August 10, 2012

Review by Susan MacMillan-WinmonUseless Landscapes by D.A. Powell

by D. A. Powell

Graywolf Press
250 Third Avenue North
Suite 600
Minneapolis, Minnesota 55401
ISBN: 9781555976057
2010, 108 pp., $ 22.00

D. A. Powell’s latest collection of poems, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, unveils the mythic hidden in the obvious, the universal within the personal. Part of the book refers to the narrator’s participation in San Francisco’s gay community in the 1980s, during the disco/bathhouse days. Other parts of the book coincide with a sub rosa landscape corresponding to California’s Central Valley. In each case, Powell’s poems are a testament to resilience, both psychic and physical, in places which can be freely expansive or forbiddingly oppressive. Powell’s protagonist finds spots of beauty and intimacy between the freedom and oppression, even in the face of imminent aging and failing health. Furthermore, he does so with wry humor and laser-sharp wit, never easing into the simplicity of the maudlin or the melancholy.

For example, his scenes in the Valley are at times lusty, other times poignant, and somewhat respectful, even when his narrator’s commentary denotes the abuse which has been visited upon this vast agricultural expanse. The epigraph to the first section of the book is a quote by John Wieners: “The beauty of men never disappears /But drives a blue car through the /stars.” Although this section of the book reflects the first part of its title, “Useless Landscape,” Powell seems to imply that the landscape is only useless when treated as such, much the same way a human being might be used and discarded by another. Powell does acknowledge the degradation of the region in the poem “Useless Landscape.” Nevertheless, it has been a setting which has provided for the beginning of his coming of age. Consider these lines from “Tender Mercies”:

I was a maiden in this versicolor plain.
            I watched it change.
Withstood that change, the infidelities
of light, the solar interval, the shift of time,
                        the shift from farm to town.
I had a man that pressed me down
into the soil. I was that man. I was that town.

However, that coming of age was not without its dangers, and it exacted a cruel price upon some who would not conform to roles dictated by the strictures of farming or poverty, whose mission in life directed them elsewhere. Powell’s narrator survived the abject loneliness invoked by miles of fields, and the exile of one who knows he will never fit into the area’s political status quo. His poem “Homesickness” describes some who did not, who “went missing…I don’t drive, or return, or conclude,” he writes; and in answer to the question, “Where did that one go?”: “He went away.”

As mentioned earlier, the second setting interwoven into these poems is that of San Francisco’s gay community during the 1980s. In a Nashville Review interview with Andrew Rahal called “Riding the Joy Bus” (August 1, 2010), Powell explains the connection in terms of “importation”:

Even though I’m writing primarily about the Central Valley of California, I’m constantly drawing upon what’s happening in San Francisco, because that’s where I live. It’s what I was brought up in, versus what I was brought up against. But these borrowings only work if they can be transposed into the Central Valley in a way where they don’t feel like foreign objects. If people read carefully they’ll definitely see where I acknowledge that importation, that grappling between ideas of nativity and foreignness. Even though I’ve spent a good deal of my time in the Central Valley of California, I’m not native to it. Or rather, I feel native to multiple places. That’s why it seems perfectly reasonable to borrow from more than one location, because I feel equally loyal and disloyal to them all.

An example of the way the two settings inform one another is exemplified in a poem named for the second section of this book, “A Guide for Boys.” Based upon an old Boy Scout manual, the extended metaphor displays Powell’s stellar humor and wit. Here are the final two stanzas:

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 his hole.
No one’s going to see what happens here.
We might as well be in India. Zulu.
Bravo. Bravo. Bravo.

In fact, the whole collection of poems might be read as a giant homoerotic road trip between the small town of Linda (where Powell attended high school) and San Francisco, with stops at small towns and isolated places in between. However, to read it this way would never do it justice. For Powell humanizes the characters in these liaisons (with the exception of the rapist in “Cherry Blossoms in Spring”). He gives us insight into their personalities, as well as that of the speaker.

The second section also contains a poem titled “Backdrop with Splashes of Cum on It.” With such a title, one would expect the anonymous, detached encounter described here: “How could you have anything but a vague memory /of a guy whose savoir-faire was delivered in the form of /I already told you that you were hot?”

Still, by the poem’s ending, the narrator discloses that he does remember:

When I see the flattened box of an outbuilding
            lying in a rusty rhombus on the ground,
                           I think of so-and-so. Or whojamadoojy.
That’s where I met him, the man who was it for now,
            The Luke who was my mark.
                 The Matt who was my john.
                              So many acts. xx

The epigraph for the second section illumines the poems we find throughout the book relating to the gravity of the protagonist’s illness. The quote is from poet Nelly Sachs: “And no one goes back to his God unscathed.” All of the poems addressing this subject do so with survival in mind, or if not survival, then at least the triumph of living life to its fullest for as long as possible. “Landscape with Lymphatic System, System of Rivulets, System of Rivers” is one of these poems. In it, he notes the changes age has brought to his body: “Your asscheeks sag. Your abdomen distends. /Nothing has a tight hold on your guts. /Guts spill at times when they’re not tucked away.” Yet, the poem ends with him diving, Whitmanesque, into the river to swim:

Here, where the shallows pool up into habitus,
            I behold the imperfection of you, my mass,
my faulted body. Despite the plunging falls
                       with you, I swim.

Powell more directly refers to Walt Whitman in the poem “Goodbye, My Fancy,” which takes its title from a Whitman poem of the same name. Whitman’s poem addresses the significance of dying words, and the love that may be expressed through them. The act of saying goodbye, Whitman believes, contains “the salutation of another beginning…Development, Continuity, Immortality, Transformation are the chiefest life-meanings of Nature and Humanity and are the sine qua non of all facts, and each fact.” At first, Powell’s namesake poem appears to be a cavalier explanation of the protagonist’s relationship to his “homoerotic sidekick,” Ryan, whose name he confuses with “Bryan.” He covers his mistake with a clever pun: “There. You see? / I am promiscuous with even my own wit /and I can never keep you straight.” However, beneath the renegade exterior lies the exposed truth: the persona is chronically ill, and eventually, must say goodbye. The shift happens with a final mitigating joke, followed by a poignant sentiment reserved for Ryan:

            The valley’s just like San Francisco
                        but without so many kissers.

            The warbler has two notes
that he prefers from all his repertoire.
            But there are others he reserves
                        for loftier joys, profound sadness,
as well as his most savage flights of fancy.

            These he also reserves for you.

The poems cited here are but a few of the tremendous poems in this collection. The final poem, “Mass for Pentecost: Canticle for Birds and Waters,” begins:

            There is no cause to grieve among the living or the dead,
                        so long as there is music in the air.

            And where the water and the air divide, I’ll take you there.

And by the poem’s end, he does:

            Triumph over death with me. And we’ll divide the air.

Read these poems with amusement, illumination, and awe. They, like their protagonist, do more than survive: they thrive.


Susan MacMillan-Winmon is currently enrolled in the M.A. Program, Creative Writing, at California State University, Sacramento.

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