Although born in the South, D. A. Powell has come to be identified more with the West, especially California. He studied at the prestigious Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. After graduating from the program, Powell began a teaching career that has included stints at several universities, including Columbia University, San Francisco State University, and Harvard University. Since 2004, Powell has taught at the University of San Francisco as a member of its English department.
Powell’s first poetry collection, Tea, was published in 1998. He wrote powerfully about the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in this volume, and he has gained a reputation for taking chances as a poet. Through his experimentations, Powell is able to mix a variety of poetic techniques. His reputation as a poet worth watching mature continued to grow with the publication of his second collection, Lunch (2000), and his third collection, Cocktails (2004). He was praised by critics and readers alike for his originality and poetic dexterity. Powell’s first three collections can be read as a trilogy on living as a gay person in a world where AIDS has ravaged the human landscape. The poet understands that it is never easy to be gay or African American in the United States. Powell is both, and he constantly is wrestling with his place in contemporary American culture.
For all the tragedy and confusion surrounding the world that he inhabits, Powell still has not given up on life. As a person and as a poet, he can take pleasure in beauty, in playfulness, and in heated sexuality. Even with all the pitfalls, the health concerns, and the betrayals he encounters, Powell seeks dignity, poetic justice, and fulfillment in love. Powell is adamant that one should take full advantage of both the spirit and the carnal. It is striking that he examines what it means to be happy and how one should resolve issues of sadness and contempt.
Having to live with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) on a daily basis remains close to the surface in Chronic, as it has in his earlier collections, but in this volume he broadens his approach, looking for new connections. Powell first learned that he was HIV positive while he was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Always a fierce advocate for what love can offer, he refused to withdraw from the social scene.
As in his previous collections, Powell does not capitalize the words of poems in Chronic. He also likes to employ short stanzas, usually no more than two or three lines each. The poet is very adept at giving his poems catchy titles. In this new collection, Powell employs such wonderfully intriguing titles as “gospel on the dial, with intermittent static,” “confessions of a teenage drama queen,” “the expiration date on the world is not quite the same as the expiration date on my prophylactic,” and “chia pet cemetery.” For the poems “cinemascope” and “centerfold,” Powell employs fold-out pages, so those poems’ forms mimic their subject matter. Powell makes use of long lines in order to hold readers’ attention for as long as possible. He believes that poetry must suspend the quick fix, the easy resolution. The richness of a Powell poem is in the words pressed together for emotional impact. His three earlier collections have been compared to Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802). This comparison represents high praise for any poet, and Powell has continued in Chronic to hone his craft.
While Powell has doubts about the validity of Christianity, he does not shrink from making use of biblical references in his verse. He uses the Christian perspective as a mirror to which his vision can be compared. No matter what tradition he may reject, the cultural vortex cannot be denied or removed from the frontal cultural lobe. He acknowledges that the mythology has not been shed, so it has not been removed from the poet’s playbook.
Powell believes in the need to reference cultural icons in order to make a larger point. For all that is different, that is without comprehension, Powell wishes to be a member of the poetic community in good standing. This community includes Dante and T. S. Eliot,...
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