The Budding Bucolic D.A. Powell

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In the course of just three collections — TeaLunch, and Cocktails — D.A. Powell has proven himself to be one of the most exciting and enjoyable American poets writing today. His work is readily distinguishable on the page, before reading a single syllable, by its long lines, lack of capitalization, and idiosyncratic punctuation. These formal elements, while at once making him immanently recognizable out of the monotone of modern poetry, are also among the least engaging aspects of his poems. The emotional and intellectual strength of Powell’s work is founded, to a large extent, on his flourishing lyric control and on the brilliant collisions among his cabal of source material: Powell has drawn from the Gospel of Mark, the 1991 film Hook, Alexander Pushkin, Santa Claus, the Boy Scouts, and Lipps, Inc. It defies even the term “etcetera.”

In Chronic, Powell’s new collection, we find a relatively new set of thematic concerns and, as one might presume, new points of reference. In place of the popular film and music sources (though a number of these do remain), the bulk of the poems in Chronicunsystematically address contemporary ecological and political debates. They do not form an extended argument as other recent “themed” collections have: Powell’s poems are loosely joined, casually interacting like a crowd assembled for the occasion — not entirely dissimilar, neither fully coherent. The epigraph for Chronic (and maybe its occasion) is taken from Virgil’s Eclogues,

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.

A poet’s epitaph usually, though not always, acts as a reader’s pocket guide (other times it is simply a sign of debt or gratitude). The Eclogues are bucolic lyrics, set away from the power center of Rome. The speakers in them are shepherds and farmers. They concentrate on nature and husbandry, but contained in them is all the uncertainty and strife of Virgil’s post-republic, pre-imperial, civil war age. As critic Raymond Williams writes in The Country and the City, “the contrast within Virgilian pastoral is between the pleasures of rural settlement and the threat of loss and eviction. . . when the peace of country life could be contrasted with the disturbances of war and civil war.” These contradictory qualities — of peripheral figures expressing social unrest against the ebb and flow of nature and farming— must have seemed particularly appealing to Powell, whose poems consider socially difficult themes and excluded figures.

Yet, even as I formulate and later examine the connection between Virgil’s work and this one, I hesitate to emphasize one source too strongly. Powell is too eclectic to nail down, and each time I return to this collection I’m sure that I’ll realize new connections. There are poems in Chronic that interact familiarly with pop songs, films, and theater; there are poems that address consumerism, HIV, and homosexuality; there are poems that deal with military culture; there are themes and tropes lifted from Virgil’s Georgics and other literary sources. It is difficult to discuss the poems too broadly, as each one seems to expand the scope a little further.

What is certain is that Chronic is more directed and didactic in its approach to social and ostensibly political issues than any of Powell’s collections before it. This is not to say that Powell was ever non-political, as it were — only that it was always politics through the back door. The poet addressed issues of social import through the dualities of humor, popular culture, and religion, and always through the human experience. Chronic approaches many of these same issues much more directly, almost essayistically. In the least successful poems, that familiar ambiguity, playfulness, and emotional complexity are trimmed for the sake of assertive expression, of making a point. A number of the poems even verge on the polemical, such as “clutch and pumps,”

if I were in your shoes, you purse your mouth
but you were never in my shoes, chinaberry
nor I in yours:   the cherry ash of fags
burns your path down the scatty streets

your smile wraps round pumps with a smack
the jawbone of a mighty red croc
who served up his behind to your toes
jagged bite marks:   the hem of your frock

tombs, sister, you’ve got lithic tombs for hips
one chimney stack where a bbq pit should be
you say that I’m in janitor drag this year:   as last
do these tits go with these shoulders?  why ask me?

those talons you cultivate I do admire
the cochineal cheeks the flirty lashes
I don’t want to live in a clutch purse town
you snap:   and yet everything matches

While I find the acerbic wit-lash of the poem quite funny, its humor also banks on the reader agreeing with this point of view. The closing line “and yet everything matches” is too securely fastened, winding up the thrust of the piece too neatly. It is a limitation of effect, connected more to the narrowed possibility of readings and vaguely pre-packaged images than to the humor. While “clutch and pumps” is probably the poem that most exemplifies this particular flaw, each of this type of poem — such as “shut the fuck up and drink your gin and tonic” and “congregation in glory” — pale in comparison with Powell’s better lyrics.

Most of the best poems in this collection are specifically Virgilian, using natural images to make light of social discord. “coal of this unquickened world,” for example, opens with an image of urban nightfall so sonically resonant that the essentially visual description takes on a veritably textile quality,

midnight slips obsidian:  an arrowhead in my hand
pointed roofs against the backdrop, black and blacker
three kinds of ink, each more india than the last

The poem goes on to engage the concept of blackness through an elaborately-constructed set of puns and metaphors that connect black identity to commercial products of nature: coal, oil, ink, slate, diamonds. Their production is a form of husbandry, if more violent (less like marriage and more like sexual assault), and carries echoes of the angst that Raymond Williams discussed. Powell treats HIV similarly in the twin poems “plague year: comet: arc” and “for the coming pandemic,” and with this somewhat more familiar subject he is perhaps even more successful. Both poems have several haunting lines that bridge sex, disease, and a pathetic fallacy, perhaps none more than these lines from “plague year,”

                the funerary angel, the way HE fucks
like a bodybag, already empty, already depositing
its contents atop the toxic landfill, giving up the corpus

The erotic images are completely bound to the rot and filth — wonderfully so, for the sake of the poem’s disturbing effects. It is a descent, a fall in the Biblical sense, from the angelic to the bodily to the almost derogatory way a corpse is disposed of like so much trash. Powell also has a remarkable ability to present this confluence of sexuality and disease without a moral tone: the disease, as Susan Sontag once argued of cancer, is a medical fact and a physical burden, but it is not a metaphor. Similarly-inspired, the poem “for the coming pandemic” draws its inspiration from that portion of Virgil’s Georgics which describes the infiltration of a deadly plague into daily life:

lands divided into plats.   the tenants put out beyond the gates

and in the midst of crowds, and under every eave and entryway
one hears the addled noise from occluded windpipes
and the sucking tongues cleaved to the ceilings in parched mouths

and the palaces are not saved, either, though they are palaces
and even the hospitals in fine neighborhoods are inundated

from above:  diving beaks and birdclaws, drawn by the scent
and lush carnation of the vivid sores:  the meatbees, too
gathering to the great banquet of humankind.

One can infer, in the context of this collection and Powell’s other work, that the plague in question is likely, but not necessarily, HIV. This simple, detailed array of the effects of a pandemic draws its tone directly from Virgil’s passage. The image of suburban hospitals under siege from carrion-feeding birds has the same type of lucid and complete imaginative logic that Virgil has when he describes the anthrax-infected clothing made of shorn wool from sick sheep. Again, the displaced “tenants put out beyond the gates” recalls the farmers displaced by returning soldiers in the Eclogues as well. It is a masterful allusion, re-working of his source without limiting the readers’ enjoyment and comprehension to their complete familiarity with it.

These topics are germane to Powell. Readers of his past collections will enjoy, but not be surprised by, poems dealing with sex, HIV, death, and love. There are several pieces, though, dealing with topics less common to Powell, that are also less obviously Virgilian. They seem to break new ground for the poet. In the poem “cul-de-sac,” Powell presents one of the more touching reflections that I’ve seen on the military life and the (after)effects of war,

so you’re momentarily enchanted, and so the gables—
like bayonets—point to jet trails overhead

just when you think you’ve arrived, you have nothing
except fido: good old fido
who frisks against your calf and plays dead in the carport

or maybe you have your 2.3 kids, if your tubes aren’t tied—
and why haven’t your tubes been tied?

legacy of spittle and legacy of snot:  fat emeralds, little gems
a fiefdom in the alveoli at the end of congested trachea
where, home again from the desert, you might sleepwalk
in a ratty housecoat and a pair of standard-issue clogs

where your flagpole shivers above the mailbox
and the postman, in his jeep, cheerfully avoids you

toys in the yard, little boys:
you must not mourn the next year or the next

It is self-conscious and self-questioning but it is also humanizing, gracefully inhabiting the returned soldier as both fully a soldier and fully an inhabitant of our mundane society. These two personae are partially in conflict, partially co-dependent. The anxious paranoia of the “postman, in his jeep,” who “cheerfully avoids you” is particularly effective— and we are left to wonder about the reality of that smiling avoidance in his militaristic transport. This anxious animus is expressed by Virgil in the second-hand accounts of the dispossessed farmers in the Eclogues (just as this lyric is in the second person).

The poem “courthouse steps” is not one of the strongest in this collection, but it is another poem in which Powell branches out from his comfortable tendencies. The poem is a treatise on the nature of love, perhaps drawing its story-telling frame — “(I might as well recount this as a story)”, he writes — from the section of the Georgics containing the Orpheus myth. The poem reiterates Powell’s complicated relationship to the realities and concept of love — “beautiful.   unbeautiful.   each with an aspect of exactness.” Where before this might have been formulated as a complex of poetic conceits, as it is in “the half-forgotten voice of yma sumac”, this poem is perhaps more interesting for (and maybe less successful because of) his refusal to engage in a familiar approach. Like “cul-de-sac” and other poems in Chronic, it is more discursive than Powell’s earlier work.

The collection’s long title poem, “Chronic,” examines human disregard for and destruction of the environment, and the ethical implications of that carelessness. It presents a “counter-pastoral” — a term I’ve lifted from Raymond Williams — that subverts the lyrical and somewhat idyllic images of husbandry that appear in Virgil’s work. Powell imagines the common human mistreatments of nature and of ourselves, individually and collectively, as a single phenomenon — a sort of chronic disorder. The pandemic nature of this disorder — of self in sexuality, of culture in consumerism, of society as shown in the degradation of nature — allows Powell a wide range of modes. His familiars are all present in “Chronic,” but this time they are held in the context of the “difficult charge of living in this declining sphere.” It opens with a virtuoso piece of typically dense lyricism:

were lifted over the valley, its steepling dustdevils
the redwinged blackbirds convened
vibrant arc their swift, their dive against the filmy, the finite air

Powell’s stutter-step constructions are almost Latinate and definitely Hopkins-esque, displaying his genius for balancing broken syntax with sense and tension at each break of line. But this mode doesn’t last. The poem slips into self-conscious asides (lesser poets would attempt a symbolic approach to his questions; Powell attacks them head-on) and then into a bit of word play. We are then presented with a decision not of whether or how to save the planet, but how we will eventually leave it:

choose your own adventure:  drug failure or organ failure
cataclysmic climate change
or something akin to what’s killing bees—colony collapse

more like us than we’d allow, this wondrous swatch of rough

The almost military half-step of these long-short-long triplet lines is the base beat of the poem, from which it digresses and to which it returns. At the end of the poem, Powell leaves us with a broken form of it, or maybe just an unfinished one. The poem closes with a response to the epitaph from Virgil,

if I, inconsequential being that I am, forsake all others
how many others correspondingly forsake this world

light, light:  do not go
I sing you this song and I will sing another as well

“Chronic” is very much the heart of this collection: lyric and discursive at turns, coyly punning, and desperately honest. The experience of this poem and the book as a whole is of a poet realizing, as if for the first time, the natural world as a subject and finding a place for it in his workshop. Its integration is difficult, confusing; a struggle is captured in this image,

in a protracted stillness, I saw that heron I didn’t wish to disturb
was clearly a white sack caught in the redbud’s limbs

This poet who is ostensibly a product of the identity movement finds, through Virgil, that the natural world is “more like us than we’d allow;” that deep complications and human connections are possible. In the form of the eclogue, Powell finds a comfortably complicated approach to the pastoral and the idyll, and he avoids purging entirely the song lyrics, films, and sexuality that make up so much of his work. The most accomplished fusion of Virgil’s bucolic mode and Powell’s brilliant lyricism is probably “corydon & alexis redux,” the poem which closes this collection. It is a treatment of Virgil’s second eclogue, in which the shepherd Corydon laments his lost love, the young boy Alexis, who has gone to live with Corydon’s master. He successfully reworks the images of the original, responding to them in both metaphor and tone, and brings in echoes of Keats, Hopkins, and Yeats without allowing any of them to overpower the piece:

and yet we think that song outlasts us all:  wrecked devotion
the wept face of desire, a kind of savage caring that reseeds itself and grows in clusters

oh, you who are young, consider how quickly the body deranges itself
how time, the cruel banker, forecloses us to snowdrifts white as god’s own ribs

what else but to linger in the slight shade of those sapling branches
yearning for that vernal beau.   for don’t birds covet the seeds of the honey locust
and doesn’t the ewe have a nose for wet filaree and slender oats foraged in the meadow
kit foxes crave the blacktailed hare:  how this longing grabs me by the nape

guess I figured to be done with desire, if I could write it out
dispense with any evidence, the way one burns a pile of twigs and brush

what was his name? I’d ask myself, that guy with the sideburns and charming smile
the one I hoped that, as from a sip of hemlock, I’d expire with him on my tongue

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

However, this fusion is not yet a mastered effect. Powell struggles at times with the language of the natural world, with achieving the same balance as in his otherwise careful mediation between stock romanticist language and original effect. There are, throughout the collection, occasionally workmanlike passages — equal parts disappointing after his modern masterpiece, Cocktails, and admirable for an already accomplished poet to continue innovating. Still, his novice wrestling with these modes of verse provides for many successful, beautiful, moving, and human lyrics.

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About Daniel Pritchard

Daniel Evans Pritchard is the founding editor of The Critical Flame. His poetry, translations, and criticism can also be found at Harvard Review online, Slush Pile Magazine, Drunken Boat, Prodigal, Little Star, Rain Taxi, The Battersea Review, The Quarterly Conversation, The Buenos Aires Review, and elsewhere.