D.A. Powell’s reading late March, at St. Anthony’s Hall in New Haven, was subdued, offering the stringent lyricism of his poems in a quiet, undemonstrative manner. The week before, in a poetry reading group at Yale, we had kicked around a selection of poems culled from all Powell's published volumes; from that brief introduction, I had the impression that the poems in Chronic (2009; Graywolf Press) were the best of his career thus far. After the reading, while getting a copy of the book signed, I mentioned that to Powell and asked if the book had been well-received. A little bemused, he said it had gotten some unfavorable reviews—later, I came across a review on Poetry’s website where Jason Guriel takes Powell to task for "easily attained opacity" and the "fashionable gestures" of contemporary poetry. The enumerated failings that Guriel finds in Powell’s verse might well apply to an entire cohort of poets of our day, but I can’t see the reason in laying that at Powell’s door so specifically. It's as if Guriel simply needed a whipping-boy and Powell, highly praised in other quarters, could sustain the attack better than most. Guriel, it seems, is in search of "stylistic tics" that might still seem "risky," and accuses Powell of stock footage "filmed on modernism's backlot," as though an achieved style were simply something readily available and thus overly familiar.
About Powell’s reading, I’ll just say that I don’t think he presented the best of the book. My feeling was that the poems we read for the group were better chosen than those he elected to read. For instance, the poem "Republic," with its litany of diseases and health issues, seemed to fall a bit flat in the reading. And Powell didn't read the somewhat longish title poem of the collection which struck me as a standout of the selection we read in the group. The best moment of the reading was in the excellent paired poems that conclude the volume, "Corydon & Alexis" and "Corydon & Alexis, Redux." Powell ended his reading with them, and there was a breathless intensity in the room as he finished.
oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs
If you're of Guriel's mind, you might believe the Eliot Waste Land crib is ersatz modernism ("you who are young, consider Phlebis"), that time personified as a banker foreclosing on us is a bit obvious, even if effective, and that the choice of a verb phrase like "deranges itself" is deliberate poeticizing. In fact, what I like about Powell is his willingness to poeticize in this register: using allusions, flippant or witty similes, somewhat off-putting word choice. I found myself having to listen pretty intently, while reading his poems to myself, to catch, again and again, a very deliberate music that, in his reading, was even easier to miss: "forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs"—the course of the o bouncing through the entire line, set-off nicely against short and long i. At his best, Powell’s mastery of such music is woven effortlessly into his poems so that it constantly teases the ear while reading.
In "Chronic," this tendency is pushed to its fullest development. The lines, collected into irregular stanzas, seem almost to float in space, notational, not quite connected to the preceding lines but by a certain intonation, a kind of implied affective relation that sustains interest both as mood and as a train of thought. The poem looks back at a life spent becoming a poet, sketching recollections of sex, spring ("in a spring of misunderstanding, I took the cricket's sound"), loving and sensual details ("sprig of lilac, scent of pine") that are also fused with remorse and foreboding ("daily, I mistake—there was a medication I forgot to take") to create a richly textured portrait held in time—static, and chronic: "light, light, do not go / I sing you this song and I will sing another as well."
I hope Powell will continue to sing songs so well as those collected in this at times difficult, elliptical, but always intriguingly lyrical volume.