On D. A. Powell’s Chronic

Jerry Harp

Graywolf Press, 2009, 64 pages

According to recent estimates, life arose on our planet some 3.8 billion years ago. This life has evolved through the byways and rough roads of deep time to produce human beings with all of our aches of consciousness and yearnings for physical and spiritual connection. This human phase of evolution has also produced a great variety of shapes, artifacts, practices, and pursuits, including tattered placards, graveyards, flowerbeds, chimney stacks, piano lessons, airplane travel, card tables, Dixie cups, X-rays, brain scans, and movies with titles like “I Was a Male War Bride” and “I Was a Teenage Zombie”—all of which appear in the poems of D. A. Powell’s Chronic.

Their verbal practices sometimes echo Gertrude Stein, with touches of T. S. Eliot, Elizabeth Bishop, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, popular songs, and television advertisements. Powell can accommodate pretty much anything into his work with a combination of wit and affection distinctive among contemporary poets:

           she te deums with tedium shucking her mitre-filled nightie
           for acolytes heinrich and huck [heinrich’s coptic double]
                                 (“coronation fanfare [in the style of edith sitwell]”)

While the Coptic double of heinrich the elephant boy, as he is earlier identified, heads toward copulation with this mysterious other who “te deums” (after the traditional hymn that begins “Te Deum laudamus” [“O God, we praise you”]) before revealing the Bishop’s hats within her nightie, the religious paraphernalia combine with erotic desire—and when have humans’ spiritual longings ever been divorced from our most physical of desires? It is deeply human for the eros of the spirit to interpenetrate and circulate through the eros of the body. In their often comic vein, Powell’s poems disclose a deeply human world.

If in this human world, which is a part of the long sweep of evolution, nothing lasts, we can nevertheless dedicate ourselves, our work, our art to this world that is constantly passing away. Thus, in “courthouse steps,”

                                            . . . a carver broached the effigy of his muse
                                 he rendered her attractive features, down to the very blush

                                                       of course she spurned him
                                            of course there was another to whom she turned

                      love should not be written in stone but written in water
                                                    (I paraphrase the latin of catullus)

Although the spurning of love is not inevitable, it is one of the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to, and so far the Latin of Catullus has lasted to remind us of as much. Even if love is often enough written in effect on water, Catullus reminds us—if only in the terms of a thematic back-formation—of the possibility that it could be written in stone, would the artful work of human decision make it so within the welter of history.

The fantasy of permanence comes to the fore in the closing lines of “courthouse steps”:

tread light upon this pedestal. dream instead of a time before
            your love disfigured, a time
                        withstanding even crass, wind-beaten time itself

This ideal time that precedes time is a desirable fantasy, but the poem will not allow us to forget it takes place in a dream, one where the beloved other never turned away.

In the context of this passing world, Powell’s poems strike a complex note of both hope and valediction. As the speaker of “cancer inside a little sea” says to some future reader: “child to come, what will you make of this scratched paradise / this receptacle of soil, water, seed, bee, floating scat and spore / brutal wind and brutal tide. the insignificance of fortunes.” Even as they look to the future, these lines advert to such loss as Virgil describes in the lines from his Ninth Eclogue, that form this book’s epigraph: “Time robs us of all, even of memory: oft as a boy I recall that with song I would lay the long summer days to rest. Now I have forgotten all my songs.” But I believe that Powell’s songs will be remembered. If there is a place in some hereafter where Gertrude Stein and Virgil are hanging out, I think they must be talking about the poems of D. A. Powell.

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