‘Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys’ by D.A. Powell

In D.A. Powell’s fifth book, he takes up the landscapes of the Central Valley. Like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the places of these poems feel sometimes historical and sometimes conjectured; possibly the same as the rest, possibly like none other. Unlike Marco Polo, Calvino’s explorer-protagonist, Powell’s speaker is of the town. He shows us the churches and the malls, the housing developments and the gay bars, the parking lots and the fields (yes, there are naughty times to be had in all); in short, he gives a guided tour of the boonies. In “Tender Mercies,” the speaker merges with the landscape:

I was a maiden in this veriscolor 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.

These poems exist somewhere between elegy and ode, depicting the reality of town life in a range of registers: in “Dying in the Development”: “Just don’t serve me no Tang.” In “Boonies,” “Sheer abdomen, sheer slickensides, the feldspar buttes / that mammillate the valley right where it needs to bust.” Powell is especially skilled at employing elevated language in unusual places, often resulting in a playful, full-of-innuendo mouthful. The language of the landscape is also extended to and interwoven with the language of the body.

Invoking the language of infestation common to agricultural centers, Powell, in poems like “Quaratine” and “Bugcatching at Twilight,” offers new ways of talking about loss and anxiety due to AIDS.

Where I found myself most moved was when Powell unexpectedly switched tones within poems. In “Funkytown: Forgotten City of the Plain,” the second stanza ends in a flat, sing-songy line: “I gave myself to a lot of men, It was okay. I was okay. & them.” There is certainly something refreshing about the lack of judgment here, but later, at the poem’s close, after much detailing of exploits and the withholding of the names of townspeople struck by various calamities (because “you’d read the entire list / and never know the sass and grace of them”), Powell imagines a landscape where everyone is tenderly included:

As long as there is room, why not let all the people in?

                         There’d be no heartache then.

          We will outlast this time, my friends.

When I am taken o when I am taken o when I am taken

“Missionary Man,” whose title, Powell explained during a reading at Emory University, comes from the popular Eurythmics song,  tells of an early love affair with a young Mormon evangelist. This poem is deliciously irreverent, as it is filled with Christian symbolism, but even more, it is a poem about saying yes to what is impossible: “Get me on the Joy Bus, I said.”


Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys
By D.A. Powell
Graywolf Press
Paperback, 9781555976057, 120pp ,
February 2012