by D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press 2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar
“I did not comprehend desire as a deadly force until –”
Chronic speaks to the obsessions of the imagination, the intellect, and the heart, as well as to the modern “deranging” of the landscape and the body. Eschewing the conventional prologue poem, Powell structures the book in two sections, the title poem framed in the center, followed by a coda of two linked poems. With medical valences apparent (underscored by a torso X-ray in place of a traditional author photo on the jacket flap), he names the first section “Initial C,” referencing the first letter of Chronic, and the last section “Terminal C,” the word’s last letter. Together they form a twisted set of parentheses, framing the idea of the self in the eternal present, but revealing that despite the power and immediacy of the here and now, it is simply a piece of something larger, a fragment or intrusion into a longer sentence or composition. Faced with the finite nature of life and the fickle nature of inspiration, given over to the needs and rewards of the body, where do we root our hopes for permanence? Powell considers mortality and eternity; he considers the limits of the individual and the ego alongside the limits of existence on a planet that humans are guilty of infecting:
and always, the sandbars eroding at the periphery
where freshwater meets saltwater, and sawgrass swamp
drains into estuaries and bay. and always the balance
upset, as herbicides eradicate cat’s claw vine
which has choked out carrotwood, which has displaced cypress
and the sea absorbs the toxins and eliminated matter
what does it matter now, what is self, what is I, who gets to speak
or who does not speak, whether the poems get written
whether the reader receives them whole, in part or not at all
(from “cancer inside a little sea”)
Breathtakingly frank and dark, lyrically beautiful and passionate, Chronic attains wisdom while resisting false consolation.
Powell follows through on the conceit of his title and structure by tweaking readers’ expectations in visual and concrete ways. In “early havoc,” a poem recalling youthful inclinations to the theater, opening quotation marks signal the beginning of speech — but no closing marks follow, and the sentence redirects due to faulty memory. Known for his expansive lines, Powell pushes the physical constraints of the book by including a foldout poem appropriately titled “centerfold.” Distracted by the innovation, a reader might be tempted to dismiss the content as secondary, but in fact the poem is an eerie reminiscence occasioned by a magazine photo of an AIDS protest. Conjuring the promiscuity of youth with vivid imagery, including “on the steps of city hall at the yearly die-in: he was a body . . . you heaved upon like amphibious d-day craft quitting the ocean,” Powell infuses his lines with genuine, understated regret. The flip side, “cinemascope,” contains brackets and cross-outs. Turning to the committed and somewhat stifling domesticity of age, the poem ends with an echo of the biography of Sylvia Plath. It is a powerful statement on the guilt of surviving: “nearly everyone else, pissed off passed away / past and past and past.” Far beyond gimmickry and cheekiness, these subversions of convention support the underlying curse/hope of this book: What if the unexpected happens? What if the world surprises our imaginations?
In part, this has already happened, as indicated by the beautiful love poem “continental divide.” At the middle of life, with youthful indiscretions a distant memory overlaid by years of loneliness, the poet offers a moving, measured praise of love. Several poems explore love as a resolution to the book’s thematic questions of temporality and eternity. In signaling a relationship in trouble with the opening poem, “no picnic,” Powell sounds the themes of artistic manipulation and the fallibility of memory. In “gospel on the dial, with intermittent static,” the lovers shelter from the rain in a cavity caused by lightning in a sequoia’s trunk, mirroring in miniature the emblem of the book’s title and structure: if it is temporary, there is still peace. In “coit tower & us,” Powell seems to say our memory of comfort is permanent, even if the experience of it is not. The demands of illness and the body, the essentially solipsistic nature of pain, may be what drive a relationship to its end, “that night in the foxhole with the pfc” suggests, a theme repeated in a later poem, “scenes from the trip we didn’t take to the antarctic”:
say it with me, sunshine: today, brainscan; today, x-ray
today, complete metabolic panel with platelet differential
today, urinalysis; today, liver biopsy; today, preparing the body
at the last station, the sepulcher was empty and you asked why
beyond this numbing terrain, frozen white cell: phantom laughter
didn’t you hear it all along? or did you think it was just the wind
But “even the business of dying must be set aside occasionally,” Powell says in “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic,” reasserting memory’s dominance over pain in some stern self-talk: “go away, you bitter cuss. it’s still 1980 somewhere, some corner of your dark apartment / where the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded. and love is in the chorus waiting to be born.”
Although now it may seem commonplace for poets to incorporate popular references from commercial culture into serious work, Powell helped to pioneer this approach, and remains its best practitioner. In “confessions of a teenage drama queen,” he seems to refute his critics who have called him confessional in a hilarious string of B-movie titles and clichés. With endless source material, the challenge of writing such a poem is to be selective, and Powell has the best ear in the business:
I was a male war bride. I was a spy
so I married an axe murderer. I married joan
I married a monster from outer space
I am guilty, I am the cheese, I am a fugitive from a chain gang
maybe I’ll come home in the spring. I’ll cry tomorrow.
whose life is it anyway? it’s a wonderful life.
I was a burlesque queen, I was a teenage zombie
I was an adventuress, I was a convict, I was a criminal
I did it, I killed that man, murder is my beat, I confess
The poem also serves as a warning, forbidding too much autobiographical interpretation of the work. In a poem published in a recent issue of Poetry, Powell offers lines that may shed light on his creative process, in the persona of a student addressing a master:
I have never written a true poem, it seems. Snatches
of my salacious dreams, sandwiched together all afternoon
at my desk, awaiting the dark visitation of The Word.
In contrast to the experimental poems included in Chronic are poems written in traditional form, such as terza rima for “come live with me and be my love,” and a hybrid of the English and Italian sonnet with “coal of this unquickened world.” In fact, classical mythology informs the structure of Chronic, providing rich counterpoint to the poet’s innovation. If a thread running through this book is the relationship of an older and younger man, it draws meaning from the tale of Corydon and Alexis. Powell further bookends the work by beginning with an epigraph from Virgil, and ending with a coda of two poems titled after these figures.
In Virgil’s story, the unrequited desire Corydon feels for Alexis transports him from the literal world to a fantasy realm of the imagination, where he engages in a dialogue of his own making. Finding that he loves the figment of Alexis more than the real person, and struggling to fit his emotions into his pastoral setting, Corydon awakes from his dream and upbraids himself. Doubting that the music he has created is appreciated, he attempts to express his desire in sanctioned ways by using an image of Pan’s pipes as a metaphor for coupling. Powell playfully echoes this image in the racy poem, “lipsync [with a nod to lipps, inc.]”
However, all Corydon’s attempts to find other paradigms that will fit his desire into his surroundings achieve only ambiguous results, with the implication that the effort continues beyond the story. This myth is a powerful engine that fuels Powell’s thematic explorations of temporality, mortality, and eternity; desire, art, and impermanence; and artistic ego, self-doubt, and the creative process. In the book’s final line, he encapsulates the abiding questions that result: “as if banishing love is a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes.”
If the pastoral world order did not allow Corydon’s desire to find justification, in Powell’s book the adversary is the suburbanization of the California landscape. In “republic,” he comments that the processed land of industry and agriculture removed some of the causes of catastrophic illnesses such as malaria and typhoid, and yet clearly the chronic illnesses we have inherited in their place are a result. Placing the relatively feeble yet enduring activity of creating art in stark contrast to the poisoning of our world and our bodies, Powell steers clear of conventional consolation:
you want me to tell you the marvels of invention? that we persevere
that the time of flourishing is at hand? I should like to think it
meanwhile, where have I put the notebook on which I was scribbling
it began like:
“the smell of droppings and that narrow country road . . .”
Powell has said that the photo on the cover of Chronic shows river waste from a paper mill. At first glance it appears cellular, as if we are seeing a sample under a microscope. Upon closer inspection, we see the indicators of scale and human habitation, including a tiny building and power line in a lower corner. This seems a fitting emblem for the crux of human issues so masterfully covered in this book, the easy transport from macro to micro and back that Powell achieves.