Book Review: Atomizer
by Sara Grimes
Elizabeth A. I. Powell doesn’t pull any punches when satirizing her lovers in Atomizer. The collection is a sassy, whip-smart treatise on the deceitful nature of love, using the extended metaphor of scent as a cover-up.
Powell brings each love under the microscope of her fierce poetry to see if it is in fact a gem or a lump of coal. Oftentimes it is the latter. She extends the same analysis to all love relationships—romantic, imagined, or familial.
In “The Book of Sires”:
“My homage: He was an atelier of garbage. How his microaggressions of Paco Rabanne were really endocrine disruptors, phthalates from petrochemicals he studied.”
Here, Powell turns an ode on its head by feigning tribute and then revealing the vulgar truth of the matter. Her syntax in the phrase “microaggressions of Paco Rabanne” is telling here because it gives us insight into the hostile condescension her lover used to conceal his true nature.
Her father is not immune from scrutiny. In “Lying Perfume Bottle of Chanel Pour Monsieur”:
“My father wearing this scent, tightening his capitalist’s noose, thinking he’s 007, slapping himself in the face, no woman can know him.”
Here, we have a palate of end notes with which to sample the “scent” of her father. We are just given a spritz of imagery, but from that we can discern that her father conforms to counterproductive masculine and traditional social roles.
Even Jesus is not above reproach. In “An Alabaster Jar of Nard”:
“On the floor, Mary tries to shun her sexual slavery in a gossamer evening dress, a Worth or a Doucet. Beauty isn’t always redemption. The men think she is having a temper tantrum. Jesus’s love is like incense, touching every crevice.”
This is a particularly striking stanza because Jesus comes across as creepy. The contrast and tension in these lines is palpable. Mary Magdalene is trying to create agency for herself despite the subservient role in which she’s been cast. Yet the disciples are so self-absorbed and out of touch with women they assume hysteria.
In a similar vein, Powell makes her own vies for agency throughout the book. Despite being beguiled by loathsome men time and again, Powell is able to find redemption in her own intellect, creativity, and resourcefulness. This reaches its apex in “A Poem With Atoms in It.”
“My synesthesia is a disorganized essay. My synesthesia that pointillist painting on the T-shirt my atom-bomb gramps bought me, a mosaic of starlight-tree-sap-river water bonfire.”
In this poem, she comes of age being tutored by her grandfather who helped create the atom bomb. Meanwhile, she falls in love with Seurat’s pointillist paintings. Her own sense of agency becomes infused in this parallel between types of atoms. In a lot of ways, the synesthesia described in “A Poem With Atoms in It” is a stand in for the sense of beauty, sensory experience, and creativity that is evident in her writing. These are her redemptive modes of being in the face of so much crushing loss. In that sense, the explosion of the atom bomb is a tragedy, but one she is able to reconfigure and harness for herself. Her writing is her power.
In Atomizer, Powell’s relationship with scent is a relationship with individual sensory experiences that are not only an admixture of deceit and sorrow, but also beauty and transcendence. Thus, she explodes open the potential of finding staying truths in moments of grace, even in the face of deceit. That is the true power of Atomizer.
Sara Grimes is a poet and writer, studying creative writing at UC Riverside. Her poetry has been published in the Dewdrop Digest and Beyond Words Magazine and featured in Kelp Journal. She is an advocate for diverse women’s rights through her work in Expat Women, is active in immigrant education through her work at Literacy Source and uses her writing to empower neurodiverse individuals. You can find her on Twitter at @UrbanLimrick