Review of Elizabeth Powell’s “Atomizer”

Sep 24, 2020 | Bubbler

An atomizer is the part of a vape used to make mist out of liquid, to turn density into smoke. When one imagines the word atomizer, one imagines the vast being made into small digestible slivers. This is because unlike the clouds, a funnel of smoke has a direction, just as it has a shape. And much like an atomizer, Powell has taken a life rich with observation and pain and used it to confront the infinitudes of language and experience.

There is “Atomizer” the poem, Atomizer the collection, and “Atomizer” the poem as an introduction to Atomizer the collection, resulting in Atomizer, the book.  As a lone poem of itself, “Atomizer” is a poem about everything at once; of yearning and thought, of memory and loss. It is fundamentally an attempt to rationalize the futility of life, by delving into each and everything that life teaches us. 

In her lines, “Who knew color could smell like rain and the smell of the rain was apple green?” Powell merges the senses, making one feel each one of these senses with just one sentence.  Powell is equally adept at activating the fullness of nostalgia: “I ate squares of cookies, sugar on my fingertips. I felt at home, safe inside the scent of glass.” She evokes the pleasures of eating certain foods, or being in certain environments, and the comfort of that, and then the extra comfort one gets out of re-imagining childhood. She is above all intimate in her discretions. 

The flashing back and forth between present and past creates a sort of constant musing between self-hood and the exterior world. Like the poetry collection itself, “Atomizer” is divided into three sections: “Top Notes,” “Heart Notes,” and “Base Notes.” This is not a coincidence. Powell is inviting us to read “Atomizer” the poem and Atomizer the collection hand-in-hand. To start with, the poem “Atomizer” is structured as a constant bifurcation between sections of thought labeled under parenthesis as Memory with random insights on the workings of life. A memory like, 

 “(Memory): “You smell the same, that’s how I know it’s really you.”

is followed up with, “Imprinted by musks, sniffs of resins, I thought the perfume was a prescription they filled for ailments like loneliness.” This Proust-ian jostling between what is voluntarily recalled, what is imagined, and the analysis of what comes in between results in images that galvanize all of the senses (“the leather smell of cowhide, the salt lick, the watery smells, the lavender and hay rot”) alongside the peering into the recordings of another human being, and living them as if they were one’s own. 

Powell alternates reflections from her childhood or formative years with reactions to current day events. The poem, “The Box,” for example, uses dull and short sentences (“The TV says it loves me best in an emergency or a natural disaster. The TV asks how many are injured. The TV tells me I will vote for Hillary because I’m X age, with Y beliefs, and I don’t use the C word.”) to depict how much media culture has informed the way that we think. On a first read, the language comes across as very insipid, and overly repetitive, but that is the point. Just like how the television keeps our thoughts as numb and mindless, Powell employs language to put the reader in that very state. The poem that comes before it, “In the Shadow,” is a memory of the pre-2016 election. Powell reminds us of how in 2016, “we all [had] Bernie stickers on our bumpers, and dents in our hearts, brains, bank accounts…” just as she reminds the reader that “[she grades] essays about stream-of-consciousness [or] the newscaster is married to the pretty lady in [her] church.” Words are written, but they don’t seem to impact, or lead the reader into any particular effect. Once again, the language is trite, but it seems to be a purposeful manipulation on Powell’s command. A poem like “In the Shadow” delivers memories without any emotive interpretation or manipulation, so that the reader can experience the moments unfiltered and unpossessed, just as they come to Powell’s mind.

Powell has also penned a lot of poems that don’t run parallel to “Atomizer” and its structure, which are even more affecting than “Atomizer” itself.  The poem “Killing Rabbits” places the reader so viscerally in how birth control affects the human body that it made me wonder why it is that literature about the effects of not only birth control, but the control of human birth, have not made enough of a place in the canon. Likewise, the poem “E-Diptych” chronicles how much of ourselves we place into virtual dating and the different apps and websites we can meet strangers on. This is something that also has not yet been catalogued into literature yet, and yet it is something we experience and relate to with each Tinder swipe.   

There are conversely poems that affect not for their theme, but for their unrivaled glimpse into a master of language at work. The couplet cycle “Escape” displays Powell’s ability to meld sound and color into image, all inside of a unique slice of Americana. The opening lines chill with an almost folk-song-like rhythm. 

“We lived in a small rent-controlled closet.

I was the daughter of lesbians.

There were bats in the attic studying our ellipses.

One flew down like a miniature Lucifer.” 

There is no open attempt at rhyme, and yet the shortness and paucity of each sentence works in tandem with the one that follows. Each syllable of each chosen word is working in conjunction with the next, causing sentences to have cadence. The words become manic, the words become personal. Even when Powell manically chants “I could leave the stanchion anytime I wanted,” or “Reality and the resulting adrenaline can be fabulous, Why look for places to escape from?” The words that come immediately after dazzle with their play on colour and sound (such as, “Into the world inseminated with the scent of grass And grain, warm milk, Betadine solution on udders The sweet sting of alfalfa the sensual world Of linden trees.) 
It takes a certain type of talent to grow emotional, asunder words with feeling, and yet never lose control. In writing so earnestly about her life, and about her experiences, Powell has indirectly written a book as vast as any individual’s life can be. One gets the sense that Powell has spent her time slowly biding away, observing everything she can, and finally, just at the time when life appears to be close to its end, she has vaporized herself, to distill each and every moment she has witnessed into truth.

Kiran Bhat is the author of the English-language story cycle, We of the Forsaken World (Iguana Books, 2020), as well as the Spanish-language poetry collection Autobiografia (Letrame Editorial, 2019).