Stephanie Burt

  • Chronic: Poems by D.A. Powell
    Graywolf, 79 pp, $20.00, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 55597 516 6

The first collection published by D.A. Powell, Tea (1998), looked oddly like a smart restaurant menu: Wesleyan University Press manufactured a shiny, green and gilt hardback, six inches tall and nine inches wide, to accommodate Powell’s very short poems and very long lines. The promise the cover gave was borne out inside, where those long lines flaunted multiple midline stops, unruly punctuation (stopping where the grammar said go), terse yet explicit depictions of gay sex and profuse quotation from disco hits:

now the mirrored rooms seem comic. shattered light: I once entered the world through dryice fog
not quite fabulous. just young and dumb and full. come let me show you a sweep of constellations:

16, I was anybody’s. favorite song: dance into my life [donna summer] and they did dance

17, first fake i.d. I liked walk away [donna summer] I ran with the big boys …

20, the year I went through the windshield. sylvester sang I want to be with you in heaven.

Powell’s phrases worked like pick-up lines or pop hooks, designed to get attention in a crowd. You could put those phrases together to read about lives defined by a certain gay male sexuality, by its codes (‘I wore the green bandanna as often as I could’), by its conspiratorial exhilarations and – in the late 1980s and early 1990s – by the early deaths and constant mourning occasioned by HIV and Aids.

Powell grew up working class, if not flat broke, in the rural American South and then in agricultural California: his teenage years were marked by a car crash that killed a close friend (‘andy buried under a hunter’s moon … I had meant to be first among us dead’). His apprenticeship included the usual poetry workshops (at Sonoma State University, and then at the University of Iowa) but also days on the street: ‘There were times when I was younger,’ he has said, ‘when I had limited options and had to prostitute myself. It’s something that is not very far beyond my life.’ A poem from Chronic entitled ‘central valley’ describes his California youth this way:

kids like me blowing black snot into sleeves and checked bandannas
the farmers – almost extinct – wheezing along the earthen dikes
and the sky a mass of black lung: spittle settling upon the nutsedge

Like almost everything else in Powell, such bleak places may be rescued for the imagination by sex, in the same moments that stamp them as frightening:

here I inhaled first plum blossoms and took the yellowjacket stings
saying ‘sticks, I live in the sticks, don’t drive me home I’ll sleep instead
on your rug, be your boy, just ask me to spread my legs, I’ll spread’

The self as teenage prostitute, as body for sale, physically open for inspection, becomes the self-appeasing, self-delighting soul who finally writes the poem, and delights in its internal rhymes.

Tea was a coming-of-age book, a fractured autobiography, but also a group elegy, the strangest and most vivid, it seems now, of the many books from the 1990s in which gay poets described the early deaths of their friends; an elegy, but also a celebration, whose choppy, lengthy, remixed lines showed how some gay men of (more or less) his generation put together a subculture in which they might rebuild lives. Powell learned that he had HIV shortly after he finished writing Tea: his unusual lines could model his friends’ (and his friends’ friends’ friends) bricolage, their efforts and his own (as he wrote in prose) ‘to reshape my life from its incomplete bits’.

His lines still work that way; some are still that long. In Chronic as in Tea (and as in Cocktails, the better of the two books in between) they give pleasures almost never encountered together: the pleasure of elegance, of a well-turned phrase; the pleasure of modernist fragmentation, where poems are made up of pieces we assemble for ourselves; and the naive pleasures of strong feeling, of sympathy with proud rebels and with social outcasts, pleasures that critics can attack, or defend, with the term ‘sentimental’. The poems cast their lots with anything and anyone that seems outré, already abandoned, deeply uncouth: a discarded poppy becomes ‘the wildly surviving thing/that once was somebody’s boutonnière, somebody’s flash of light/trail of phosphorescent streetlamps punctuating the homeless night’.

A sterner, less interesting poet would cut such claims out; a more conventional one (Mark Doty, say) might end on ‘flash of light’. It is Powell’s genius to see when the real right amount (of emotion, of detail, of figuration) looks at first like too much, the excessive ornamentation of some drag queen (like the one in Powell’s poem ‘clutch and pumps’: ‘those talons you cultivate I do admire/the cochineal cheeks the flirty lashes/ I don’t want to live in a clutch purse town’). The poetry fails not when it is excessive – since all affection, all lust, are excess, when put beside the dispassionate contemplation that some poets recommend – but when its excess is insufficiently vivid: Powell’s weakest poems depict people he seems to dislike, such as the soccer mom in ‘cul-de-sac’ with ‘2.3 kids, if your tubes aren’t tied’.

He cannot see himself in her, because he sees himself in her wayward sons. Few writers have taken young lust as seriously, or depicted it as well, so that we are happy to find it (however scandalously) slaked: ‘a thin trail of hairs disappearing below the top button of cut-offs/the lean, arched back of a cyclist straining to ascend a hill … and yes, someone took me in his car’. Powell can sound almost (or more than almost) pornographic: he prods, or breaches, the limits of any taste, in concatenations of double entendres: ‘what phrase lingers in the back of your larynx/snookums, you could swallow me in three gulps’. Another new poem portrays sex in a hospital bed. Another is entitled ‘crematorium at sierra view cemetery, next to the high school’: it begins with an ‘impoverished graveyard: mangy green triangle where two freeways form a crotch’. Sex and death and nostalgia and hunger, abjection and mourning and ecstasy and regret, all arrive together in Powell’s poems, as in the prose of Jean Genet, and it is a persistent, over-civilised folly to think that we can sort them out. Nor can we separate youth from maturity (the crematorium will always be close to the high school). The supposed stages of life (rebellious adolescence, committed adulthood, reflective old age) are scrambled together like eggs. They take place at once, and no wonder: Powell started writing his poetry in, and about, a time when gay American men – released in their twenties or even their thirties into the kind of self-discovery expected from teenagers – saw scores of men their own age grow frail and die.

Though Chronic has a wider formal range than Tea – its poems are sometimes stichic and sometimes stanzaic, its sentences sometimes endless, sometimes curt – Powell’s signature remains the stand-alone, long, divided, ametrical line. He has to stay away from the pentameter, and from almost all the regular older rhythms, in order to renovate sentiments that are (allowing for modern and scandalous settings) among the oldest in any book: memento mori, carpe diem, credo quia absurdum est: ‘daylight, don’t leave me now, I haven’t done with you … . light, light: do not go.’ Powell’s preferred relation to older poetry is to maximise allusion while minimising overlaps of sound: that way the verse sounds American, and bizarre, yet feels close (as it should) to the classics too.

Though he might not want to hear it, one British poet Powell often resembles – in his sometime melodrama, his lush wordscapes, his focus on eros and elegy – is Dylan Thomas. Powell has (as Thomas did not) a love for rough edges, an attention (sometimes unwilling) to popular culture and an ear for other people’s speech: but he has, too, Thomas’s insistence that he need not disavow his strongest emotions, that aesthetic distance isn’t a necessary condition for aesthetic success. There is a ‘general rule that events in Dylan Thomas’s body are related pantheistically to more massive ones outside’, as William Empson decided in 1947. The poet’s body is the land in Chronic too. The ailing body, dying, as we are all dying; the body no longer young; the infected body, living with (for example) HIV, pervade Powell’s books. But new here is the omnipresent and befouled terrain, which stands for that body (and vice versa) throughout Chronic, as in the long title poem:

filter the body, filter the mind, filter the resilient land
and by resilient I mean which holds which tolerates the inconstant lover, the pitiful treatment
the experiment, the untried & untrue, the last stab at wellness
choose your own adventure: drug failure or organ failure
cataclysmic climate change

‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books were those interactive stories sold to children during the 1980s in which each page featured such choices as ‘if you pick up the sword, turn to page 22.’ Here all the choices the planet, or patient, contemplates lead only to bad ends. Those Cs – ‘cataclysmic climate change’ – echo through the collection, in which all 49 titles either begin or end with ‘c’: ‘come live with me and be my love’, ‘for the coming pandemic’, ‘gospel on the dial, with intermittent static’, ‘that night in the foxhole with the pfc’, even ‘democrac’ – i.e., a popular government that has lost its ‘why’.

To read Chronic for the first time is to marvel at the combination of wild emotion and virtuosic technique (from intricate syntax to rebuses and puns). To read Powell for the first time (no matter where you start) is to find a great deal of joy. But to reread Chronic is to see how grim Powell can now be. The long lines that earlier in his work represented people coming together (on dance floors, at funerals, even in Christian communion) now portray ecosystems coming apart: the sentences and their overlapping images, like the ocean and the air, extend their lines of likeness, of connection, further than ordinary experience lets us notice, and if we do not notice them we are lost. ‘Chrysanthemum’ finds versions of the flower within ‘saturn’s rings’, in televised fireworks, where ‘a freighter spills its tenebrous rings into the overburdened bay’, and in ‘little jellies on the beach, tentacles splayed’. Jellyfish swarm, this year, on beach after beach, as seas warm up and fisheries fail: these are the flowers of human folly.

Another writer might blame our excessive appetites (for electrical power, for political power, for consumer goods). But Powell is inclined to celebrate excess: he prefers to blame, for ecocatastrophe, civilisation, regimentation, calculation, corporations, disembodied reason. In ‘republic’, the standardisation of field and farm, the imposition of monoculture, is like the construction, repression and regulation of sexual desire: ‘industry and agriculture converged,’ Powell writes,

removed the unsavoury foliage of quag made the land into a production
made it produce, pistoned and oiled and forged against its own nature

Agribusiness forced the land into heterosexual intercourse, when it should have remained diverse, or polymorphously perverse, the quagmire it was.

If Powell had ended there he would be placing all the blame outside himself, denying the benefits that most of us accept, however guiltily, if we are citizens of the developed world, from cheap tomatoes to vaccines. But he’s smarter than that, and so he lets this sometimes horrifying poem incorporate a case for the defence: for draining the swamp, for bringing technology in, for the practices and benefits of modern civilisation. His temperament, though, favours the prosecution. The end of ‘republic’ needs quotation at length, especially since it justifies the collection’s title:

vanquished: the germs that bedevilled the rural areas

the rural areas also vanquished: made monochromatic and mechanised, made suburban

now, the illnesses that we contract are chronic ones: dyspepsia, arthritis pressure, asthma
   chronic pain, allergies, anxiety, emphysema diabetes, cirrhosis, lyme disease, aids
 chronic fatigue syndrome, malnutrition, morbid obesity
hypertension: cancers of the various kinds: bladder bone eye lymph
 mouth ovary thyroid liver colon bileduct  lung
   breast throat & sundry areas of the brain

no better at accounting for death and no worse: we still die
we carry our uninhabited mortal frames back to the land …

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 I have put the notebook on which I was scribbling

it began like: ‘the smell of droppings and that narrow country road …’

How far behind these times that notebook seems. Such poetry holds nothing back, and yet it tells us that its powers cannot do enough: ‘The image must fail, as we//graceless creatures that we are, unmake and befoul our beds/don’t tell me deluge. don’t tell me heat, too damned much heat.’ So Powell writes in ‘cruel, cruel summer’, naming the poem for a pop song (by Bananarama): the song, he implies, may be no more ephemeral than our sex lives, or our homes, and so the poem says goodbye to them all: ‘we’re done/with allegiance, devotion, the malicious idea of what’s eternal//picture the terrain sunk, return of the inland sea.’

For Powell, our ecological emergency calls into question (as Aids never did) the worth of the personal, of lyric, of words. His ‘cancer inside a little sea’ visits (I think) the Everglades, whose networks of roots, pools, vines, snakes and rivulets demonstrate that everything is connected, so that pollution anywhere might poison anything or everything:

   herbicides eradicate cat’s claw vine
which has choken 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

child to come what will you make of this scratched paradise
this receptacle of soil, water, seed, bee, floating scat and spore
brutal wind and brutal tide. the insignificance of fortunes

Poems, we hear, are complex, fragile systems, overdetermined and parsimonious, so that a change to one part would alter the rest. But poems are not like that for Powell, and even if they were, why should we care for them, mere words (without ‘matter’) as they are? Ecosystems, on the other hand, are like that, and any ecosystem ‘matters’ more, and for more reasons, than any poem. Poems, we hear, comprise our heritage: they are what we leave a ‘child to come’. But the real heritage, alas, consists not in measured language but in measurable ‘accumulation of contaminants, cadmium, diquat, toxaphene’.

Or so Powell’s Everglades say. He does not sound as if he is seeking reassurance: he is not asking us to tell him why his or any poetry ‘matters’ after all. Instead, in this mood, he must doubt or reject his calling (as the Australian poet Judith Wright did reject it) if he thinks he can do something better to help the Earth. And yet all the double meanings and allusions that we expect from more self-confident poetry crowd into these lines as well: in ‘scratched’, for example (which takes in the senses of ‘marred’, and ‘eked out’, and ‘cancelled’), and in ‘fortunes’ (which includes money, luck, their conjunction, and the medieval counsel of contempt for both).

Eco-consciousness and eco-catastrophe cast their frightening chemical-spill colours over the whole book; and yet Powell does not conclude with them. Some of his stances reflect our parlous era, but others have clear parallels in John Donne, who also imagined how the world would end, as well as in Virgilian homoerotic pastoral, also written in rough times. Chronic, after all, means ‘persistent over time’, and if human self-endangerment has persisted (enough that it now threatens much of the globe), so too has the human drive to use words for pleasure, for solidarity, for invitation, for fun. Such invitations, with their pastoral heritage, can still be celebrated. The last poem, and one of the best, is called, in homage to Virgil, ‘corydon & alexis, redux’, and the second to last (called ‘corydon & alexis’) ends, lucidly, this way:

shepherdboy, do you see the wild fennel bulbs I gathered for you
olallieberries, new-mown grass, the tender fruits of the coastal fig?

I put them on paper, too, so fragile. for nothing is ever going to last.

‘Olallieberries’, similar to blackberries, grow only in Oregon and California: here as elsewhere Powell announces, rightly, that he has moved the ancient traditions of elegy and of amorous poetry all the way to the western edge of the United States. It is a risk to end so nakedly, so traditionally, in a book full of fragments and warnings, of toxins, diseases and fears, and it is a risk worth taking. If these words are too much, the poem asks, then what on Earth would be enough?