Contemporary Poetry Review

As Reviewed By:
Joan Houlihan

Great Expectations


             Chronic by D. A. Powell. Graywolf Press, 2009. 

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         The only drawback to being as good a poet as D.A. Powell is that you have to keep on being that good. Even Powell’s failures are better than most poets’ successes, his flawed poems better than the many hundreds of unflawed poems that live like mayflies for a day then suffer a small death on the page from dullness. The beauty of Chronic is not that it’s up to Powell’s high standard, but that it makes better readers of us, more aware of what makes poetry work and why. It is like watching a man on the wire or the dazzlements of a master magician—when the man loses his balance or the slight of hand is slightly off, we, the readers, have the rare opportunity to see how a real poem works, because it almost did. Most importantly, we are following closely enough to care.  

As usual, Powell gives more than expected in a book of poems. Chronic delights and moves us in ways unanticipated: he renews the lyric, honors it, with his Hopkins-like syntax and rhyme, his fierce love of language and his ability to wed up-to-the-minute colloquialisms with 19th-century high romanticism. And he goes where most contemporary poets fear to go: into the human, into the mess called love, deeply, unabashedly, and without looking back:

in a week you could watch me crumble to smut: spent hues

spent perfumes.      dust upon the lapel where a moment I rested


yes, the moths have visited and deposited their velvet egg mass

the gnats were here: they smelled the wilt and blight.      they salivated


in the folds of my garments: you could practically taste the rot


look at the pluck you’ve made of my heart: it broke open in your hands

oddments of ravished leaves: blossom blast and dieback: petals drooping


we kissed briefly in the deathless spring. the koi pond hummed with flies


unbutton me now from your grasp. no, hold tighter, let me disappear

into your nostrils, into your skin, a powdery smudge against your rough cheek.  

(“sprig of lilac”) 

There is much to enjoy and admire here: the sonic texture (crumble to smut, hues/perfumes, dust/rested, visited/deposited, wilt/blight, and so on), the use of line break with its emphasis on sonics (spent hues/spent; mass/the gnats; rot/look); held meanings (salivated // in the folds) and surprise completions of a unit of thought (no initial caps). There is also a sense of driving necessity, an emotional center to the poem that causes it to adhere and progress at the same time, a twisting and twinning of a Donne-like sense of erotic love with its skull showing behind the flesh. Here, Powell is in his element, the element still of his previous three books (Lunch, Tea, and Cocktails), but with a softer lens, less anger, more rumination. There are several such poems in the collection (e.g. “cosmos, late blooming,” “come live with me and be my love,” “crossing into canaan,” “bound issac”) and there are also echoes of his previous work in the cutting, sometimes bitter voice (e.g. “clutch and pumps,” “cul-de-sac,” “lipsync,” “he’s a maniac, maniac,” “collapse:” ), but such poems stand strangely alone in the book, not united in their single-minded drive to tell it, tell it all, and to hell with death. Instead, they stand as sharp reminders of the older, elliptical, style, tucked in amongst a newer, more discursive, style. It may be that Powell’s style is in transition, or it may be these are simply older poems. In either case, they are clearly not part of the larger project in this collection, a project that reflects on, speaks through, and speaks about, environmental degradation. 

I believe this overarching project of Chronic, while holding the book together, is also its main problem. Environmental degradation may be an admirable topic to hang a collection on, but like Jorie Graham’s Overlord and more recently, Sea Change, the trade-off for tackling a Big Topic is the tendency to deliver a message wrapped in a filo pastry of philosophy, baked halfway and served with a sprig of self-righteousness. In other words, Chronic gets windy, talky, and even at times, preachy. While Powell can’t write a terrible line, he seems to be writing a line that has less concision, more filler, as these lines from the title poem attest: 

were lifted over the valley, its steepling dustdevils

the redwinged blackbirds convened

vibrant arc their swift, their dive against the filmy, the finite air


the profession of absence, of being absented, a lifting skyward

then gone

the moment of flight: another resignation from the sweep of earth


jackrabbit, swallowtail, harlequin duck: believe in this refuge

vivid tips of oleander

white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be  




here is another in my long list of asides:

why have I never had a clock that actually gained time?

that apparatus, which measures out the minutes, is our own image

forever losing


and so the delicate, unfixed condition of love, the treacherous body

the unsettling state of creation and how we have damaged—

isn’t one a suitable lens through which to see another:

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  

There are lovely moments, of course—the first lines propose a Hudson Valley school of painting moment in which to abide—but whence all the abstracting? Air is finite? Who or what is professing absence (and “of being absented”)? In the first third or so of this poem, although he occasionally swoops back to the concrete, sensory world, Powell more often takes to the air. His primary line is discursive and prosaic, and at times the poem seems like a gloss on themes and feelings explored more compellingly in his earlier poems, a kind of long-winded looking back. 

This title poem calls us to attention both by title and by placement in its own section, and indeed seems to be the center of gravity in the collection, the Topic around which the book is built and toward which the other poems would tilt. But many poems in the book don’t tilt that way. And those that do are marred by the same use of abstraction and prosaic reflection and contain many slack lines. The energy of Powell’s violently concise line and voice are at times completely gone—replaced by oratory: 

we journey this day to darkness: the chasm walls lift us on their scaly backs

the glaciers relinquish their secrets: that sound is the ice bowing

and the sound underneath, the trickle: the past released, disappearing 

                                                             (“continental divide”) 

It is possible for Powell to make the project exciting—”coal of this unquickened world” puts his elliptical, energetic style on display while still sticking to the project, as shown here, in the first stanza: 

midnight slips obsidian: an arrowhead in my hand

pointed roofs against the backdrop, black and blacker

three kinds of ink, each more india than the last  

But for the most part, starting with the first five poems of the book, the hovering of poems around an “issue” doesn’t provide much sustenance to this Powell fan. I get interested starting with “early havoc” and “clutch and pumps” and I much prefer this style:

down-turned mouth on whiteface. his droopy drawers

canvas the landscape. a band of tin whistles plays

pop the balloons. it’s a fine serenade. burst of applause. 

                                           (“clown burial in winter :”) 

to this style:

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

                                              (“cancer inside a little sea”) 

In Chronic, we get a choice, but I, for one, wish not to have it—why not just have a collection filled with all the potent poems instead?

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