March 5, 2009

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Chronic, by D. A. Powell, Graywolf Press, 2009, 79 pages
By Dan Szczesny letters@hippopress.com

I’m normally not inclined to suffer the syntactical jitters some modernist poets feel is their birthright to inflict upon the reading public. Primarily, my hesitance comes from the fact that odd line breaks, random spacing and page gymnastics are usually smoke and mirrors for a poet who has little to actually say.

Well, I’m glad to report that D. A. Powell, in his new collection, Chronic, does indeed have a lot to say and is able to say it well, despite (or perhaps because of) his very unique voice and challenging writing style.

The San Francisco English teacher has put together his own set of chronic illnesses and errors affecting him and the planet — from climate change to drug abuse to teenage angst, Powell’s collection is a litany of failure, pain and pathos. And it’s damn funny.

In “Sprig of Lilac” Powell turns the standard theme of Spring renewal into a hyperactive Woody Allen-esque manic rant: “look at the pluck you’ve made of my heart: it broke open in your hands / oddments of ravished leaves: blossom blast and dieback: petals drooping // we kissed briefly in the deathless spring.” Is the narrator happy or horrified? Who knows!

Powell also pulls off another construction trick that I’ve never seen before. The poem “Centerfold” is actually a centerfold in the middle of the book that you must unfold in order to read. But it’s not for show only. The poem is good, a dry, dark telling (I think) of an illicit love affair that ends badly. But the lines spread out across the page, needing the space to tell their story. The poem is easy and accessible despite its odd form.

Modern poetry is tricky. There are too many poets out there looking to make their mark, literally on the page, without having the skill to back up the bravado. Powell has it, and it’s a joy to read. A. — Dan Szczesny