D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, 2009
Reviewed by Jeremy Benson

The cover art for Chronic appropriately sums up the multi-layered theme circulating D.A. Powell's most recent collection of poems. Borrowed from J. Henry Fair’s portfolio "Industrial Scars," the photo is at once a magnified pool of white blood cells and the pooling pollutants of a Superfund site, just as the book is both the inner diary of an immunodeficient human and a plea for environmental consciousness.

Some of the poems in Chronic follow the feel and construction of Powell's trilogy Tea, Lunch and Cocktails, their content springing primarily from the evocative and sometimes tragic stories of AIDS patients. These verses are spoken from hospital beds, from the minds of patients fraught with the dangerously provocative mix of fear and boredom. Powell uses pop culture references—The Shining and Chia Pets among them—not as social commentary in themselves, but much like his use of puns and wordplay: as You Are [Still] Here signs, allowing readers and speakers alike to grab hold, to stay above the murky depths.

Yet, the book as a whole attempts a retreat from the institutional gray and white of suburban hospitals to the grace and energy of nature, only to find it shrinking or gone. The collection begins with a trio of deceptively unpastoral poems, blending the language of nature with the bustle of urban life. The description of a homeless man in "california poppy," for instance:

as the indigent waving his tattered placard on the island

[what we call this meridian near church & dolores where the fronds

of palmtrees are stippled with shrill green or yellow lorikeets]

The themes and language focal to Chronic, and arguably Powell's entire body of work, converge in the flagship poem "chronic," a modern ballad that suggests our physical environment and the state of humanity are mutually dependent: "isn't one a suitable lens through which to see another: / filter the body, filter the mind, filter the resilient land." The sentiment is repeated, more directly and angrily, in "republic," as Powell compares the increase of agro-industrial sprawl to the rise in chronic illnesses. Poignantly, he says of the pig, "human in its ability to litter inside a cage."

Although many critics have called his style experimental, Powell navigates his craft as a surgeon performing routine surgery. The poems of Chronic are well weighted through their comparisons of humanity's need for intimacy, a desire fulfilled by our natural surroundings as well as our friends and lovers.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010