Tara Powell finds it hard to contain her excitement. She has been writing poems for as long as she can remember from her schooldays in Elizabeth City to her adulthood in academia at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, but her new book “Physical Science” is her first free-standing publication and a milestone in her development as a poet.
Although her career has taken her south, her roots and family remain in Elizabeth City. On Saturday she hosted a book signing at Page after Page.
Powell is an Assistant Professor of English and Southern Studies in her sixth year at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. She sees the effect of poetry on her students on a daily basis, and believes it can play an important part in their lives.
“My teacher Alan Shapiro once told me that poetry couldn’t undo the Holocaust or bring his brother back to life, but that what it could do was be a tool for helping him to live in the world in which those things had happened to the people he cared about,” Powell said, referring to the professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
While some students struggle with poetry, it was an organic process for Powell.
“I can’t tell you when I started writing poems because I don’t remember when I wasn’t doing it,” she said.
When she started writing in Elizabeth City in the early 1980s, her parents and teachers quickly recognized her talent.
“I’m pretty sure I was presenting them to my teachers at JC Sawyer from as soon as I knew my letters,” she said. Her poetry developed at Northeastern High School.
“My high school English teacher in Elizabeth City, Judy Boyer, gave me a book called ‘Wildwood Flower’ to read by this wonderful poet Kathryn Stripling Byer who later became the North Carolina Poet Laureate,” Powell recalled.
“Those poems weren’t high-sounding flowery stuff about a world way away from the one I lived in, but they were these incredible poems in the voice of a mountain woman, just telling about her life, the way I had known real people talk about real life,” Powell said.
The work of Byer helped her discover poetry wasn’t just about Wordsworth and Blake. “I realized that poetry wasn’t just trying to sound like people from 200 years ago, but it was right now, in our every day life, in finding the music in the people’s voices around us and in our own lives,” she said.
She has been avidly reading poets from the Carolinas ever since as she moved to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and on to Columbia.
“Physical Science” is a chapbook, a small manuscript of stories or poems, about half the length of a regular-sized book of poems. “It’s a little book in terms of size, but it means a lot to me,” said Powell.
In best traditions of the metaphysical poets, “Physical Science” draws on principles of physics and natural science in a thoroughly modern setting.
Powell says it’s about relationships between men and women and “all the mistakes you go through to figure out what’s really worth having and is going to work for your life, and how it’s not about what works for others, but what works for you, and that’s OK.”
“A lot of the poems in it are inspired by principles of physics and natural science and how the rules of how we relate to each other turn out to be a little like the rules of the universe, far more mysterious than we wish they were,” she said.
The collection is the culmination of a decade of work.
“Some of the poems have a lot of me in them and others are mostly imagined experiences, but either way they reflect some of the issues of coming of age as a modern woman and figuring out how love fits into my life,” Powell said.
The little book is “tightly knit around that idea of science becoming a way of exploring human relationships,” Powell said.
“The sequence just seemed most powerful standing alone. I was thrilled when the editors of Finishing Line Press thought so, too..”
Powell’s poems are intense and full of a bittersweet energy and tension between the sexes. In Growing Season she writes. “One morning soon, she will kiss his lips, then gouge—like rain—his eyes.”
And homely Carolina themes are woven in with darker allusions to subjects such as original sin.
“Before butter or flour, there was stolen fruit,” Powell writes in “Evolution.”
And there is science and sex interwoven as in the powerful metaphor at the start of Chrysanthemums. “A CAT scan is like that, riding a hot, sexy rush into a grave.”
One of Powell’s more complex poems is called “Poincaré’s Conjecture” and refers to a mathematical theorem about the characterization of the three dimensional sphere.
“Math tells us what takes shape is just material, that the sphere of my life is just like yours, emerging on one horizon and rolling across the Carolina blue to sink into the other,” she writes.
And “Love Song for Stephen W. Hawking” is a break from the meters of many of Powell’s other poems, a dark and earthy piece that seems on the face of it, to have little to do with the British scientist who argued the Big Bang, rather than a divine being, created the universe.
It all started with a quote by Hawking, Powell explained. The scientist had said chocolate and love made life worth living.
At 34-years-old, Powell is hopeful she has more collections of poetry ahead of her. She has another book of prose about contemporary southern writing coming out next year, has published many essays and poems in journals and newspapers and online magazines over the past 15 years.