On D. A. Powell's Chronic and Others
by Kevin Prufer
from The Cincinnati Review, Summer 2010
In a painting that no longer exists, twenty-four people reluctantly link arms with twenty-four blackened corpses. Some—the kings and dukes, the wealthy in their thick robes—look a little disconsolate, as if trying to figure out how they might politely extricate themselves from a vaguely embarrassing situation. Others—the priest, the cardinal—stand stiffly, retreating into the poses they assume under less gruesome conditions. A few, notably those more plainly dressed, seem nearly at ease, and one, a young woman at the end of the line, waves and almost smiles.
Behind them, the landscape is verdant and lush, a run of rolling hills, villages, and castles dipping down into a busy port where sailing ships billow and turn in the breezes. The dead, their black skin stretched over pointed bones, their eyeholes deep and cavelike, are having a wonderful time, heads thrown back, jaws agape, their rib cages nearly bursting through their skin with laughter. And of course they are dancing, clinging to the living, urging them onward.
Bernt Notke painted the Lübecker Totentanz in 1463 to remind us of the briefness of our lives, the constant presence of pestilence and the suddenness with which we, too, might find ourselves leaving the grassy hillsides of our homes in the arms of vanished ancestors. But what struck me when I first saw the enormous black-and-white photograph of the painting on display in Lübeck's Marienkirche (the original vanished long ago; a 1701 copy of the painting by Anton Wortmann was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1942) was how the tourists smiled at it. A few laughed uneasily, peering closer to pick out a subtlety of expression on a bishop's face, a burst of hilarity from the otherwise hollow skull of a dancing corpse. But I expect that they got the point. We have never been particularly good at talking about death; when we address it at all, we are often best coming at it slantwise, through allegory, simile, and most of all, a bitter sort of comedy.
"This is not a book about AIDS," D. A. Powell wrote in the foreword to his first poetry collection, Tea. "I offer this at the outset, because I know that in the short-hand way in which books are discussed, catalogued, reviewed, marketed, introduced, AIDS will inevitably be touted as one of the cries of the book's occasion. I do not deny this disease its impact. But I deny its dominion." Perhaps this is so, though the disease's grinning figure kicks up its heels on nearly every page. How else explain the poem "[tall and thin and young and lovely the michael with kaposi's sarcoma goes walking]," meant to be sung to the cheerful tune of "The Girl from Ipanema." Or "[heaven is a discotheque [why don't you take me] you could believe anything if you could believe]," in which the beloved deceased quite literally dances: "a comicstrip version of your earthly self ... you have strobed moments of elegance." Powell's early work is infused with mordant wit, obsessive wordplay, and the playful glitter of a nearly endless stream of pop-cultural references, all working in a sort of counterpoint to the grim truth of his poems, the certainty of mortality, the constant presence of the AIDS pandemic in the poet's life, the fact that he's already been left behind by so many of those he loves.
So perhaps, too, the Totentanz is not about plague, though plague was its occasion, and without it, it could not exist. Like D. A. Powell's first book—and his next two after that—Notke's painting, and the many others in the dancing-dead genre, are about living. How much more valuable are our lives, they seem to ask, when we keep in mind their impermanence and the certainty of our own deaths? And what better vehicle could there be but an unpredictable, largely fatal epidemic, whether plague or AIDS, for understanding this fact, regardless of our time or situation. "Despite any hardship," Powell concludes, "I see what a blessing my life has been. I have written this book for the men who did not live to write their own stories."
Powell's first three books—Tea (1998), Lunch (2000), and Cocktails (2004) —are often referred to (probably against his own wishes) as the AIDS trilogy. They are brilliant, schizoid collections, balanced precariously between elegy and pop-cultural extravaganza, imbued with both a withering sadness and a love of spectacle, of movies, half-forgotten pop songs and television programs. And, though their composition doesn't exactly mirror their publication (much of the second book was written before the first), something resembling a narrative unfolds, one in which the author loses friends to AIDS (Tea), is himself diagnosed with HIV and undergoes the many medical requirements that accompany it (Lunch), and amidst the chaos, has something of a spiritual reawakening (Cocktails).
But if the circumstances of the poems' compositions change, their strategies largely do not. Most obviously, in all three books Powell employs long, jangling, highly rhythmic (though halting) lines. In Tea, these grow so long that the collection is bound sideways; Cocktails, too, has an unusually wide format. (Similar accommodations should probably have been made for Lunch, as well; a few of the poems suffer typographically as an editor attempted to squeeze them on standard pages.) The effect of these long lines (and their accompanying, strategically positioned moments of white space) is to draw attention to each line's often boisterous rhythms, the strings of wordplay, of puns and counterpuns, of allusion and self-reference—all of them crammed into what, finally, seems like barely enough space. Reading Powell's best poems, one gets the sense of a brilliant speaker taking a deep breath, holding it, then spitting out at great speed a line of poetry, pausing to gasp for breath, then continuing again.
More subtly, however, what Powell has perfected in his trilogy is a delicate tonal balancing act, a performance not all that unlike Notke's Totentanz. In most of his best poems, this balance is achieved between the unarticulated literal meaning (or truth) of a poem and the pose struck by that poem's music and reference. Take, for example, "[darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows]" from Lunch:
darling can you kill me: with your mickeymouse pillows
when I'm a meager man. with your exhaust pipe and hose
could you put me out: when I'm a mite a splinter a grain
a tatter a snip a sliver a whit a tittle. habited by pain
would you bop me on the noggin: with a two by four
the trifle of me pissing myself. slobbering infantile: or
wheezing in an oxygen tent. won't you shut off the tank
mightn't you disconnect the plug: give the cord a proper yank
when I lose the feeling in my legs. when my hands won't grip
and I'm a thread a reed a wrack a ruin: of clap and flux and grippe
with your smack connections could you dose me. as I start my
would you put a bullet through me. angel: no light left that is mine.
The poem's literal meaning is clear: the speaker imagines a grim future in which his body is wracked by AIDS. He addresses a friend (the poem is dedicated to the poet Sam Witt), asking him to kill him before the pain and humiliation become too great. Whether we are meant to imagine the poet actually addressing his friend, or instead to see this as an interior monologue, is a matter of interpretation.
But the music of the poem—its tight rhyme, its sequences of anapests and iambs—undercuts this, smiling at us grittily through the pain of the truth. Powell's rhythms here are cousins to the limerick, owing a debt to both Dame Edith Sitwell's crowded poetic sensibility and Frederick Seidel's playful wit. If music can have articulable meaning, then the meaning of Powell's music is certainly merry, perhaps a little ribald, definitely upbeat. (A friend once asked of this poem, "why 'mickeymouse' pillows? Won't any pillows do just as well?"; the answer, of course, is that, like the poem, a mickeymouse pillow might accompany our smothering with the merriment your standard hotel pillow couldn't provide.)
One sees this same marriage of sorrow and giddiness throughout the trilogy in (among many others) such poems as "[nicholas the ridiculous: you will always be 27 and impossible. no more expectations)" from Tea, in which the deceased title character repeats from beyond the grave "the same episodes: nick at night. tricky nick. nicholas at halloween a giant tampon/ don't make me mature by myself: redundancy of losing common ground. for once be serious." Or when he riffs on Andrew Marvell in "[writing for a young man on the redline train: 'to his boy mistress']" from Cocktails: "where is that boy of yesteryear?" the poet asks at the poem's conclusion; "let him die young and leave a pretty corpse: die with his legs in the air." Or, most brilliantly, in "[morning broke on my cabin inverted. tempest in my forehead]," also from Cocktails, when the poet imagines his struggle with the disease as an unmade scene from the film The Poseidon Adventure in which he must climb up through the inverted levels of the flipped ocean liner.
Thus, in much of Powell's early work, the so-called meaning of the poetry suffers under paraphrase. His literal themes, after all, are not all that surprising: Our bodies, victims of disease, humiliate us. Our friends die, one by one. Our erotic attraction to others is stained in the age of AIDS, is dangerous. And, in the end, we can only hope for some spiritual transcendence, some moment of absolution or the prospect of the eternal. All are worthy themes but, stated so bluntly, suggest a far different poet than D. A. Powell.
Rather, the brilliance of his trilogy is often accomplished in the space between the meaning and the sound of the poems, in the tension between the rollicking pleasure of his long, rhythmic lines and the truth those lines point to. What, after all, does it mean to sing so happily of death and chaos? Is the effect merely to throw our unhappiness in starker relief against these lighter backdrops? Or does the upbeat music of these poems acquire a nervous energy when wedded to life's many deaths and sicknesses? Or is Powell after something even more complex here: Is the "life" he alludes to as his theme present in his poems' music even as it lives in his speaker's (and, we assume, his own) soul—despite the sadness around him?
However one chooses to read these tensions in the AIDS trilogy, it's not hard to see in Powell's work, in his sequences of withering young men, in his imagining his own wasting away, in his search for absolution, those medieval figures linking arms with death and dancing with complex merriment into the hereafter.
But what now? When one's poetic oeuvre is wrapped around a single extended project, how does one follow it up? How does one create one's art anew against what many consider to be an enduring poetic achievement of our generation?
Whether or not Powell himself considers Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails a thematic trilogy, his fourth collection, Chronic, has been widely discussed as a break from his earlier work. In Contemporary Poetry Review, critic Joan Houlihan points to a "softer lens" in Powell's new poems, characterized by "less anger, more rumination" and "a more discursive style." Where she describes his earlier work as having "a single-minded drive to tell it, tell it all, and to hell with death," his newer poems are reflective, speaking "through ... and about environmental degradation." In the Los Angeles Times, John Freeman, too, draws a line between Powell's first three books and Chronic, noting both a move toward an earthy sort of Romanticism and a new "ability to dramatize the bitter lash of [erotic] rejection and the urge for payback." Other critics have noted an emerging expansiveness in Powell's lyric, a focus on love in middle age, a more directly autobiographical and public style, and a sort of inward-looking rage. And, of course, depending on which poems one chooses to read, all of these seemingly contradictory descriptions are true. These traits probably have more to do with the natural development of a writer from poem to poem than any deliberate attempt at reinvention, however.
The best way to understand Powell's new project—and it is a new project—is to begin by noting what is unchanged in his work. Still present are the long, jangling lines. Once again, Chronic needs every inch of its extra-wide format to contain these poems, and as if satirizing his own poetic style, Powell includes two poems ("Cinemascope" and "centerfold") on extra-large foldout pages. Powell still finds source material as readily in bad '80s pop music (Bananarama and Hall & Oates make guest appearances) as in Keats and Catullus. (One poem, "confessions of a teenage drama queen," is composed entirely of a string of movie titles: "I was a male war bride. I was a spy/ so I married an axe murderer ... " etc.). And that grinning skullishness, so reminiscent of those medieval plague paintings, is still present, especially in poems like "crab louse," where the relationship is described this way:
you have clung to one liana after another
tarzan-swinging into each savory tuck and fold ...
so the infestation starts: one unguarded prick
a nook in which you suck and suck
until the itch to kill you, a primate reflex, prevails
as you gorge in the troughs and ditches of desire.
And along with this is the ever-present specter of AIDS, as in his earlier work, endlessly conflated with pop culture, a sort of hyperactive prognostication, and terrifying eroticism. In the brilliant "crossing into canaan," the speaker tells how his beloved
lay upon me, was himself a cool sponge, drew my perspiration to
icechips held in his teeth, he pushed small bergs into my mouth
caressed the skeletal arms I've hidden in long sleeves
kissed neck and chest, belly rotten with pudgy organs, thickset flesh
he pressed against me, cock on cock and tongue against tongue
saw himself reflected in my marshy eyes and did not flinch such
sustained by this capable stroke, boatswain of my crossing
I take the death I'm moored to, announced as a measureless
and bob in the river as a bloated corpse, blue lips, vacant gaze
let the water fill my lungs until they rip their festive piñatas.
But something is different about Chronic, and it's not just the fact that the title of this collection fails to fit the pattern suggested by the titles of his first three books. The poems in the AIDS trilogy articulate the horror and sadness of a generation of gay men witnessing the AIDS pandemic, their struggles with friendship and ensuing loss, their attempts to understand the disease's ravages and fatality against a backdrop of love, sexual desire, and the glitter and disco suggestive of both the environment of the disease's birth and the lightheartedness that seems so alien in its presence. Chronic, however, describes a far more personal journey.
Ostensibly, the poems in Chronic map one relationship from the erotic excitement of its beginnings (where the speaker in "cosmos, late blooming" asks God, "why should you send this strapping gardener ... surely he'll not content with corrupted flesh that dismantles daily"), past the vagaries of sex (in "that night in the foxhole with the pfc," Powell writes, ''I'm a messkit, you snore, you bore into me, swiss army/ each twitch of your gadgetbox, homing to destroy my sleep"), through self-examination and, finally, betrayal, in which the speaker bitingly describes the beloved "under the streetlamp/ proffering his expendable sex to expendable passers-by" ("plague year: comet: arc"). Along the way, the relationship, in various poetic guises, becomes fraught, complex, and finally, doomed. Now and then, as in "bound isaac," the speaker looks back on the mess, summarizing for us his evolving states of mind:
late the hour he came to me, a failing
& had nobody, assumed I would have nobody
now & forever amen
he was an agreeable boy straight-toothed, fair
a glinting countenance
as the waiting had been a test
as the clarity of irrefutable heaven had been withheld.
But there is more going on here than Powell transferring the characteristics of his early work into a personal narrative. Powell does not aim to be merely a confessional poet; rather, beyond the framework of this narrative is a larger identification at work—not one between lover and betrayer but between lover and a natural landscape that cannot help but become a sort of Emersonian Over-soul.
For there are frequent moments in Chronic when the speaker's voice changes, becomes subtler, gentler, when the nervous piling of image upon image, allusion on allusion, ceases and is replaced with a sort of pensive observation of the world around him. In these moments, he sees in the natural world both disease and beauty, "the sky a mass of black lung: spittle settling upon the nutsedge// a terrible immanence of spring" ("central valley"). In fact, images of the natural world abound in Chronic, frequently undercut by reference to sickness and failure, but present nonetheless, and beautiful, as if both mirroring the speaker's troubles and holding out a promise of redemption. "An old god saved us from the wrack of this january rain," he writes in "gospel on the dial, with intermittent static," "himself a wayfaring stag trodding the lichen of these prehistoric woods// sometimes I prayed to be plowed under in some ordinary field."
The stunning title poem, which completely inhabits its own section of the book, begins with the flight of redwinged blackbirds over a field and ends with the approaching dusk. Along the way, the speaker meditates on what we might take from the landscape:
... the delicate, unfixed condition of love, the treacherous body
the unsettling state of creation and how we have damaged—
isn't one a suitable lens through which to see another:
filter the body, filter the mind, filter the resilient land ...
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.
As the poem progresses, the space between the observer and the landscape he observes becomes narrower, one mirroring the other until, in a moment reminiscent of Walt Whitman's observing the death and procreative decay that work beneath the blade of spring grass, Powell asserts:
I did not comprehend desire as a deadly force until—
daylight, don't leave me now, I haven't done with you—
nor that, in this late hour, we still cannot make peace
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.
Thus, Powell's scope here extends beyond the personal relationship, the initial subject of his book—and, in ways, far beyond anything he attempted in his AIDS trilogy. Here, the whole world, in all its decay and rejuvenation, becomes both a catalyst for a kind of transcendence beyond the ravages of sickness and love and a creative source, a prompt by which the speaker may stay "against the dying of the light." Here, he finds a parallel between the personal body, the body of humankind, and the universal body of nature and, in doing so, sees a larger picture, discovering beauty and hope for meaningful redemption beyond the self.
Chronic ends on a similar note: "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" ("corydon & alexis, redux"). Although Powell's previous book, Cocktails, contained moments of spiritual uplift, he never attempted this with the grace and earnestness he employs here, nor with as much ambition. In Chronic, Powell has set the confessional I (and the historical, erotic, and pharmaceutical baggage that accompanies it) against a sweeping background that resembles nothing so much as Emerson's God-in-nature. And this nature places the self and his troubles in context, showing us just how small his cry is—and how slight our personal searches for love, health, and redemption are when viewed against universal enormity, even as they matter very much to us.
Perhaps this is most easily suggested by the design of the book itself. Powell's author's photo, on the back inside dust-jacket flap, is no author's photo at all. Rather, it's an X-ray of the poet's chest cavity and pelvis, acquired, no doubt, from one of many doctors. (The photographer is credited as "California Pacific Medical Center.") On the front cover is a lush aerial photograph of miles of industrial waste, each fetid lake blooming like a blue-and-white flower in the muck, surrounded by woods and beaches. It is a beautiful picture, though inside it, as inside the body, a sickness waits and grows.
The author, rendered transparent, comments on that.
About the Author
Kevin Prufer's fourth book, National Anthem (Four Way Books, 2008) was named one of the five best poetry books of the year by Publishers Weekly. His next collection, Little Paper Sacrifice, is forthcoming in 2011. He lives in rural Missouri, where he edits Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing.
University of Cincinnati
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