Chronic by D.A. Powell

Chronic marks the first time a truly Plathian anger has entered his work


With Chronic, D.A. Powell’s fourth collection of poetry since 1998, the poet introduces a change in tone and syntax that marks a shift in his approach to his subject matter.  Whereas Tea, Lunch, and Cocktails frequently address living with AIDS and specifics of the disease, Chronic rarely does. Instead, the focus is on mortality rather than the disease itself; and, for the first time, despair creeps into Powell’s work.  At the same time, his unique, playful punctuation all but disappears.


Although there has been grief in Powell’s work before, the sadder side of his speaker’s frustrations with love and disease was always mitigated by language play and wry humor.  In Chronic, however, we find moments that betray a deep despair: “daylight, don’t leave me now, I haven’t done with you,”; “nothing is ever going to last”; and:


what does it matter now, what is self, what is I, who gets to speak

or who does not speak, whether the poem gets written

whether the reader receives them whole, in part or not at all.


Here, grief over the human condition is more than the undercurrent it was in earlier books.  At times, it reminds the reader of poems by Robert Lowell, James Wright, and Louise Glück—comparisons that would have been difficult to make before, at least on the basis of tone.  Although Powell has invited comparison to Plath in the past as well, Chronic marks the first time a truly Plathian anger has entered his work: “smooth, remarkably smooth, somebody should cut you / again, dust you and serve you to the bride’s stupid sister / stupid enough to believe you as sugar, counterfeit groom.”


Powell’s style, too, has shifted.  In his first book, Tea, he introduced a fully realized style that remained consistent through his two subsequent books.  It is a style of long lines, fragmentation, word play, and unexpected juxtapositions, the lyric modulated by frequent use of colons and periods to introduce caesura.  Other hallmarks of Powell’s work have included extra spaces after punctuation and absent punctuation at the ends of lines, which frequently imply punctuation through syntax.  These techniques emphasize the fragmentation of the lyric and the poet’s playful side; the colons, in particular, draw a lot of attention to themselves and encourage the reader to seriously consider what immediately follows them. Although perhaps inspired in part by syntactically inventive poets like Emily Dickinson and Jorie Graham, Powell’s style is all his own and has been the subject of praise, criticism, and imitation since he introduced it over ten years ago.


Chronic scales back on aggressive, attention-grabbing punctuation and allows longer syntactical units with less fragmentation.  The first two poems have only one colon each, announcing the shift to readers familiar with Powell’s work.  Throughout the book, colons remain infrequent, with many poems lacking them altogether.  Entire quatrains and tercets flow without interruption, giving the reader less occasion for pause and suggesting a writer who now considers the lyrical leaps in his work to be completely natural, no longer calling for dramatic syntactical signposts.  Powell is no longer doing the work that he used to do in order to slow the poem down and draw attention to his striking figurative language. In the sad, pensive context of Chronic, the quieter syntax seems appropriate.


Overall, Chronic is a book with more pathos as a result of these changes.  Powell’s work has always expressed the seriousness inherent in his subject matter, but until now it was his signature to pit his remarkable, playful abilities with the English language against the seriousness and difficulties of life. Now, utter despair has joined the range of human emotions explored in his poetry, and it is stronger as a result.


Read the title poem from Chronic at

View or buy Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, at


Chronic, Graywolf Press, 2009.  Reviewed by B. Lussier.


More D.A. Powell & Graywolf Press:

Read an interview with Powell at The Southeast Review

Find Full Poems by Powell at

Visit Powell’s Wikipedia Page

Find More Poets at Graywolf Press.

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