After taking a three-month break, I’m back with a new Poem & Song of the Month. This month, I decided to choose a poem by a poet whose work I’m not as familiar with: D.A. Powell. I was first introduced to his work as an MFA student at the University of Houston and recently decided to get his newest book of poems Useless Landscape or, A Guide for Boys which came out in 2012. It is a hefty book, and I mean that in the most positive ways. Powell writes poems that a reader can definitely sink their teeth into. His poems are filled with language-play, nature images, and they are written in a conversational tone that feels both intimate and humorous. What I also like about Powell’s work is that it challenges readers to really think about voice, perspective, and environment in ways that are masterful and playful.
The poem I chose, “End of Days,” is one of the shorter poems of the collection, but it stood out to me particularly because of the directness of voice and image and how both of those elements merge wonderfully to create a poem that is very compressed and powerful. Here it is in its entirety:
I have seen a hawk owl’s shadow across the street.
That doesn’t mean that I have seen a hawk owl.
He could join with me in the perfect guise of a bird.
Wild forms are with us always, though fleeting.
There are no particular things to make me love anyone,
least of all, not you.
On the wings of that great speckled bird.
Before I discuss the poem itself, I want to point out that one of the reasons I felt really struck by this poem is because of how it was placed in the collection. It appears halfway through the first section of the book (Useless Landscape) and all the poems that come before it are very effective in creating a mood wherein the speaker meditates on personal experience, but there is also this interesting interplay between language and nature that create a feeling of political and emotional complexity. In short, I felt very immersed in the landscape the poems had created and very much saturated with Powell’s use of vivid language and imagery. So, when this poem appeared, it took me by surprise at how direct and concentrated it was. It really opened the book up and made me more conscious of how the poems in the collection create their own ecosystem of poetic understanding. So, to me, this poem is masterful for that reason alone, plus, it demonstrates everything that Powell does poetically in a few lines through image, voice, and perspective.
The first thing readers get is an image of “a hawk owl’s shadow across the street,” which is very specific. Then, readers get an assertion from the speaker: “That doesn’t mean that I have seen a hawk owl,” which is very truthful, but also very clever. It feels characteristic of the speaker to point out something like this, and it works to great humorous effect. Then readers get the line “He could join with me in the perfect guise of a bird,” which also feels like a humorous statement, but complex because it suggests a merging with nature. Then, the speaker’s voice zooms out a bit and becomes meditative: “Wild forms are with us always, though fleeting.” This could suggest that the idea of merging with the bird is an example of a wild form, but also could suggest that nature has a way of creating forms that are unexpected and unconventional, but also not permanent, which is also to suggest that nature is always changing and evolving in ways that are not predictable. Then, emotion enters into the poem with the line: “There are no particular things to make me love anyone, least of all, not you.” A “you” enters the poem in relation to the idea of how the speaker encounters love. Here, it feels a bit deadpan and it creates most of the poetic tension within the poem. The final line: “On the wings of that great speckled bird” feels like a very masterful ending because it returns the poem back to its primary image: the hawk owl’s shadow, and modifies it by bringing the actual bird into the poem. The fact that the words are italicized make it feel like the speaker is actually part of the bird, existing on its wings, that the speaker has successfully managed to imagine himself as being fused with the bird.
“End of Days” is a masterful poem because of the way in which the speaker uses his own clever logic to imagine himself as being a part of the chaotic force of nature that allows for all sorts of possibilities. This poem contains a hawk owl shadow, a street, wild forms, love, and the hawk owl itself, but it also contains an “I” and a “you” who interact in complex ways that aren’t necessarily present within the poem. There is context that readers aren’t given access to, which makes the poem even more interesting and captivating. I think this poem really showcases what D.A. Powell does poetically: he’s both expansive and detailed, but he’s also very clever in his use of tone. “End of Days” is the poem that signaled me to go back and reread the poems that came before it because it highlighted the speaker’s voice in ways that made me want to track it more purposefully than I had before. I think this is what makes Powell an elite poet: his ability to captivate readers with his skillful use of language and tone.
This month I’m choosing a song that has a complex history to it in terms of how I feel about it on a personal level and how it came into existence as a song. I want to talk about Alice in Chains’ “Rooster.” This song has a lot of personal meaning for me because it was one of the first songs I really remember listening to when I first got into music independently of my parents (around twelve). I’d always been an avid music listener. I grew up in a household where there was always a radio present and it was always on. I got my first radio when I was seven and then I got an alarm clock radio and then at one point I took my dad’s radio and started taping songs I liked and creating my own mix tapes. Then I got my own radio with a tape recorder and headphones (probably as a gift) and this is when I started to venture away from what my parents typically listened to—oldies, classic rock, and contemporary mainstream pop-rock music—and started cultivating my own taste in music. Alice in Chains was one of the handful of bands I heard that signaled to me that music had changed from the classic rock sound I was used to and it captivated me as much as it repelled me. I feel like it’s important to talk about this in relation to Alice in Chains specifically because they were a group I didn’t really take to at first. At a young age, their sound didn’t make sense to me. In retrospect, I recognize that it was due to the fact that they were a dark band playing low-tuned guitars and my ears weren’t used to hearing it. However, I loved “Rooster.”
Jerry Cantrell is the primary songwriter for “Rooster” and anyone who is familiar with Alice in Chains knows that it’s about his father who fought in Vietnam and went by the nickname Rooster. Cantrell did not have a close relationship with his father and the song brought them together in ways that helped them both get some personal healing. Cantrell’s father did not talk about his experience in Vietnam, and since Cantrell didn’t know much about his father as a person or how he felt about the war, he wrote the lyrics from the imagined perspective of his father. The song itself consists of two verses and a repeating chorus. It is also worth noting that there is a musical interlude after the first verse that contains a repeating guitar rhythm, but there is no solo in this song. I find this to be a really significant move on Cantrell’s part because the absence of a guitar solo actually grounds the song and makes the lyrical content more digestible. This is also probably why I took to the song on a subconscious level. I could inhabit the world of the song without the interference of guitars. The song on a musical level is very mellow and simplistic precisely so that vocalist Layne Staley’s voice can shine through—and it does.
I can definitely say that Staley’s vocals serve as the primary voice of the song rather than the instruments and this is what makes “Rooster” so special. Not only is it a significant song in terms of its political perspective, it is significant lyrically. The song starts out slow with a low bass melody and higher-pitched guitars that also play a very simple riff. The instruments set the tone of the song which is extremely mellow, but edgy in terms of how the bass and guitar play against each other. Once the tone and rhythm of the song are established, Staley comes in with a high melodic vocal tone that helps elevate the song. Then, Cantrell brings in a simple rock guitar sound and Kinney begins to tap the cymbals as Staley sings the first verse:
Ain’t found a way to kill me yet
Eyes burn with stingin’ sweat
Seems every path leads me to nowhere
Wife and kids, household pet
Army green was no safe bet
The bullets scream to me from somewhere
What I love so much about this verse is how the first line sets the tone for the entire song: “Ain’t found a way to kill me yet.” What is so great about this line is that it isn’t necessarily signaling that it’s a song about Vietnam. It is a line that is provocative and empowering, but also implies context on a different level. There is a reason the lyricist has escaped death, but the listener has no idea what’s happening. This line also mirrors the feeling of being thrown into a war situation and not knowing what’s what, which is typically how most soldiers experience war. So this line helps listeners to connect with that discomfort. It is also a great line because it suggests that the lyricist is skillful in survival; the enemy hasn’t “found a way to kill me yet.” The word “Ain’t” is significant because it situates the listener in the realm of the lyricist’s dialect, which is lower class. This lyric will also have more profound meaning as the song progresses because it suggests that the lyricist has done more than survive Vietnam; he has also survived the hostility of his homeland after the war.
The chorus of the song is especially important in terms of how it interacts with the energy of the vocals and the music itself; it also takes the song to a higher level in terms of meaning. Here it is:
Here they come to snuff the Rooster, aw yeah
Yeah, here come the Rooster, yeah
You know he ain’t gonna die
No, no, no, you know he ain’t gonna die
During the first verse, the music typically consists of rhythmic bass and guitars and cymbal tapping, but once the chorus kicks in, the music shifts a little. The song starts to build as Staley sings the first line and then mellows out again to the regular rhythm. It starts to build again when he sings the second line and as soon as he sings “yeah” the song really begins. The drums come in along with the guitar as its being played more aggressively, with the mellowness still intact.
Lyrically, I want to talk about how significant this chorus is. What is most apparent is the slang in the first line “Here they come to snuff the Rooster, aw yeah,” but the actual context of the lyric is really impressive because it translates like this: here they come to kill the badass and then the next line “Yeah, here come the Rooster, yeah,” translates like this: yeah, and here comes the badass himself. This is lyrical brilliance at the highest level. The lyricist is painting the scene so he seems distanced from it, but his tone suggests the opposite, that he’s invested in this meeting of two powerful forces, the enemy and the nicknamed hero. Staley’s tone is everything in this moment: cool, cocky, very down-to-earth, and smooth. His vocals energize the song and the listener with primal masterfulness. Then, he comes in with the last two lines: “You know he ain’t gonna die / No, no, no, you know he ain’t gonna die” which is fascinating because even though the vibe of the lyricist feels detached but interested, his bias comes through: obviously the badass is going to win. This chorus is brilliant because it is not explicitly about war. The verses are what tell us this is a song about Vietnam. So, the chorus, detached from its context, sounds very much like it’s about a gritty hero who can’t be brought down by antagonistic forces. Rooster is the eternal hero—he resonates with listeners in a more personal way: they can feel empowered vicariously through Rooster. Politically, it’s about a soldier that can’t be brought down by the enemy, but the fact that the soldier goes by the name Rooster suggests that he’s a regular guy with transcendent qualities. I see Rooster as being that nobody from the backwoods of low-class America who proved himself; just by his nickname alone it feels like his reputation precedes him.
After the musical interlude the chorus is repeated. When the first two lines of the chorus are sung again, it is with added emphasis accompanied by a powerful drumbeat. When Staley sings “No, no, no” this time, it is with assurance in his voice; the lyricist absolutely knows Rooster isn’t going to perish. The song stabilizes back into its mellow rhythm for the second verse:
Walkin’ tall machine gun man
They spit on me in my homeland
Gloria sent me pictures of my boy
Got my pills ‘gainst mosquito death
My buddy’s breathin’ his dyin’ breath
Oh God, please, won’t you let me make it through?
What is significant about this verse is that the drums echo the narrative through a militaristic drumbeat that matches the mellow rhythm of the song. Here, it very much feels like a song about Vietnam, although the first verse did contain information that let listeners understand that. However, here, Rooster is humanized. And it also becomes very clear here that this is the Rooster speaking, whereas, at the beginning of the song, the lyricist felt very anonymous. In this verse, listeners see the soldier grappling with what most soldiers struggled with during Vietnam: violence from the enemy and from American citizens, separation from loved ones, dying soldier friends, and the desire to seek comfort from a higher force. What is also interesting is the fact that the verses and the chorus have two separate tones, which make it feel like Staley is playing two different characters in the song—Rooster from the first-person perspective, and the detached observer who is really rooting for Rooster to come out on top victorious. It complicates the song in masterful ways and showcases just how talented Staley was as a vocalist. He could play two different roles in one song and pull it off with a coolness that suggests no other vocalist could do it the way he could. And it’s probably true. The song ends on the chorus and this time when Staley sings “No, no, no,” it is very matter-of-fact and subdued—it is common knowledge that Rooster will not be killed. The song ends just the way it begins: the drums disappear and the bass and guitar return to play in rhythm with each other as Staley brings back that high-pitched vocal melody.
When I first decided to write about Powell and Alice in Chains together, I wasn’t sure what threads would connect them, especially because I’m new to the poet’s work. Alice in Chains is a band that I’ve always been familiar with but have really come to admire as I’ve returned to their music and have begun listening to them more extensively. I feel the same way about D.A. Powell’s poetry. So it would be fair to say that the initial thread that connects them is my desire to become more engaged with the poet and the group. After writing about “End of Days” and “Rooster,” I can now clearly see what they have in common: context and tone. Both the poem and the song are placed in contexts that are familiar and unfamiliar, creating deeper registers of meaning and understanding. In terms of tone, Powell has a very specific way of feeding the reader information and Staley is very good at shifting his tone in order to move between the dual perspectives of the verses and the chorus. It is through these elements where the poet and the band show their elite abilities. I also think “End of Days” and “Rooster” indicate places where readers and listeners can more clearly see the innerworkings of the poet and the band. In both cases, less is more is exactly what’s called for; it reveals more in terms of how readers and listeners can understand poetry and music on an aesthetic level but also how they can come to understand what makes Powell work as a poet and what makes Alice in Chains work as a rock band. I also want to give special acknowledgement to Jerry Cantrell for not only writing what I consider to be one of the most important songs about Vietnam, but doing it from such a personal place. Aside from being an excellent songwriter, he is an elite guitarist, and his guitar-work in “Rooster” shines through even as it highlights Staley’s vocal delivery. I think it speaks to the true nature of the band which is that they are both powerfully masterful and humble. I get the same feeling about Powell, that there’s an earthy nature about him that operates in unison with his literary skills which makes his poetry endearing to me as a new reader of his work.
August 1, 2022