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What readers have come to love about D.A. Powell’s work can certainly be found in his long-awaited fourth volume, Chronic, which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. They will find all the signs of his uniqueness: the lower-case titles, the idiosyncratic syntax, the jagged lines that somehow feel perfectly natural as they unfold, the dark humor that looms over everything like a winking blackbird, the associative riches of a poet whose images are at once tender and tragic, and a unique play at language that awes. But Chronic is more than continuation and yet resists the facile idea of maturation.
There’s a knowingness in these poems. Elegy, innocence, the old connections between death and desire — they are here, but the poet who understand them so well (and their limits) has fled to the countryside in the hopes of seducing the young shepherds with his virtuosic flute-playing. But what makes Chronic so rewarding is the poet’s deft handling of memory (both writ large and personal, particular) and the pain of the absent reality it cannot escape calling forth.
As hinted above, Chronic is firmly entrenched in a kind of modern-day pastoral. The poems are steeped in nature and desire, but both are linked to ruin, erosion, time’s passing. Before we’re past page 6, Powell jerks us from the book’s dark and menacing title (so inextricably linked to a contemporary world that seems filled with dying); to the melancholic, classical past of a Virgil epigram (about time’s thievery of memory, no less, “all my songs” long gone); to the volume’s first poem, its title, “no picnic,” calling back the countryside while announcing that language and its idioms are not to be trusted. A few pages later, a poem titled with the famous first lines of Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” is set not in the fields and meadows of the Elizabethan Age, but in a contemporary sanitarium where the speaker seeks to pass the time with a fellow convalescent, requesting “let’s act like lovers.”
Chronic is unabashedly mired in dying and death: ghosts, graveyards, tombs, sanitarium, dead ends, the brink, empty pill bottles, the language of sickness and blight (“the sky a mass of black lung”). The book’s face is the “bloated waxy face of the surviving thing.” But for all the darkness, there is resistance, often found in typical Powell style, by the nod-and-wink that language affords him: from the prosaic “dead of night” to the ontologically ridiculous “her salad days are moulting.”
In the first section, “Initial C,” a speaker recalls a childhood marked by desire and sexuality, from his want to leave his home in the “sticks,” to his high school crush who now drives a hearse, to his (first?) fag hag, who wonderfully exclaims “I don’t want to live in a clutch purse town.” Throughout, sex is never far from an exquisite pain, “the feel of ruin upon lips rubbed raw throughout the night.” Even a blow job is somehow carcinogenic (but isn’t everything we love bad for us, Powell’s poetry implies).
The middle section, “Chronic,” contains a single poem, a kind of touchstone or spine (the author photo, after all, is an x-ray of this anatomy) for perhaps not only the volume but all of Powell’s work thus far. Powell also gives readers a kind off-center middle for the book, with two poems that required special fold-out sections. The poems, “cinemascope” and “centerfold,” are in some ways the most reminiscent of his previous work; their long lines, well beyond the usual margins, bristle with an electricity and risk.
The third and final section is a kind of existential wilds, a millennial minefield of anxiety, touching upon everything from environmental degradation to war to an encroaching amorality. Not surprisingly, some of the most powerful poems of this section recall, both implicitly and explicitly, the specter of AIDS. Powell writes in one poem, “…HE fucks / like a bodybag, already empty, already depositing / its contents atop the toxic landfill, giving up the corpus.” Just when readers feel like giving in to the bleakness of it all, however, Powell tosses out one of his playful puns or zings us with a one-liner like “[you] bottomed your way to the top.”
Powell’s pop culture obsession can also be found in this section’s poems: from a poem entitled “chia pet cemetery” to a poem where the speaker sees himself (through a distancing second person ‘you’) as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining, to a sweltering hot poem taking for its title a Bananarama summer-hit song from the 80s.
If readers experience a kind of poetic vertigo as they let Powell have his way with them, then he’s doing his job. Keeping up with the constantly shifting associations, linguistic trapeze moves and time warps is a masochist’s delight. And if you’re not a literary masochist, you will be after embracing Powell.