Criticism & Features

Year 2009: 30 Books

Chronic, by D.A. Powell

By Craig Morgan Teicher

Each day leading up to the March 11 announcement of the 2009 NBCC award winners, Critical Mass highlights one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member Craig Morgan Teicher discusses poetry finalist D.A. Powell's Chronic (Graywolf)

D.A. Powell is one of the two or three major poets now in mid-career. Not only is he an important chronicler of the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and its aftereffects, but he is also intensely conscious of the ways contemporary American language occurs simultaneously in many register: Powell's poems–about love, memory, death, and his own struggle with HIV–look back at the long tradition of poetry as well as at contemporary pop culture (they reference everything from The Bible to the movie Hook to the '80s band Lipps Inc.), illustrating how they're all intimately related, as if the dance music of the 1980s was stuck in Dante's head when he was writing The Divine Comedy (which is the loose model for the trilogy that comprises Powell's first three books, Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails, which chronicle the journey through the hell, purgatory, and redemption that is Powell's vision of the 80s and 90s in gay America).

Chronic is his fourth collection, a book about new love found and then lost. After the devastating losses of lovers and friends recounted in the first three books, Powell's afterlife-traveler meets someone new, a man who made his heart “[break] open in your hands.” At the same time, Powell realizes, this is a lover with whom he finds himself “lately in the sanitarium, locked up with you.” Love is a kind of delirium, an “angel as expected,/ forsaking as expected.”

When things go south in this relationship–Powell's resignation to the loss of love finally comes to a head in the masterful poem “Courthouse Steps,” one of the great lyric utterances of the decade–Powell concludes that “love should not be written in stone but written in water,” only another reminder, albeit a distracting one, of how truly impermanent everything human truly is.

Meanwhile, as his love story unfolds, Powell is conducting a course in how to innovate poetic form. Of his first book, Tea, the Lambda Book Report said Powell “has invented a new prosodic instrument and played it almost flawlessly.” In his first three books, he fine-tuned that instrument–with its long lines, odd spacing, sentence fragments that speak to one anther across white space, unlikely rhymes, and jazz-like quotes from high and low culture–and took its music to virtuosic heights. In Chronic he picks up a new instrument, though one of the same family–a woodwind, let's say, of a different pitch. The poems of Chronic are more jagged, their line breaks more sensitive to the sentences those lines are dividing. These poems represent a rare case of a poet learning to hear himself better–and to communicate more intimately–as soon as he seemingly mastered his voice.

We will still be reading D.A. Powell a long time from now, both for the record he offers of the last 30 years of American history and culture and for the new possibilities he has created for poetry. He is both accessible and challenging, saying something new, and saying it newly, with each book, yet speaking with an authority as old as poetry itself.

Click here to watch D.A. Powell read from Chronic.