Reviewed by John Freeman
Los Angeles Times
There are poets who show us the exterior world and poets who ferry news of their inner turmoil. Yet very few possess the double vision required to do both. Sylvia Plath surveyed and stoked the fires within her; Gary Snyder is far happier scouting for forest blazes in the Sierras.
Until he began publishing the wickedly well-tuned work collected in Chronic, D. A. Powell seemed of the Plath school: fierce, inward and wrapped in tongues of camp. To read his poems was to watch a man blow on the embers of erotic memory. This is, after all, a poet who once boasted he "took a bite out of every grocery store clerk / and put them all back."
But, it appears, Powell has been holding back. Chronic, his fourth book, is one of those rare collections that moves beautifully between poetry's inner/outer stereopticon. Powell, who lives in the Bay Area, can paint the weed-choked cemeteries of the Central Valley and also the cluttered toy chest of his memory. Writing on love, his powerful double vision becomes one.
Like Louise Gluck and Marie Ponsot, two of our best poetic double-seers, Powell achieves this through the precision of his language. Clipped of capitals, broken apart by extra spacing, his lines detonate like land mines. "California Poppy" begins with a roadside view of the sea, a glimpse of flower, then wends its way toward a portrait of what lurks in beauty's gutters. Powell sees:
fingers and bloated waxy face of the wildly surviving thing
that once was somebody's boutonniÃ¨re, somebody's flash of light,
trail of phosphorescent streetlamps punctuating the homeless night.
Writing in the shadow of AIDS, Powell is a modern romantic: obsessed, enraged and turned about by love. His language is infiltrated by songs, phrases from movies, the treacle-sweet soundtracks of so many musicals. "Love," he writes in one poem, "is the chorus waiting to be born."
In life, pop culture's constant repetition empties it of meaning. Here, however, shoved deep into the mulch of Powell's imagination, it gathers an earthy corona of roots that reaches back to the body. "[L]ook at the pluck you've made of my heart," he writes in "Sprig of Lilac," one of several poems that read like songs: "it broke open in your hands / oddments of ravished leaves: blossoms blast and dieback: petals drooping."
Romantics always have plenty to say about longing -- and distance. So does Powell. But this does not make for the best poems in the collection. "Coit Tower & Us" turns some wonderful phrases but fails to move beyond the same vague terminology that made symbolist love poems so similar to the Romantics whose style they rejected.
What's new here is Powell's ability to dramatize the bitter lash of rejection and the urge for payback. "[W]hat bulges in your britches," he drawls in one poem, "besides your comb and a little manhood?" His alliterative fury is fearsome:
you said you were giving, and you gave
the gob, the goaf, the dross of earth
loose coal, loose ore, fool's gold
In a series of poems directed at ex-lovers and those who have spurned him, Powell turns the lyric form inside out. The work explodes off the page like Molotov cocktails. Turned outward, his eye is unforgiving:
those talons you cultivate I do admire
the cochineal cheeks the flirty lashes
I don't want to live in a clutch purse town
you snap: and yet everything matches
And yet, as enjoyable as some of these poems are, the most vicious leave an acidy taste. Their slaphappy virtuosity -- "you slag pile you" -- would probably get roars at a reading, but they shortchange poetry's most mysterious properties.
The exciting thing about reading Powell, though, is how quickly he follows up a flashy surface work like "He's a Maniac, Maniac," which sings a giddy self-pity, with a harrowing poem like "Crossing Into Canaan," which describes being loved while in the most horrific physical state:
I take the death I'm moored to, announced as a measureless promontory
and bob in the river as a bloated corpse, blue lips, vacant gaze
Illness and love are similar, these poems remind us, in their chronic nature. They do not stop for one another; they refuse logic. Camp, then, is the perfect aesthetic. It entitles Powell to break rules, to snap back. And it allows him, in poems like "Cosmos, Late Blooming," to make light of the terror that lurks within when one wants to love, even in the face of death.
in my mouth the mausoleum of refusal: everything died inside me
including fish and vegetables, language and lovers, desire, yes, and passion
how could I make room in this crypt for another sorrow: caretaker.
It would be so much easier, perhaps more comforting, for Powell to believe in eternity. Beautifully, bravely, Chronic is the work of a poet who believes instead in the fire this time.
Freeman is the American editor of Granta.
Books mentioned in this post