those talons you cultivate I do admire
I don't want to live in a clutch purse town
you snap: and yet everything matches
And yet, as enjoyable as some of these poems are, the most vicious leave an acidy taste. Their slaphappy virtuosity -- "you slag pile you" -- would probably get roars at a reading, but they shortchange poetry's most mysterious properties.
The exciting thing about reading Powell, though, is how quickly he follows up a flashy surface work like "He's a Maniac, Maniac," which sings a giddy self-pity, with a harrowing poem like "Crossing Into Canaan," which describes being loved while in the most horrific physical state:
I take the death I'm moored to, announced as a measureless promontory
and bob in the river as a bloated corpse, blue lips, vacant gaze
Illness and love are similar, these poems remind us, in their chronic nature. They do not stop for one another; they refuse logic. Camp, then, is the perfect aesthetic. It entitles Powell to break rules, to snap back. And it allows him, in poems like "Cosmos, Late Blooming," to make light of the terror that lurks within when one wants to love, even in the face of death.
in my mouth the mausoleum of refusal: everything died inside me
including fish and vegetables, language and lovers, desire, yes, and passion
how could I make room in this crypt for another sorrow: caretaker.
It would be so much easier, perhaps more comforting, for Powell to believe in eternity. Beautifully, bravely, "Chronic" is the work of a poet who believes instead in the fire this time.
Freeman is the American editor of Granta.