Graywolf: 78 pp., $20
There are poets who show us the exterior world and poets who ferry news of their inner turmoil. Yet very few possess the double vision required to do both. Sylvia Plath surveyed and stoked the fires within her; Gary Snyder is far happier scouting for forest blazes in the Sierras.
Until he began publishing the wickedly well-tuned work collected in "Chronic," D.A. Powell seemed of the Plath school: fierce, inward and wrapped in tongues of camp. To read his poems was to watch a man blow on the embers of erotic memory. This is, after all, a poet who once boasted he "took a bite out of every grocery store clerk / and put them all back."
But, it appears, Powell has been holding back. "Chronic," his fourth book, is one of those rare collections that moves beautifully between poetry's inner/outer stereopticon. Powell, who lives in the Bay Area, can paint the weed-choked cemeteries of the Central Valley and also the cluttered toy chest of his memory. Writing on love, his powerful double vision becomes one.
Like Louise Glück and Marie Ponsot, two of our best poetic double-seers, Powell achieves this through the precision of his language. Clipped of capitals, broken apart by extra spacing, his lines detonate like land mines. "California Poppy" begins with a roadside view of the sea, a glimpse of flower, then wends its way toward a portrait of what lurks in beauty's gutters. Powell sees:
fingers and bloated waxy face of the wildly surviving thing
that once was somebody's boutonnière, somebody's flash of light,
trail of phosphorescent streetlamps punctuating the homeless night.
Writing in the shadow of AIDS, Powell is a modern romantic: obsessed, enraged and turned about by love. His language is infiltrated by songs, phrases from movies, the treacle-sweet soundtracks of so many musicals. "Love," he writes in one poem, "is the chorus waiting to be born."
In life, pop culture's constant repetition empties it of meaning. Here, however, shoved deep into the mulch of Powell's imagination, it gathers an earthy corona of roots that reaches back to the body. "[L]ook at the pluck you've made of my heart," he writes in "Sprig of Lilac," one of several poems that read like songs: "it broke open in your hands / oddments of ravished leaves: blossoms blast and dieback: petals drooping."
Romantics always have plenty to say about longing -- and distance. So does Powell. But this does not make for the best poems in the collection. "Coit Tower & Us" turns some wonderful phrases but fails to move beyond the same vague terminology that made symbolist love poems so similar to the Romantics whose style they rejected.
What's new here is Powell's ability to dramatize the bitter lash of rejection and the urge for payback. "[W]hat bulges in your britches," he drawls in one poem, "besides your comb and a little manhood?" His alliterative fury is fearsome:
you said you were giving, and you gave
the gob, the goaf, the dross of earth
loose coal, loose ore, fool's gold