Reviewed by RYAN HELGERSON
The photograph is borrowed from J. Henry Fair’s collection of photography titled Industrial Scars. According to Fair’s website for Industrial Scars, the series “is an aesthetic look at some of our most egregious injuries to the system that sustains us in the hopes that the viewer will come away with an innate understanding of her complicity and a will to make a difference.” Many of Powell’s poems seem to have similar intentions as Fair’s photographs in Industrial Scars. Powell’s poems shimmer with surface beauty while revealing underlying sickness and rank motives; they give the reader pause while parsing our collective decay. Moreover, there is a clear balance between the design of the contents and the purposefulness of the poems that borders on the giddy and ultra-enjoyable.
The book is divided into three sections: Initial C, Chronic, and Terminal C. As the titles of each of these sections (and the book) suggests, the letter ‘C’ figures prominently in each of the chapter titles. Some of my favorite titles include “cul-de-sac”, “lipsync [with a nod to lipps, inc.]”, “cosmos, late blooming”, “the expiration date on my prophylactic is not quite the same as the expiration date on my prophylactic”, “shut the fuck up and drink your gin and tonic”, “democrac”, and “for the coming pandemic”. While only a few of these actually begin with the letter ‘C’, they are nonetheless featured in prominent places in each chapter, creating a sharpness that is cutting and cacophonous.
by D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, 2009
88 pages, $15.00
There’s also a sense of balance that is created by the sectioning of the poems, as “Initial C” contains 24 poems, “Chronic” contains one, which is the title poem itself, and “Terminal C” contains 28. This naturally brings the focal point to the title poem, as it is book-ended by the rest of the collection. The poem begins with a vivid description of a landscape that is more or less pristine. The steady observation, the fidelity to the details of the natural flux that surrounds the speaker evokes Frost:
jackrabbit, swallowtail, harlequin duck: believe in this refuge
vivid tips of oleander
white and red perimeters where no perimeter should be
The first three stanzas of the poem (this being the third,) are a depiction of the pristine setting that surrounds the speaker. It’s only in the final line that the speaker introduces the argument central to the poem, and perhaps to the entire book: to imagine ourselves as a species separated from the natural world is to wish death on both. Powell invokes an awareness of death, although in a personal, confessional sense:
here is another in my long list of asides:
why have I never had a clock that actually gained time?
that apparatus, which measures out the minutes, is our own image
We see another deft shift occur in this stanza as the speaker moves from ruminating on the approach of his own death to an understanding that death is approaching every one of us, all the time. By reflecting on this impermanence, the speaker is able to convey a fragility and interconnectedness that every living thing permeates.
and so 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
It strikes me that Powell is attempting in earnest to foster a sense of compassion and delicacy in the sensibilities of his readers when that type of awareness should be self-evident, instinctual, common-sense. Furthermore, in his portrayal of the planet as having the power to restore itself, Powell compares the planet to a dutiful lover who tolerates the transgressions of an abusive partner out of unconditional love and respect:
and by resilient I mean which holds
which tolerates the inconstant lover, the pitiful treatment
the experiment, the untried and true, the last stab at wellness
Is that guilt that I’m feeling? Am I the inconstant lover? Herein lies part of Chronic’s success: it does not allow me to feel innocent in the face of the devastation which we are wreaking on the environment. Powell denies me this satisfaction, reminding me that I, too, am playing a very active role in the society that degrades the natural world. I, too, am the inconstant, abusive lover. This is perhaps the most earnest, plaintive poem in the book, as it evinces a fear of death on the part of the speaker. This aspect of the poem seem to reflect the speaker’s long meditation on a terminal disease which ended many lives early.
The title poem is unique to much of the collection, as Powell also relies on pop culture references as well as an incisive, sometimes mocking tone, in his treatment of cultural matter. The reverence for life that is wrought so beautifully in the poem above is contrasted by other poems in which the author deploys a gleeful irreverence in his portrayal of certain aspects of American life that the status quo might view as sacred. Consider his depiction of the insular family in “cul-de-sac”:
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
Oh, man. I have to say, when I first read this, I had to ask myself: where do I start? How about that first line, which utterly rejects the ethos of accumulation and insularity that characterizes the familial retreat to the suburban household; how is that for a conclusion, as it confidently, cheerfully ends with “you have nothing”? Equally cheerful and irreverent is his rejection of the ethos of reproduction in this passage that arguably characterizes the American status quo. When I read, “why haven’t your tubes been tied?”, I nearly fell out of my chair with gleeful laughter. Underlying this pointed question lies a reversal of the moral obligation that often characterizes the decision to procreate. In a world where we are devouring the planet at a velocity that is exponentially accelerating, why is it that no one has stopped to ask: do we really need more humans right now?
Powell’s deftness as a writer is on full display in the final two lines of this excerpt, wherein he begins with the use of “spittle and snot” as a synecdoche for the small children in the household. This synecdoche juxtaposes nicely with the following metaphor of “fat emeralds” and “little gems” in his description of the children, lending the description an oozing mockery. Finally, his broadening of scope in the final line that I’ve included here, in which he creates a metaphor of the house on the cul-de-sac as a congested lung is at once visually stunning, and clear in meaning. This construction is a sign of disease, not wellness.
In summary, Powell’s collection beautifully renders issues that are both contemporary and timeless: contemporary in that they treat the current state of the psychological, social, and ecological landscapes; timeless in that the book can be viewed as one individuals attempt to meditate on the idea of death, on both a personal and transpersonal level. If these are issues that are relevant to you, dear reader of this review, as they should be if you are alive on planet Earth today, I highly recommend Powell’s book.