On D.A. Powell’s “Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys”

Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, by D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press, 2012
Reviewed by Matthew Aucoin for The Colorado Review

D.A Powell is at the top of his game. And Powell does love games: we might start with his new collection’s title, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, which captures something of the tonal range he can manage with his tongue in his cheek (not that it ever stays there long). The oblique melodrama of Useless Landscape is linked to the winking A Guide for Boys by the antiquated, theatrical “or,” as in Twelfth Night, or What You Will. That’s three tones in seven words, which is about par for this book’s course: it’s a warning and a come-on, a lament and a love song. He exposes the “useless landscape” of our damaged, infertile world (and of the human body ravaged by lust) — but he also writes us a “guide” to navigating and loving that world (and the body). And the back jacket cover — a map of a pale, lake-pocked landscape which looks like one of Powell’s descriptions of the body (“Winded, white-haired body. Splotchy skin. / A face uneven as a river jag / and asperous as the mullein’s flannel leaves”) — is bordered on its four sides by the book’s title, re-lineated as a quiet plea: use less land scape

The collection’s first half centers on a series of damaged human habitats: “One guy peeled labels off beer bottles here; another climbed / the remaining concrete piles and wrote JUSTIN LOVES, wrote / STEPHEN LOVES…”, Powell writes in “Landscape With Sections of Aqueduct,” his erotic verbs poignantly intransitive, like Whitman’s. The final poem in the series, “Landscape With Lymphatic System, System of Rivulets, System of Rivers,” paints, and is addressed to, the poet’s own weakening body; suddenly, the series of landscapes seems a crescendo into this depiction of the human form. Indeed, for Powell, all landscapes finally stand for the body: “with you, I swim,” the poem ends, the double sense of “with” capturing the body’s dual function as inescapable companion and means to our ends.

After this series, Powell lightens up: “If I can’t have my health, at least I’ll have my humor. / Good Humor. Here come the icecream man.” As if we needed proof that when life hands him ice, Powell makes ice cream, the second half (A Guide for Boys) begins

Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.

Would that there were some other way.

Powell is true to these words: though the shadow of his illness is integral to his poetic palette, he is anything but bitter. He’s virtuosically flirtatious even when imagining his life as a dog’s life (literally), speaking as a wad of cum (“Backdrop With Splashes Of Cum On It”), or styling his guide to sexual experience after a Boy Scout manual.

Tonal wizardry is nothing new for Powell, but his range has widened: his engagement with many major voices of the past century is newly overt. Alongside trademark Powell techniques like integrating the titles of disco hits (the poem “Midnight Cowbell”), there are coyly Audenesque rhymes (“It’s okay, my dear / Someone cares for you here”); wry puns with Merrill’s deep sparkle (“The principal’s your pal and not the principle. / At least I’ve retained that”); an ease with both archaism and contemporary slang that tailors an Ashberian flexibility of diction to concrete depiction; and thoughtful elaborations of Stevens’s sensual metaphysics:

Well, even to belong in this congested state,
you have to spend a little bourbon on your nerves.
                          They keep their low-beams on.
          It’s part of of, a subset of belong.

And then there’s “Tarnished Angel,” a chilling variation on Rilke’s “Archaïscher Torso Apollos.” Rilke encounters a fragmentary statue of Apollo, god of the sun and of healing; Powell’s angel is “tarnished,” like an old statue — the legs are “slightly eroded,” his “shanks” are “cool verdigris” — but this damaged body belongs to Lucifer, the “tarnished” angel of the morning star, Venus. Here is the opening of Rilke’s poem, translated by Stephen Mitchell:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside.

Powell masters Rilke’s rhythm and goes beyond his voyeurism: Powell’s final stanza begins “I long to know his vulgar tongue.” He echoes Rilke’s awe before a battered image of immortality:

Though they’re slightly eroded, one might still surmise
the commanding force in those tensile coppery legs,
their responsive bent, their brutal extent.

Lucifer’s sensual glow mingles with morning’s “blue”: “I, fallen, would meet him, fallen, / in the blunt blue light of morning.” “Blue,” here and elsewhere in the collection, is the realm of the imagination, as it is in Mallarmé and Stevens, and Powell is a poet for whom the erotic and the imaginative remain potently, primally fused: he has brilliantly transferred creative energy from Apollo to Venus. This may be his best portrait yet of the pathos of sympathy for the devil.

Indeed, practically every poem in Useless Landscape integrally involves sex, but the erotic, for Powell, is less a subject than a mode of seeing — and he can see almost anything with it: this collection is consistently surprising throughout its 104 pages. As Powell put it in an interview with The Southeast Review, “I try not to reuse words more than a couple of times. Not the small words: ‘and,’ ‘the,’ ‘cock,’ you can’t make a sentence without those words, but anything remotely unique.” It’s funny because it’s accurate: poetry almost never feels as inherently, effortlessly sexy as it does in Powell’s hands.

Useless Landscape is seldom bitter but often bittersweet, and its final pages include unflinching portraits of advancing illness — “Platelet Count Descending,” “Summer of My Bone Density Test.” As he leaps registers into a newly naked beauty, Powell remains faultlessly, commandingly musical. It is clearer than ever that no matter the matter at hand, this is a voice to be trusted and treasured.