’s tail
feathers, and popped out the back
like an Easter egg.

              2013

Rocks, an inflatable dinghy, and fresco rapids
rushed forth a lifeguard station
with baywatchful Dolly waving a floatation
board and singing along to her own songs.
She lifted the hem of her red swim
skirt and blew one of the cherry
whistles sewn around it. Policemen
blocked the end where she got off,
so I traffic-sulked to Ole Smoky
Distillery, where I drowned
in samples of every flavor.

             2014

Ole Smoky was the first stop this year.
The guy in overalls who gave me free
cherries sanitized his hands
with White Lightnin’. By the time
I got to the parade, I was corned
for engine-and-ladder Dolly with blazing
spangle-sparkles on her hat.
Her nieces sat with fake
fireworks at the front of the roller-coaster
float. Some of Dolly’s hair stuck
in her lipstick. She pulled it free
and blew a kiss in one motion.

             2015

Dreams came true when Dolly, garnished in red
with gold trim, jack-in-the-boxed from a cake,
her great big yellow wig a flaming candle.
Her beefcake bodyguard hollered at the drone following.
It hovered off backwards like a scared puppy
because she posed her arms at it spread wide
for a picture. Sometimes I wonder if she gets tired
of waggling her hands this way, then that,
this way again, that way again.

            2016

My Tennessee cousin, some unknown
number of removes, called my new
Dollywood Gold Pass a roller coaster license.
The woman working the photo
booth took my picture for it a half-smile,
wind-disheveled second before I was ready. Six o’clock,
out paraded laced-up Dollyized lumberjack boots,
icepick heels more honed than usual. Dolly’s fashion
assistant fastened a seatbelt around Dolly’s waist.
A gristmill float or a riverboat float?
Depends how you looked at the paddle wheels
turning on each side. Blue and white
streamers were fluttery water fill-ins. Either way,
Dolly sat high enough to mark twain.

            2017

Antibiotics pinholed my right hip.
“If I take it easy do you think I could
go to Pigeon Forge on Friday
for Dolly’s annual parade?”
“No.”
Steroids pricked my left hip.
“But you don’t understand—”
“Absolutely not.”
No Dolly Parton on account of doctor’s orders.

             2018

Four months in advance Dolly
announces after 32 years grand
marshaling she will step
down. Social media smells
a conspiracy, because Dolly is guilty
of having stood between Lily and Jane
at the Emmys. Cal Ripken Jr.
will ride a mountain-mural
guitar. A giant baseball will roll
behind him. Maybe next year
the resonant frequency of everyone in the
world singing a Dolly song
at once will parade Dolly
out once more.

.

About the Author: Stephen Roger Powers started writing poetry almost twenty years ago to pass time in the middle of the night when he was too energized to sleep after coming off the stage in comedy clubs around the Midwest. He is the author of The Followers Tale and Hello, Stephen, both published by Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in 32 PoemsShenandoahThe Southern Poetry Anthology Volume V: GeorgiaRabbit Ears: TV Poems, and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia PoemsHe hasnt done stand-up in a long time, but every once in a while he finds avenues for the performer he was born to be. He was an extra in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and he can be seen if you know just where to look.

O’Brien’s Tower

 

.

O’Brien’s Tower

By Stephen Roger Powers

 

O’Brien’s Tower

If you stand on the beach in Montauk
and launch miniature ships from your eyes—
indulge in breaking miniature champagne bottles
across their bows first—the line of ships will,
if they don’t change course, brush Rio Grande do Norte
and Paraíba, approach Australia from the south, and make land
near Perth. The things you learn from YouTube.

Today I am at the Cliffs of Moher throwing a message
in a bottle over the edge, none of anyone’s business
what it says, charting it toward a discoverer
who will uncork and unroll it waves and winds
and continents away from the straight-line recipient.

Sea-mist mornings like this, it is easier to imagine
the nosey finder puzzled and riddled
and pulled by the tease of its suggested narrative
than it is to map the direction
over the horizon and a thousand
unseen horizons after the first
where my country is from here.

.

About the Author: Stephen Roger Powers started writing poetry almost twenty years ago to pass time in the middle of the night when he was too energized to sleep after coming off the stage in comedy clubs around the Midwest. He is the author of The Followers Tale and Hello, Stephen, both published by Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in 32 PoemsShenandoahThe Southern Poetry Anthology Volume V: GeorgiaRabbit Ears: TV Poems, and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia PoemsHe hasnt done stand-up in a long time, but every once in a while he finds avenues for the performer he was born to be. He was an extra in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and he can be seen if you know just where to look.

“Standard Time” By Stephen Roger Powers

G_flocky (2)

.

Standard Time

The highway to work was longer than usual
the first Monday after turning back the clocks.

My watch suggested I slow down.
You are not late enough, it said. Daydream some more.

Hood up, hands in his pockets, a boy waited
at the end of a driveway by a mailbox.

His jowly fawn boxer sat in charge
of watching the other direction for the school

bus, its muzzle and underbelly
white as a fence post.

My super vision cut a hole, like a glass on biscuit
dough, in the boy’s bag sagging at his feet.

His math homework wore a corsage
of purple jelly

thumb prints above the first story problem.
If you are traveling fifty miles per hour,

my watch said, and work is fourteen miles away
racing toward you a hundred kilometers per hour,

when and where will the train derail?
How long does it take the bullet to exit the barrel?

My eyes met the boy’s through the windshield
as I passed. He yawned contagiously.

The boxer’s little docked tail
bustled up leaves that matched its coat.

.

About the Author: Stephen Roger Powers started writing poetry almost twenty years ago to pass time in the middle of the night when he was too energized to sleep after coming off the stage in comedy clubs around the Midwest. He is the author of The Followers Tale and Hello, Stephen, both published by Salmon Poetry. Other work has appeared in 32 Poems, Shenandoah, The Southern Poetry Anthology Volume V: Georgia, Rabbit Ears: TV Poems, and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems. He hasnt done stand-up in a long time, but every once in a while he finds avenues for the performer he was born to be. He was an extra in Joyful Noise with Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, and he can be seen if you know just where to look.