Friday, April 30, 2010

Chronic (D.A. Powell)

This year's Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award was given to D.A. Powell, a professor at the University of San Francisco, after the publication of his most recent book, Chronic. The award is a $100,000 prize given annually to an emerging poet with an established body of work who hasn't yet received much fame or success. Yes, I said $100,000. 1 and then five 0's. One hundred thousand dollars. For writing poetry. Clearly I had to check this guy out. I met him briefly at the AWP conference in Denver a couple weeks ago, and he passed along a copy of Chronic for me to review. Let's see if the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award winner can hold up to my personal standards.


I'm gonna level with you here: I have never been so emphatically unsure of my own feelings regarding any piece of writing as I am with this book. There is so much I absolutely love about this man's writing, and so much more than I just cannot stand. There was never an "eh" moment. To me, each poem was either genius or overdramatic; profound or cliché; heartfelt or hokey. I was completely drawn in by 90% of his titles (for example: "{not the musical:] south pacific," "shut the fuck up and drink your gin and tonic," "clown burial in winter," and "scenes from the trip we didn't take to the antarctic"), but was often let down by the poems themselves. But then I would turn the page and find a serious gem like "crematorium at sierra view cemetery next to the high school," which reads as follows:

impoverished graveyard: mangy green triangle where two freeways form a crotch

twenty yards from the gym and the AG shop: see, it's morty's mom's funeral today
there's morty in a tie, his dad's head rocking: the pendulum of a clock tsk-tsks

holes just the size of flowerbeds claim sleek boxes. marry me, you ruined seed

all semester they open and gnash their yellow teeth: there goes mike, we say—
his hearse lumbering through the iron gate—remember: he used to drive so fast

and then that smokestack poking its head above the surrounding grass

so that others—ever mindful of space, perhaps—could singe and shrivel on oven racks
blazing into eggshell-colored ash collected in old penny jars and in paper sacks

there goes dusty [pointing at the belching puffs that tumbled over the valley]

between PE and molecular biology the smoke you'd sneak: half tobacco, half human
white alloy of the usual carcinogens and damon pettibone's granny. or a bit of mike

that chest that—before it caved against the steering wheel—felt strong and sinewy***
I think that's a fantastic poem. It's only on page 8, so even though by then I was already a little conflicted, I was a bit more enthusiastic moving forward from that point.

But Brian, why did you dislike the other poems so much? Well, I'm glad you asked. D.A. Powell is known to be somewhat experimental in his writing, and not experimental in a funky Salvador Dali kinda way, but experimental in an I-don't-care-much-for-the-rules-of-this-language kinda way. The biggest evidence of this, and the one I had the most trouble getting past, was his strange use of enjambment and end-stops. Powell doesn't pay much attention to the usual laws of punctuation or capitalization, and that's fine. I would never fault a poet for something like that, it's petty and unnecessary. He uses punctuation when and where he sees fit. No problem. However, the particular way in which Powell chooses to utilize punctuation creates a situation where very few lines end in the symbols themselves. This can be very confusing, as it tends to lead the reader towards assuming that each line is enjambed, when in fact they are end-stopped. Add to this the fact that, once the reader has gotten used to assuming each line is end-stopped, Powell begins to toss in enjambed lines, and the confusion really starts to mount. I know it may seem like a small, nit-picky thing, but it actually broke up the flow of many of the poems in ways that I thought were disruptive rather than generated for effect.

Still, though, I couldn't just write the entire book off because I don't personally agree with the man's style choices. Chronic is nothing if not cohesive, and I thoroughly commend Powell for writing a book whose parts gel together so nicely. He breaks the poems into three sections—Initial C, Chronic, and Terminal C—that are easily managed and primarily well-constructed. While the entire book touches upon timeless subjects like death and illness, interspersed with contemporary references and language, the first section is somewhat lighter than the last section. I liked that continuity. The middle section, Chronic, is actually one long poem of the same name, a dream-like soliloquy that serves as a strong transition between the other two sections. Its first few lines:

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
While the last section of the book is heavier, as I mentioned, it's actually got some of my favorite poems from the collection. I especially like "confidence man," which opens with the lines: midway charmer, indiscriminately flexed his smile/a mask of liquor, the rowdy cowpoke. My favorite, though, is the final poem of the book, "corydon & alexis, redux," and its haunting final couplet: silly poet, silly man: thought I could master nature like a misguided preacher/as if banishing love is a fix. as if the stars go out when we shut our sleepy eyes.


by D.A. Powell

After all that, I'm honestly still not sure how I feel about the book. It deserves to be read and experienced individually, as it is a book filled with somewhat experimental work that would likely garner different reactions from each reader. I'm curious to see how his other three books read—Tea, Lunch and Cocktails, for those of you playing along at home—and if they confound my senses as much as Chronic does. I mean, if nothing else, the guy just won a serious award with a serious cash prize attached, so he's got to be doing something right. My suggestion: check him out for yourself and let me know what you think. And, as always, keep reading, Genoshans!

***Many of the poems in Chronic have very long lines, so some of the line breaks presented here may not reflect the actual breaks in the book.

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