The reader feels like a delighted child, listening to a filthy nursery rhyme written by a master of the English language . . .
In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein made it clear that his goal was not to provide a practical guide through philosophy, but rather to “travel over a wide field of thought criss-cross in every direction.” In the same way, D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf Press, 2012) is not actually a guide through poetry or through life. “For years now, we’ve been criss-crossing / this same largesse of valley,” writes Powell in “Goodbye, My Fancy.” The speaker is writing about a man—a relationship, presumably—but he might as well be speaking from the point of view of a poet who is working on a fifth book that deals with much of the same subject matter as the previous four. Though Useless Landscape wouldn’t succeed as a guide in the traditional sense, it succeeds in the same way as Philosophical Investigations: it is a remarkable application of language and thought to lived experience.
Powell clearly does not intend for A Guide to provide the concrete guidance of a text such as the Boy Scout Handbook. Specific pieces of advice prove unreliable, contradicted by advice found elsewhere in the book. “Be unafraid of what the future brings,” says the speaker of “Tender Mercies” . . . but then, a few pages later, in “The Bathers” we read, “but sorry is the heart / that knows / what’s round the bend.” If we are to be guided to any understanding, it is that our experience of the world is mutable rather than concrete. Like Jorie Graham and other post-post-modernists, Powell thinks his way through the world as he writes, contradicting himself as he sees fit. He emphasizes the complexity of the human mind and the lack of certainty it faces in its constant encounter with the body to which it is attached, and the relationship of that mind/body’s ongoing encounter with the physical world.
But while Graham is a poet that you have to read your way into, feeling her out, coming to an understanding of the way her mind works in her poems before her work can be considered entertaining, you can jump right into Powell and have a great time: “. . . down the street, a Taco Bell and a KFC / merge as one fantastical beast with crispy wings,” he writes in “Dying in the Development.” And in “One Thousand and One Nights”: “What is the heart but a boob, anyways, / that it should hang out at the rodeo arena, / long after the bulls have been roped.” Lines like these are a pleasure to read—so much so that a reader doesn’t have to understand, or even think about, what his work is “doing” in the philosophical sense in order to fully enjoy it.
Even when Powell is addressing darker aspects of human experience, which he does frequently, the language he uses and the attitudes of his speakers are so interesting that we are able to appreciate the dark mood without having to share it, or descend into it. Poets like Sylvia Plath and Louise Glück, who deal with similar moods and perceptions of the world, often demand that we share their mood (or at least enter some kind of empathetic state) in order to appreciate their work. Powell is different—language and humor overtake otherwise depressing sentiment as he presents the reader with unexpected images, such as “. . . air’s so red, day’s end, / that it unlooses a fat ribbon of regret” (“Cherry Blossoms in Spring”); “I expect we’ll both harden like old bread” (“Dying in a Turkish Bath”); or “well suddenly the present arrives, and it’s a [sic] autopsy” (“Backdrop”).
One of Powell’s trademarks, and what makes him so different from the other poets I’ve mentioned, in addition to his sense of humor, is his frequent use of archaic or coined (but in any case strange) words. He is one of two widely-known living poets who set a mood with unfamiliar words so successfully that the reader doesn’t even have to know what they mean to appreciate them (Lucie Brock-Broido is the other—and the only well-known dead poet who did it as well as either of them, besides Shakespeare, was Gerard Manley Hopkins). In just one poem (“Boonies”) Powell gives us a flood of terms that would be considered common only among geologists: “the campestrial flat,” “sheer slickensides,” “feldspar buttes,” “raffish plates,” “precipitous coombes.” Elsewhere in the book, we find “clouds smutching the drouthy stalks of corn” (“Once and Future Houseboy”) and “the flattened box of an out building / lying in a rusty rhombus on the ground” (“Backdrop”).
Taken strictly on the basis of content, however, Useless Landscape is a fairly serious book, as indicated by some of the bleaker passages quoted above. If the book fails to guide us, it certainly does not fail to call our attention to danger. Warning shots are fired throughout:
“. . . treacherous is the road”
“I have seen sharp men lose limbs. Women too.
A hand pulled off, conveyed into the hopper.”
we do the something,
even if it kills us.
Which it does”
“this is where some big bad thing will get you”
“the anus has started bleeding and will not stop.”
Life is not always so bad, however, and in the end Powell gives us reason for hope. In the final poem, “Mass for Pentecost: Canticle for Birds & Waters,” Powell writes, “There is no cause to grieve among the living or the dead, / so long as there is music in the air.” And Useless Landscape is filled with music—end rhyme, internal rhyme, alliteration, assonance—sometimes so much that the reader feels like a delighted child, listening to a filthy nursery rhyme written by a master of the English language, as in “Hereafter”:
Shorty the bouncer and frog-eyed Dixie did it
up in the buckrush, on the bank of the Yuba.
One of Powell’s great talents, in fact, is his ability to not just tolerate, but revel in the tension between the comedic/goofy and the tragic/morose. Anne Carson is perhaps the only other living writer of his stature who does it as frequently and well as he has done in his past two books. The full range of human emotions is present, not just in these collections as a whole, but in nearly every poem.
“The self is such a bore with what it knows,” writes Powell in “Dying in a Fallow.” That utterance suggests one of the major reasons people read and write poetry: to turn the boring nature of what the self has come to know into something better than it is, or at least more interesting. Although many aspects of Powell’s work can be compared to that of other contemporary poets, he sets himself apart with his relentless, playful creativity—he is a writer who always has a good time, no matter how much he or his speakers might suffer. The rest of us may be just as bored with ourselves as the morose speaker of “Dying in the Fallow,” but by reading Powell’s work we can be more entertained by the world and the words we have at our disposal to describe it, if only for a little while.
Definitions of some of the geological terms from “Boonies”:
- Campestrial – of or pertaining to the open countryside; thriving in open countryside.
- Slickenside – A polished and striated rock surface that results from friction along a fault or bedding plane.
- Feldspar – An abundant rock-forming mineral; several minerals forming part of all crystalline rocks and decomposing into clay or china clay.
More D. A. Powell: