Atomizer by Elizabeth Powell 2020

I read Elizabeth Powell’s new collection entitled Atomizer in one sitting, emerging from the experience exhausted, exhilarated, and educated.  Powell, a professor of English at Northern Vermont University-Johnson and an editor of Green Mountains Review, has written  personal, confessional, brutally honest, and deeply felt poems.

References to an early episode of sexual abuse by a ‘drunken neighbor’, to a number of negative experiences in on line dating, to self-abuse as an eight year old ‘pushing needles into my thumb’, and abortions provide the background for poems that draw on multiple influences from other poets, painters, and alliteratively, physicists.  The ekaphrastic nature of her poems is powerful as she combines Seurat with Nils Bohr and Richard Feynman, Frankenthaler with the New York School of poets, and references Rothko, Degas, Monet and Artemesia Gentilachi along with Williams, O’Hara, Plath, and Levertov.  At times, reading the poems felt like a quiz in art history or American literature.

Powell’s primary mechanism for dissecting her past and understanding her future is her sense of smell. A self-described synesthetic, she states “I think, therefore I smell’ in one poem and adds ‘smell my only constant’ in another.  Nearly every poem reflects a scent, a smell, an odor which evinces the past or colors the present.  The title and the Laurie Simmons print on the cover are both The Atomizer, a reference to the atoms that make up the scents that provide Powell with the ability to recall and tease apart the past history that has resulted in her current life.

These are not easy poems about easy topics, but they are rich in images and references that display one woman’s struggle to come to terms with her past and her present.