Saturday 29 June 2013

D A Powell: Chronic and Cocktails

Long lines; and long, long, long lines.  He piles up the words into waves which he then lets break.  The sound remains after reading, like the sea.  I haven’t read any D A Powell for at least 24 hours, but I can still hear him.  How many contemporary poets have that effect?  Now to read him again: here is the beginning of ‘cruel, cruel summer’ (from Chronic, the more recent of these two collections).  I can hardly bear not to quote the whole thing, but it can be read here.

either the postagestamp-bright inflorescence of wild mustard
or the drab tassel of prairie smoke, waving its dirty garments

either the low breeze through the cracked window
or houseflies and drawn blinds to spare us the calid sun

one day commands the next to lie down, to scatter:    we're done
with allegiance, devotion, the malicious idea of what's eternal

That is a poem that is about everything.  A lot of the poems seem to be about everything, whatever they are ostensibly about.  The long lines, most often in couplets or tercets, can soothe and comfort; they can also unsettle, and some of the content certainly unsettles.  I thought Cocktails was a frivolous book title, until, reading, I remembered that it’s a collective metaphor for drugs.  Similarly, Chronic contains both “time, the cruel banker” and the chronic illness of AIDS. There are alcoholic cocktails in Cocktails too, and plenty of surface frivolity reflected in a magpie use of language – both books are full of unusual words, archaisms, slang, and multiple cultural references from pop and film to the classics to birds, flowers and fields.     

The poems in Cocktails have no titles, and are known by their first lines in square brackets.  Some address Powell’s illness with direct brutality mixed with, but not leavened by humour. [when you touch down upon this earth.  little reindeers] is addressed to “father xmas” and goes from innocence to experience to near-death in 12 lines.
I left you tollhouse cookies.   you gave me bloody briefs

lipodystrophy neurosthesia neutropenia mild psychosis
increased liver enzymes increased bilirubin and a sweater
don't get me wrong:  I like the sweater.   though it itches

but what's the use of being pretty if I won't get better?

The poem’s in terza rima, subtly, and clatters along like the reindeer “hoofing murderously”.   It can be read in full here.

Powell’s work seems to contain a lot of earlier American poetry.  For example (and these are just the ones I’ve thought of, somewhat cartoonishly characterised to make the point): Marianne Moore for eclectic, exotic description; Walt Whitman for line length; Wallace Stevens for the rolling tone; Frank O’Hara for pop culture, slick humour and elegantly casual turn of phrase; Sylvia Plath for shock tactics; ee cummings for poetic tweeness; Elizabeth Bishop for moving overtly through thoughts (and a moon/almanac poem). 

Looking through Chronic, I’ve even just spotted (though may be imagining it) Dylan Thomas’ ‘Fern Hill’ in the title poem: “in a spring of misunderstanding, I took the cricket’s sound // and delight I took in the sex of every season, the tumble on moss”. 

There’s plenty of the Bible too, surely the King James version, and poems in the last section of Cocktails have faux-biblical titles/themes.  There’s also Shakespeare, in the core theme of love-and-death / love-in-death.  This is the ending of [gardenhose dilated with rain: a puff adder].

I too made love to nameless male no. 17: his hair curled around
his dagger tattoo suspended over his heart.   he said:

and I answered in the same tongue.   seedling
your roots exposed along with a chambray shirt:  tugging
you out of the earth:  naked.   trampled.   pulp.   scythe

I called you darling 14 ways.   I called you peaches

In the set-piece ways he writes about some love situations (the one-night stand, the fickle lover, etc) Powell also reminds me of the Latin elegiac poets (Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid).  This has been done thousands of times before, and will be again. But there’s nothing set-piece about Powell’s treatment of the themes. Some of the poems are too sexually explicit for my taste, but that’s just taste. Out of these two books, the only poem where I feel that Powell’s high-wire act fails is one in Chronic called ‘Republic’, which describes human destruction of the planet and modern human illnesses.  He does the political or eco-politics as brilliantly, when aslant, as everything else, but loses his footing in this direct approach (though I’m utterly in accord with his thesis).

Going back to love, the last two poems in Chronic, set apart like a coda, are called ‘corydon & alexis’ and ‘corydon & alexis redux’, after a pastoral love story in Virgil’s Eclogues.  The ‘redux’ poem can be read here, has a lovely shepherdesque bit: “doesn’t the ewe have a nose for wet filaree and slender oats foraged in the meadow”, and ends like this:

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
as if banishing love is a fix.   as if the stars go out when we shut our
                                                                                      sleepy eyes

Powell says somewhere that O’Hara is a big influence; also his first teacher, Black Mountain poet Robert Duncan.  By chance I was reading Olson in ‘Projective Verse’ on the open field, and that works too:

From the moment he [the poet] ventures into FIELD COMPOSITION—puts himself in the open—he can go by no track other than the one the poem under hand declares, for itself.

Starting out, Powell seems to open a wide, wide space, and then find the track the poem wants to follow.  There is plenty of irony (and he is pun-crazy), but no sense of hiding the poet’s voice under layers of the stuff.  The tone varies from bardic to frivolous, but keeps an element of bardic even when most frivolous.  It’s unusually authoritative, for contemporary poetry, and in this is as original as in anything else.

It’s worth listening to him reading online, including here and here; he sounds less bardic aloud.  The poetry reading I most regret having missed (along with Philip Levine at Aldeburgh one year, which finished after the last Sunday train back to London) was when D A Powell read in a small, crowded London pub last January… I had the remains of the winter’s 2-week flu, and couldn’t get myself out of bed.  Afterwards the audience seemed half in love with him.  

Poetry Trust, are you there?  The last Sunday train goes much later now.      

Cocktails (2004) and Chronic (2009) are both published by Graywolf Press, as is Powell’s latest book, Useless Landscape, or a Guide for Boys. There are two earlier books, Lunch and Tea. If I had to bet on who’d be most admired of his generation of contemporary English language poets in say 100 years’ time, right now I’d place my bet on D A Powell.  

*** Pop-up poetry in London: two at once.  Next week, there’ll be a pop-up poetrybookshop in the Portobello Road, where it will actually be possible to browse and buy poetry collections and pamphlets from small publishers – who never get bookshop space.  There will be books from the organisers, CB editions (who are also running the now annual Poetry Book Fair on 7 September) and Eyewear publishing; and also Arc, Five Leaves, Flipped Eye and others.***

*** There’s also currently a pop-up poetry stall on Fridays at Lower Marsh in Waterloo, run by Emma Press, with books also from Sidekick, Donut and Valley Press.  Must go and have a look at this too. ***


  1. The Poetry Trust is indeed here and 'listening' Fiona. And thank you for this, as ever, persuasive and articulat post. Aldeburgh is fully programmed for 2013, but D A Powell's collections have been on our shelves for some time and we're aware of his gathering stature. But it's a subjective business, this reading poems malarky, and to be honest we've yet to make the kind of Damascene conversion or achieve the required 'Eureka' moment to fall in love with his poems. It's bloody expensive to bring American poets to Aldeburgh and we work our arses off to afford 2-3 each year - often new names to UK audiences - and so we have to be pretty nuts about the poems to make the whole thing 'affordable' (and that's in terms of much more than money).

  2. 'articulate' even... (typo, agh!)

  3. Thank you Naomi. The Poetry Trust has a fantastic record of bringing some of the best American poets to Aldeburgh – I’m very excited about the US and Canadian elements in your 2013 programme. Of course you and the others have to really, really like someone’s work before you put all your resources into inviting them over.

    One thing in D A Powell’s favour is that he would bring you a diverse audience of younger UK fans. But that’s not a substitute for falling in love with the work, and the world would be a dull place if everyone’s taste was the same! It’s hard to predict who will like whose poems; like introducing friends who haven’t met. So with D A Powell, I can only hope that one day, maybe, a ‘Eureka’ moment might come….