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Graywolf Press, $20 (cloth)
Though the title of D. A. Powell’s fourth collection, Chronic, appears out of step with the progression suggested by the first three—Lunch, Tea, and Cocktails—the book itself presents less a break with Powell’s previous work than its natural continuation. Chronic, like the others, is a book primarily concerned with what persists, what lurks beneath and will not be cured or go away with time: desire, music, sex, loneliness, AIDS, love. What sets Chronic apart from the earlier collections is a sort of expansion. As coherent as he is surprising, Powell does not abandon any of his characteristic preoccupations but moves to encompass other, less immediately personal wrongs: pesticides in the swamp water, melting glaciers, “drug failure or organ failure / cataclysmic climate change / or something akin to what’s killing bees.” Chronic understands the poetic self as organic: rooted in certain landscapes, like them it accumulates ailments and scars over time, and like them it is mortal. With this expansion, and with the nostalgia that accompanies these longer backward glances, comes not only room for the echo of older poetic traditions (Metaphysical, pastoral) but also for a new music. The “unstoppable noise from the slough: suckwhistle and croak of kites” and “the sparrows bathing in the drainage ditch, their song” now accompany the snap and jazz of contemporary culture: “gospel on the dial” is the background of one poem, “meditating upon the meaning of the line ‘clams on the halfshell and rollerskates’ in the song good times by chic” the title of another. And while both poet and natural world are breaking down, Powell’s writing still outwits the conventions of the book-sized page (a literal “Centerfold” marks the book’s middle), maintaining a wry formal rigor and a diction as vigorous as it is vulgar. Although in “crossing into canaan” Powell figures himself as the dying body carried through illness by his lover, the strength in Powell’s invention (“such weakness // sustained by this capable stroke”) keeps on keeping on.
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