How do you supersize a Rumpus Original Combo? That’s easy—just take a book review and an interview with the author, and add a Rumpus Original Poem to it! Our celebration of National Poetry Month wraps up with this coverage of acclaimed poet D.A. Powell. But we’ll continue to review great new books of poetry every month of the year, and to bring you new work from emerging poets in our Rumpus Original Poems column.
Now don’t eat too fast. And stay out of the swimming pool for at least an hour.
The Rumpus Review of Chronic
by Monica Ferrell
Following the early magic of Lunch and the slighter pleasures of Tea, D.A. Powell’s 2004 collection, Cocktails, was a breakout book. Its virtuosic mastery of craft, sheer imaginative power, and wisecracking bravura won him devotees equally among readers of experimental and more conservative poetry. (I’ll never forget Graywolf’s gala anniversary reading at that year’s AWP Conference, where Powell’s incantatory voice, queerly monotone and breathless as it stretched to the end of his long lines, held a huge crowd hypnotized. I don’t think anyone spoke again until Powell, in his dapper suit, blithely trotted off the stage.)
Though fed by different energies than that star turn, Powell’s latest collection, Chronic, still shows one of the best poets of his generation working at the top of his game.
Cocktails overflowed with swank and chutzpah. Divided into neat sections, it devoted an entire third of its poems to cheeky retellings of various movies, and another to explicitly (and somewhat baroquely) religious pieces. To this reader, bringing St. John the Divine and Simon the Cyrene into close quarters with Hook and Looking for Mr. Goodbar felt like the rebellious act of a mad genius; on the one hand, it invested the campy films with the aura of solemn liturgy, and on the other flavored the parables with the spices of sensual, fleeting pleasures.
A consummate craftsman, Powell has an especially fine ear, one that seems to delight in internal rhyming and the ways enjambment and sudden caesura can work together to create what one critic called his “long, stuttering line.” He also has an eye for extravagant detail, and turns the suburban lawns of California, subway cars, and grocery store aisles into mines fat with unexpected jewels. His deft modulation of tone—which swerves from the sardonic to the pathetic (at times almost bathetic) and back again—dazzles, possessing enough speed and agility to keep any reader pinned to the page.
Such poetic gifts are still on view in Chronic, though this is a quieter, looser book. The new collection again is divided into three sections—really two, with the lovely title poem “Chronic” serving as a brief interlude; but the lines between these segments are blurrier, and the sense of conceit or unifying theme vaguer. What was brash, flirtatious, and punning in Cocktails has become serene, elegiac, and nostalgic. A number of poems are set in the central California of Powell’s childhood; a poem concerned with the crematorium near the local high school ranges through the names of the dead with the mild, musing tone one might strike at a twenty-fifth reunion, wondering whatever became of so-and-so. There are also a number of poems that allude to popular songs of the disco period—and only that period, as though the real air these poems breathe were that of the late 1970s.
In a more general way, many of these poems seem to run on the energy of reminiscence; they move from one still only partially clarified thought to another as one might move between pleasingly dim memories, rummaging idly through an attic, with its cardboard boxes of high school yearbooks and photographs of half-remembered road trips.
For those enamored of Powell’s sharp snark, his hummingbird velocity and firework displays of imagery, this shift may sound like a bad thing. I don’t think it is, though. Chronic isn’t a let-down; it is simply, if you’ll pardon me, a mellower high than Cocktails. (And nobody delivers Powell like Powell, anyway: there are loads of pleasures in the old style to be found here, too.) The poems’ concerns range farther, going well beyond the circuit of the self—the war in Iraq and climate change make appearances—and the writing is more accessible.
It’s often wrongheaded, and sometimes downright offensive, to read a writer’s aesthetic in light of his biography. But Powell is so frequently openly autobiographical that perhaps an appeal to the personal is not out of line. Cocktails as a title referred not only to that stuff we find at bars but to the mixture of drugs that keep Powell, who has lived a long time now with HIV, alive. In the earlier book, death had a lurking character, like an assassin waiting behind a hedgerow with a knife, who might pop out at any instant to slice your throat. In the new book, as one poem explicitly lays out, death has become a chronic thing, endemic not only in the speaker but also in the human race—in anything living. The old poems were spectacular, confronting death like Evil Knievel doing motorcycle-flips: yet for all that, they were limited. The motivating question seemed to be “Why do I have to die?”—whereas now it is “Why do we die?” or perhaps “What is this dying?”
With this shift, D.A. Powell becomes more of a public poet, speaking on behalf on humanity, making visible the contours of the human condition. No wonder, then, that he chooses for an epigraph lines from Virgil’s stately Eclogues, which take the ascent and decline of a person not as a violence visited upon a single individual but as part of a natural round, a cycle worthy of exploration—and even a kind of celebration—in measured song. In the face of death, Chronic’s hard-won consolations remind one of the high function art can perform for a society, making it a book we can be grateful for.
“Complex begins with a C”
The Rumpus Interview with D.A. Powell
by Catherine Brady
D.A. Powell is the author of four books of poetry, Tea (1998), Lunch (2000), Cocktails (2004), and Chronic, published earlier this year by Graywolf Press. He is the recipient of the Paul Engle Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Lyric Poetry Award, and Cocktails was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. David Wojahn calls Powell “a capacious and exhilarating writer,” and Chronic “his finest collection yet.” Time Out New York calls Powell “the best poet of his generation.” D.A. Powell currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.
Rumpus: One of the most amazing things about Chronic is that it reads like a novel—a deeply moving novel. If each poem stands alone, cumulatively the poems carry us along an arc of change for the speaker, who at first regards himself as past any chance at love, takes the risk when it comes his way, is furious when it fails him again, and finally comes to honor the fact that even his anger is a gift, a sign that he is still hungry for beauty. Can you talk a little about the structure of the book?
Powell: Do you remember that toy called Spirograph? You’d put the point of a pen inside a tiny circle in a plastic wheel, and then you’d push the wheel along—its gears meshing with the gears of a larger wheel—and the interaction of the wheels, together with the off-center placement of the pen, would produce a series of loops.
I’ll bet there are people who had a very clear concept of what the loops would look like, even before they began to trace their shapes—my stepfather is that kind of person, he thinks in terms of how things fit together; he can cut a board and fit the pieces together to make a piece of furniture without having to lay out a pattern beforehand or to mark the board with a pencil in any way. But I don’t have that kind of mind.
I’m usually along for the ride a good deal of the time, just waiting to see what’s going to happen. But I do, somewhere along the way, figure out the order, the pattern of things. And then I can anticipate what might occur next. Although that happens much later in the writing process for me than it seems to happen for most people, I’ve learned to be unafraid. To trust the process. To understand that, eventually, the way to put the book together will reveal itself.
With this book, that revelation came very late. It came pretty much at the end of the writing. The last two poems I wrote were the ones that cemented the form: the title poem, “chronic,” and the poem entitled “courthouse steps.” Those poems tied together what had previously seemed like irreconcilable tensions: love, loss, incurable illness, hope, the precipitous moment in history that we inhabit. Once I had those poems within my scope, I could see how the movement between the various subjects created narrative.
Rumpus: Unlike the poems in your previous books, all the poems in this book have titles, and all the titles begin or end with the letter C. And the book’s three section titles echo this (“Initial C,” “Chronic,” “Terminal C”). Would you talk about why you hit on this constraint, and how constraint matters to the way you work as a poet?
Powell: Initially, I chose the letter C arbitrarily. Or rather, I became enamored of the letter C and began mulling it over in my mind, gradually understanding what it was about the shape and sound of it that I liked. It’s the opening of a parenthetical statement. It’s the musical note that sounds like an ending. It’s the center of our grading system. It’s an echo of the ocean. It sounds soft and it sounds hard. It arcs like a rainbow. It smiles and it frowns, depending on which way you’re facing. None of these is the central reason; rather, the answer is a complex of many reasons. “Complex” begins with a C. We live in the age of the complex.
And constraint? Well, that’s the inevitable fact of any poem. If we have no other constraint, we have the constraint of time. And the constraint of attention is right behind that. I like to think of the C, or any constraint, as a trellis. If my poems sprawl too much, they’re no longer poems. I want my language to have a certain intent, a certain feeling of attention. I don’t want the words to trail off into the ordinary. As Ben Jonson says, “Talking and eloquence are not the same things.”
Rumpus: The book takes its epigraph from Virgil’s Eclogues, centered on the speaker’s love for a shepherd boy, so it’s also alluding to the pastoral tradition. Many of these poems focus on a fallen natural world, how that is manifest in urban settings and in our damaged environment. What problems does a contemporary poet face in attempting to reengage this old tradition?
Powell: I have always been, at heart, a country boy. It is only as I get older, and as I can measure the changes in the natural world, that I realize how invaluable it is to understand the seasons, the trees, the vines, the bees and animals. I don’t know if others feel that longing, that sense of how transitory the landscape is, how delicate…I can’t begin to imagine how others perceive the world. But for me, the perilous condition of the planet’s ecosystems resonates at a somatic level. So that was perhaps the space I was writing toward in these poems.
“Tradition” is such an odd word for me. I have been—whether intending or not—so non-traditional in so many ways. But… how does Whitman put it? “These are the thoughts of all men in all ages and seasons.” The pastoral is not unique to me, nor even to our time. It’s a mode of engaging the temporal that has fretted the history of poetry. And I think that we return to it largely because of the ephemeral nature of living: “that time of year thou mayst in me behold.” We see our own deciduous selves mirrored in the landscape. Perhaps less so in these times, because we’ve removed ourselves from the fields and farms. But… other poets in other ages have bemoaned that same sense of remove. Though I bristle at the word “tradition,” that’s the accurate name for what it is that all poets step into.
Rumpus: An important fact of your literary biography is that you’re a person living with HIV, and you write about it. I’ve always found attempts to locate work in autobiography to be confining, as if identity’s a box you can’t escape. What are some of the things you hate about having this brought up?
Powell: It’s not that I hate having it brought up… after all, silence is one of the forces that I have to struggle against, and visibility is the most powerful antidote to the problems inherent in silence. But, at the same time, one doesn’t want to feel admitted through what Haki Madhubuti calls the “small door of tokenism.” I don’t want the lens through which my work is viewed to be constrained by this talismanic disease. I want visibility but also perspective. I wouldn’t think first and foremost of teaching Larry Eigner as a “disabled poet.” But at the same time, I wouldn’t want his struggle against the effects of cerebral palsy to go unnoticed, to add to the sense of separation that people with disabilities sometimes are already experiencing.
The truth of the matter is that one can escape from a box. But it would be a sin of omission to say, “What box?” We have to at least acknowledge the difficulties we face as humans, as writers, even as we work to overcome those difficulties.
I could say more about this subject, and have. I’ve written an essay entitled “The Scarlet Letter,” which I hope to publish soon. In the essay, I address the complex social shit that aids engenders. And I also talk about why I don’t capitalize its letters: I hope to diminish the power of that acronym, to reduce it to normal size, to perhaps make it seem less ominous, less of a monster.
Rumpus: Your voice has always struck me as a strangely beautiful and distinctive cross between Elizabethan and camp sensibilities. These two things strike me as far apart and yet not—punning seems to be a verbal strategy necessary to both. I wonder if you’d pick just one poem in Chronic and talk about some of the punning and wordplay that’s going on.
Powell: Oh, my… I’ll try. The problem is that punning, wit…they’re so integral to my way of talking, much less my way of writing, that I don’t know that I’ll even remember which ones are intentional and which ones are accidental. Here’s the first stanza of the first poem in the book:
plain cloth cast upon the cool banks, the mere warbling frogs
an interrupted repast, uninterrupted pile of leavings
the parallax of bodies which are and are not ours
uncomfortable shift, uncomfortable shuffle (“no picnic”)
“No picnic ” ends with the letter C. But it’s also a kind of response to all of the folks who, after I published Tea and Lunch and Cocktails would quip “what’s next? dessert?” If “dessert” ended with a C, that’s where I would have begun. “Plain cloth” puns on the idea of “plain clothes,” but also takes into account the adjective “plain” as well as the grasslands, the “plain.” “Mere” means “only” but it also means “pond.” “Repast” contains “past,” so it’s not just the meal that’s being interrupted, but also remembrance. A “shift” is not just a movement, it’s also a piece of clothing (again with the “cloth”). And this is just the first stanza. It continues in this fashion. Ha! Fashion! I can’t seem to help myself.
Rumpus: Whose poetry is it most important to you to learn by heart?
Powell: I don’t like the word “whose.” The question should be “Is it important to learn poetry by heart?” Any. And the answer is “yes.”
Read “no picnic,” from D.A. Powell’s new book, Chronic, published today in The Rumpus.