LIT/NCIBA Because poetic subjectivity is by and large an exclusive undertaking
in which the poet attempts to impress upon the reader, via the use of poetic conventions, his fundamentally unknowable immanence, it often results in complete discursive failure. Those who’ve ever experienced a poetry workshop surely recall the gentle "make it more concrete" euphemisms directed at those well-meaning but misdirected poets brave enough to tackle personal catastrophe with verse the results of which are usually a mire of intimations, associations, and abstractions that in no way resemble poetry or even, on a basic level, communication.
"If it were that easy, we’d all be doing it" is, in this case, true. Few poets can convey complex interiority with such deftness, originality, and precision as D. A. Powell. He can rework what would otherwise be affective sentiment into a lucid and devastating articulation.
With his latest and fourth collection, Chronic (Graywolf Press, 64 pages, $20), Powell offers his best work to date, the winner of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Award in poetry. Its cavalcade of lyricism keeps tempo with phonic and syntactical playfulness (Powell is often compared to Gerard Manley Hopkins. Framing the poems in the collection is Powell’s epigraph, taken from Virgil’s Ecologues (itself a reworking of Theocritus’ Bucolica): Time robs us all, even of memory: of as a boy I recall/That with song I would lay the long summer days to rest./Now I have forgotten all my songs.
The result is a brilliant use of Virgilian source material as a formal element that provides a frame of reference for Powell’s own subjective experience. Among the book’s best pieces is a "redux" of Virgil’s second Ecologue, which tells of love and erotic longing between two male shepherds:
what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns
and charming smile
the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him
on my tongue
silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided
as if banishing love is a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our
("corydon & alexis redux")
Even readers unaware of the fact that Powell is gay and living with HIV will not miss the dark subtext of the hemlock reference. The same themes, deeply personal to the author, are present in the book’s title poem. In "Chronic," Powell’s idiosyncratic verse structure its syntactical breaks, lilting and elliptical sounds, lines that are unpunctuated yet entirely expressive are employed to great effect in a lengthy, but quickly moving, rumination on ecological devastation:
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
No matter the overarching topic, each poem in Chronic is watermarked with Powell’s distinctive voice, one that his previous books Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails (things that, along with chronic, make for a satisfying afternoon) helped establish. The homoeroticism, pop culture references, adroitly inserted colloquialisms that lent charm and personality to past works are all present, but the scope has become more expansive and more complex. I am greatly looking forward to the next stopping points on Powell’s poetic horizons.
THE 2010 NORTHERN CALIFORNIA INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLER ASSOCIATION (NCIBA) BOOK OF THE YEAR WINNERS
Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese (Knopf)
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (McSweeney’s)
Chronic by D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press)
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin)
CHILDREN’S ILLUSTRATED (award to illustrator)
Zero is the Leaves on the Tree illustrated by Shino Arihara (Tricycle)
Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko (Penguin Young Readers)
Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman (Delacorte Young Readers)
Tamalpais Walking by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder (Heyday Books) *