Poetry Review: Poet D. A. Powell Redeems the Wasteland
In D. A. Powell’s latest volume, the dominant landscape is that of the wasting body, which is crisscrossed, investigated, confronted, and made useful again as a map in the hands of raw youth.
Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys by D. A. Powell. Graywolf Press, 80 pages, $22.
By Kevin Hong
One senses an immediate tension in the phrase “useless landscape” that borders on the paradoxical. What would a useful landscape look like? Perhaps a landscape could be put to use by cultivating it, ploughing and sowing eventually to harvest grain. This would be a physical use, a value-producing, purposeful use. The word landscape, though, implies scope, a panorama of land considered as a painting, perhaps, or experienced from a vista. In what way would this landscape be useful? Its value would be purely aesthetic: a meditation on the dandelions wafting through the air, the shape of a hill or a haystack in the upper-right of the painting, the way two hemlocks might frame a field in our own field of vision.
Useless landscape evokes both notions of usefulness and thus suggests two kinds of uselessness. The first is a physical uselessness: a landscape that is too sandy, unsuitable to become a field, or a landscape that, after decades of use, has been sucked dry. The second uselessness is an aesthetic fruitlessness: a landscape so dull that the eye passes over it carelessly. But we note that what may be useless to the farmer may be useful to the aesthete, that a wasteland can be made sublime when rendered in oil on canvas, made “useful” again.
In D. A. Powell’s latest volume of poetry, the dominant landscape is that of the wasting body, which is crisscrossed, investigated, confronted, and made useful again as a map in the hands of raw youth. If my analysis of “useless landscape” is useful at all, it is in the way that it uncovers the book’s project: in the first part, “Useless Landscape,” the ruination of the body’s “salty declivities” is rendered as an aesthetic landscape to be contemplated from a distance by the poet himself; the landscape is then taken up in “A Guide for Boys” by “scouts” who, scrutinizing the map of Powell’s experience with a magnifying glass, explore the landmarks fenced off with barbed wire. The predicament in the second half of the book is that of the necessity of growth together with the self-destructive consequences of growth.
“Outside Thermalito” captures this dilemma sharply:
Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.
Would that there were some other way.
The beauty of this poem comes from its double meaning, Powell’s bread and butter. The persimmons’ fleshiness is also the boys’ fleshiness, and the bitterness of the first frost is the pain of first sex that gradually lessens. The body becomes sweeter, more pleasurable, after the initial ache. But the real brilliance of the poem lies in its basic function as a moral lesson, one that my father taught me: pain and hardship build character. This lesson is in fact the first layer of meaning in the poem, an innocent meaning that the reader must move past in order to reach the sexuality that subverts the morality. When reading this book, we must be code breakers. The eponymous poem “A Guide for Boys” makes this explicit:
Bravo: I’m discharging dangerous cargo,
India: I’m coming alongside,
Zulu: I require a tug, and
Uniform: You’re running into danger.
Vulpecula, the little fox, is in ascension.
The rabbit comes back out of this hole.
No one’s going to see what happens here.
We might as well be in India. Zulu.
Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.
A boyish language belies a sexuality that is at once playful, dangerous, ignorant, and wild. It must be kept secret. Unusual Landscape achieves its fun and discomfort and arousal by transforming the privacy of homosexual culture into a poetic language. It is a language that is infused with as much irony as eroticism; the poet’s own experience with AIDS is salient throughout the book, delivered not through melodramatic punches but through a bittersweet nudge-and-wink to the reader.
In “Traveling Light,” the last poem of the first part, Powell writes, “If I can’t have my health, at least I’ll have my humor. / Good Humor. Here come the icecream man.” Here, the metaphor of sex as sweetness is refused by the speaker, whose humor, not arousal, invokes the arrival of the ice cream man. Humor becomes sweetness in the last stages of the speaker’s life, during which his fortifications are his wryness and the sugars that are preventing extreme weight loss.
“Traveling Light” is a lamentation of the wasted body, its weakness and ultimate breakdown, and the first part of Useless Landscape is devoted to this landscape in its various representations. In “An Elegy for My Libido,” the poet again rejects the euphemism his readers have grown accustomed to:
The other day a young man on the bus
offered me his seat.
I was quick to take it.
Meaning that, as I sat,
his rear filled my horizon
like a khaki-colored sun.
“I’ve had a profusion of dawns / in every Abercrombie hue,” the speaker declares, but this time, the horizon of the young man’s rear is a fantasy not to be realized—or, more accurately, a fantasy he no longer has the desire to realize. The speaker has to stop and adjust course, bring the reader back from the unintentional (for once!) euphemism. Powell’s humor in this poem is remarkably light, taking into account the myriad landscapes that describe the body’s wrinkles and sores with a heart-rending remove.
Consider this: “My undesirable body, you’re all I have to fiddle with. / The fiddle’s wood has cracked but it still plays.” Or “Love is easier to achieve than you might think. Sooner / or later the combine gives out. & sooner.” Or “I like to think we dismantle thought / as much as tortuous thought dismantles us.”
Or perhaps Powell’s elegy is much darker than it seems; perhaps it mocks the first part of the book, dismissing its very mode of representation: “Catalogues? Frankly, catalogues // are a goddamned waste.” Powell’s catalog of landscapes has been brought into question; several other poems echo this concern for the usefulness of poetry. “One Thousand and One Nights” describes the frustration of writing “long after the bulls have been roped,” after the action and the excitement that is followed only by sickness and death.
So many reasons to let that lazy sentence
stand as substitute for work I should want to do.
I should want to toil those imaginary fields.
The craft of poetry itself becomes a third kind of useless landscape: to record the lost experience, the imaginary fields that were once real, seems to be a futile task in the poet’s eyes. His memory has also failed him; in “Landscape with Figures Partially Erased,” he writes, “My retention of the facts is not a silo. / Even if it were, some disrepair gets fallen into.” The passivity of “some disrepair gets fallen into” illuminates the speaker’s apathy regarding the accuracy of his memories of the past, even though his job is to toil the imaginary fields, to keep them fresh.
Ultimately, as I suggest earlier, these wastelands are made useful again. The uselessness of the physical landscape is made beautiful by the poet, whose own work rejuvenated again in the eyes of the next generation, serving as a warning—and a seduction. What is most important in these adaptations of “use” is the human connection. Rejuvenation comes in the form of a boy holding your map in his hand, the poet’s revision of his own body. “I’ve been waiting all night / to have this dance,” Powell writes in “Useless Landscape.” As the darkness invites him to stay and drink, the reader joins the table. Powell’s book is an appeal for sustained attention, emphasized by his own unflinching consideration of his flaws, memories, and mistakes. As Tom Jobim sings in his own bossa nova tune, “Useless Landscape”:
What’s the use of the waves that will break
In the cool of the evening
What is the evening