Two books of poetry that I’ve returned to frequently over the past couple of years are the most recent books by San Francisco-based poet D. A. Powell, Chronic and Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. I’ve followed Powell’s books since his 1998 debut, Tea, and his five volumes together form one of the most exciting, innovative bodies of work in contemporary American poetry. Chronic and Useless Landscape are assured in their voice and imagery, commanding and relaxed at once.
The title of Chronic refers to many different thematic aspects interspersed throughout the book, literally and figuratively: constancy (in the sense that pain and illness can be chronic and ongoing, just as life itself can be, if we’re lucky), the persistent drives of desire and addiction (“chronic” being one of the slang nicknames for a drug like marijuana, for instance), but most of all, in terms of time (chronicles, chronology, the ticking of the clock that never lets up). Powell also plays with the word via the poems’ titles and the sequencing of the collection, which is divided into three sections—“Initial C,” the long title poem, and “Terminal C.” Over half of the poems’ titles begin with the letter C, and nearly half of the poems’ titles end with that same letter.
This is indicative of both the fullness and the playfulness in Powell’s poems. All of the major motifs like love, sex, and death are underscored, delicately and deliberately, by fragments of beautiful but derelict landscapes, glittering shards of pop music and entertainment culture, and the slow-motion transition of an agrarian society to a thoroughly post-industrial one. Powell’s style and stance have taken root somewhere directly between a couple of other poets with distinct California ties, Robinson Jeffers and David Trinidad, though Powell’s poems don’t ever sound exactly like anybody else’s.
Situated amongst crematoriums, California poppies, and continental divides is one of Powell’s finest, most evocative poems, “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic.” Even in his more formal and classically allusive moments, Powell is never too far away from disco, and this poem raises that association to near-classical heights: “it’s still 1980 somewhere, some corner of your dark apartment / where the mystery of the lyric hasn’t faded. and love is in the chorus waiting to be born.”
Bananarama, Michael Sembello, and B-movie horror flicks are also invoked elsewhere in the book, alongside Maria Callas and Virgil. There’s an ode to a crab louse that’s as hilarious and trenchant as Frank O’Hara’s wonderful poem “Louise.” Chronic is the only poetry book I know of that includes an actual fold-out centerfold (!) for two of its poems. The amiable ghost of Walt Whitman always lingers here, too, in Powell’s long-limbed lines and his all-encompassing eye as it sweeps across the plenitude of meanings of America. And not just the American past and present, but its potential future. From the end of Powell’s poem titled “cancer inside a little sea”:
“what does it matter now, what is self, what is I, who gets to speak
or who does not speak, whether the poems get written
whether the reader receives them whole, in part or not at all
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”
If D. A. Powell's close concentration on squandered rural/urban hybrid landscapes began to take shape in Chronic, it became the sprawling connective tissue in Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys. During my very first reading of the book upon its release back in February, I was already in tears by the poem “Tender Mercies,” which is only the second piece in the collection, a rapturous apocalyptic prayer that’s suffused with redemptive hope:
“The earth’s a little harder than it was.
But I expect that it will soften soon,
voluptuous in some age hence,
because we captured it as art
the moment it was most itself:
fragile, flecked with nimbleweed,
and so alone,
it almost welcomed its own ravishment.”
In “Landscape with Sections of Aqueduct,” Powell writes, “Ruin, by the wayside, you took as sacrament,” and that acts as a sort of aesthetic/religious mission statement for the book. He’s able to find some overflowing gorgeousness wherever he turns, from a blossoming grove of almond trees to a young man in worn-out jeans strolling through a suburban shopping mall. I’ve kept swooning over “Boonies,” a sensuous remembrance of a youthful encounter that’s as close to Cavafy (by way of Antler, perhaps) as anybody else has gotten: “We’d keep together, he and I, / and we’d gain meaning from our boyage; we’d pursue / each other through the crush of darkling rifts.” The poem “Pupil” spins a swift reversal on the intellectual seduction of a student/teacher relationship (“You are the headmaster. Now you must master me”).
I think D. A. Powell is the poet who’s currently pouring the most of himself, with great candor and daring, right into his books. Composed of equal parts humor and risk, poise and feeling, Chronic and Useless Landscape make an infinitely readable double-portrait that continually resolves, without ever quite settling or coming into permanent focus. To quote the reassuring closing lines of “Tender Mercies”:
“Be unafraid of what the future brings.
I will not use this particular blue again.”