Book Review   

The Follower’s Tale by Stephen Roger Powers, Salmon Poetry, 2009.

Reviewed by Russell, Gardner, Jr.

Madison, Wisconsin native Stephen Roger Powers loves and follows Dolly Parton, the country-western singer whose Dollywood theme park is located in Pigeon Creek, Tennessee. This performer and place possess great renown in the country-western world. Poems and book-sections tell in their titles how his followership unwinds. Sense the flavor of the book in the following section titles: “ii. Hooray for Dollywood,” “v. Grand Marshall Dolly,” and “vii. Dolly’s Voice.” Eighteen of his 44 poem titles have “Dolly,” “her,” or “Dollywood” in their titles. Twenty-four of them needed acknowledgements for previous publication, and the author has worked on a Ph.D. in English so he possesses some credentials, and his poems possess craftsmanship. He also has done stand-up comedy that often features his hearing impairment so it’s interesting to experience his amazing preoccupation with a singer whose fame hinges on, in my perception at least, a high-pitched little girl voice.

Only two poems reside in section vii. Dolly’s Voice, the first, “Don’t Ask, ‘Cause I’m Not Tellin’” ending as follows in a way that displays Powers’ wit and his wry sense of how Dolly Parton’s mind works:

Now, honey,
you can write all the poems
about me you want, because some
do move me to tears,

but I’m still not telling you the secret
ingredient in my chicken and dumpings.

The allusion to “do move me to tears” likely refers to a quoted portion of a letter to the poet from the singer herself he had placed on the cover. “Dear Stephen, I was so touched that I still have tears, and few dropped on your poems. I will always love you, Dolly Parton.”

And he has been in love with her since adolescence, as we see in the “Coat of Many Colors”:

Twenty-two years ago almost,
we followed the line through Dolly’s first Rags
to Riches Museum. There I was,
thirteen years old and in love
like never before. My brother wanted to line up
for another ride. I resisted his impatient
tugs. My nose smudged the display
glass while I studied her father’s work boots, her preacher
grandfather’s fiddle, her first doll fashioned out of a corn
cob with matchstick-burnt eyes, a replica of her coat
of many colors. I didn’t know then it wasn’t the original…

Powers does not exclusively nor often, have Dolly’s attention. He goes to Dollywood yearly as a groupie and needs to wear loud Hawaiian shirts to catch the singer’s attention, even though he has lost lovers because at least one complained about how could she possibly compete with Dolly. He doesn’t do well with fellow poets either, as exemplified by a list of people he has met, in “Remember How Storms Seemed to Last Longer When You Were a Child.”

plus some famous poets
   who’ve scoffed at my Dolly
       poems, like Carla
          Harryman, Claudia
             Rankin, and Charles
                  Bernstein, who said I should
                      put my non-Dolly words in
                         in a purse, jumble them up, and
                             pull them out one by one
                                  to write a poem (Cornelius
                                      Eady only had good things
                                            to say—he called her
                                                pure Americana),….

Of these “famous poets,” I know only Eady, having heard him and recalling his powerful poem part in the Epidemic Peace Imagery project, so of course my bias sides with him. Dolly as Americana of course does tell the story! Powers discusses the many facets of Dollywood and country western singing with all its bathos and pathos, immersing not only himself but his reader fully in both.

And he does so creatively. For instance, he puts himself into the persona of a woman from Taipei as she wanders in the strange wonderland of the park, a step up from the county or state fairs of my own childhood experience. This tells how far from theme parks I am myself, taking the attitude of a contractor colleague who told of having visited Disneyworld with his kids last month only to find his admiration chiefly less for the sights than in how good the enterprises are at extracting a person’s money. Powers doesn’t mention much of the mercantile features of Dollywood, but from what I know of Parton, I feel sure the business end of her empire dictates much of her effort, part of the great American commercial enterprises that we feel daily and not always pleasantly. I prefer classical music now, but personal memories of Dolly’s singing, and that of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willy Nelson and Loretta Lynn in decades past remain ones of which I’m fond, grateful in these memories for not having felt the heavy weight of commercial enterprises aimed at my pocketbook.

From the several year period some decades ago when I listened to country western songs regularly in the car (including Dolly Parton), I relate to Powers’ feelings about her and her sentimentality. Most of us know who she is: buxom, wigged, charming. He grew up with her as his folks listened to 8-track tapes of her work.  But I found myself affected most of all by his “Proem section”—the first poem in the book occupies its own first section all by itself, after a beginning epigraph that speaks to “The road is in my blood”:

The Tracks Next to Ray & Ollie’s.

My wanderlust comes from my father,
who wandered in his sleep to meet the trains.

Every night it was the same. My grandmother
heard the bells sewed to his pajamas,
wrung out her all-night-diner towel, and met him

behind the juke box, where the stars came down.

All that’s left of their restaurant now
is one chipped saucer. My father tells me
it got that way after a penny, crushed
by a locomotive’s wheel, flew through
the window. …


We see from this history how his and that of Dolly’s coincide. Stephen Roger Powers himself grew up, I gather in peri-Madison, Wisconsin, in Sun Prairie and Monona, including at one point next to that restaurant owned by these grandparents. This story conveys his intense bonding to his parents and grandparents. One understands something of his shuttling presently between Milwaukee to Georgia, spending time in both, stopping, one gathers, at least yearly in Pigeon Fork.

Can I recommend his book? I wouldn’t have picked it up, as I’m well beyond my own Dolly phase, but still I feel glad for the experience of reviewing it and enjoying this distinctive, flavor-filled, driven work. I feel Cornelius Eady correct in his “Americana” characterization of these Dolly poems; they are Americana, and so is Stephen Roger Powers, wearing his Hawaiian shirt at her concerts, hoping to catch her attention as do any number of other groupies, colorfully, loudly, hoping as well to catch your attention and to convert you to Dolly-passion. These marvelous passions that so many feel: fantasied relations to an admired performer with extensive and expensive pilgrimages for jointly felt audience-ship with thousands of others all of whom feel the spirit of Dolly.  Powers discusses the many facets of Dolly and Dollywood as emblematic of country western singing with all its bathos and pathos, immersing not only himself, but readers of his well-wrought poetry fully in both.

Russell Gardner grew up on a central WI farm, lived in many states as an adult, and is back in Wisconsin. Writing poetry (and prose) since college, he also does mixed media visual art and helped originate and then coordinate the Epidemic Peace Imagery project featured in Free Verse #99/100.