Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys by D.A. Powell (Graywolf Press, 2012)
Reviewed by Casey McAlduff
In his most recent volume of poetry, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys, D.A. Powell masterfully cultivates the paradox of growth as both a positive and negative transformative force. Here, growth is decay is achievement; is both pride and dismay. Riffing off of common parental advice, Powell uses the agricultural landscape of California’s Central Valley (Useless Landscape) as well as the oath of the Boy Scouts (A Guide for Boys) to remind the reader that growth, in all of its forms, comes more often from trial and error than it does from success.
Because Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys seems to be the poet’s most personal book to date, perhaps the most poignant commentary about growth manifests in the work’s encounter with illness, where the term “growth” is most commonly associated with tumors and cancers. The verse, like the landscapes it’s addressing, is thus littered, creating a discussion between the natural and the chemical, between the body and the antibody. Take the poem “Dying in Development” for example, whose title alone sheds light on the poet’s ability to capture the irony of progress through tiny packets of language. In this poem, a “Taco Bell and KFC/merge as one fantastical beast with crispy wings,” so that the playful horror of human innovation can collide with it’s daunting consequence: “We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed” (Useless Landscape, page 21).
As he has demonstrated in his previous books (Tea, Lunch, Cocktails, and Chronic) D.A. Powell has a talent for expanding the lyric form into the experimental and metaphysical realm while simultaneously writing with an accessible, “everyman” tone—maintaining what John Freeman for the LA Times called a “double vision—or an ability to communicate the interior and exterior worlds of experience. In keeping with this mode, Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys tackles both the seeming objectivity of the visual (the Landscape) as well as the seeming subjectivity of the textual (the Guide).
In this way, Powell also sows an intriguing relationship between Beauty and Morality, and between Art and Law. Whereas the first half of the book takes the ekphrastic technique and uses it as a means to create an ethical commentary, as a didactic text and not a painting would usually do; the second half of the book uses the instructional manual form to paint startling images of boyhood that rather than preach, reflect (as a piece of art would, impossibly free of frame) on the experience of experience. This intelligent blend of form and content turns the world inside out, like a pocket giving up its treasure. In Powell’s dexterous mind, the visual—or the public— becomes inflected with personal significance, while the ethical, the interpretative—the private— becomes ground for all to question, bulldoze, and build upon.
In “Seven Sketches for a Landscape, Unfinished,” for instance, Powell journalistically describes six scenes of political upheaval and state punishment in order to reach the seventh stanza, the only piece of the poem that utilizes traditional poetic technique, and the part in which the reader is asked to think about the poem’s ethical terms: “The rains still bring the rivers to a crest.// [Here’s where you imagine the rest]” (Useless Landscape, page 17). Meanwhile, in “Narcissus”, the poet uses image and metaphor to achieve guidance rather than the direct speech of the book’s first half:
“Not every boy who desires fame gets it the way he wants.
Not every flower, leaning vainly toward his own face
reflected in a murky puddle, gets to meditate upon himself
more than a few transitory days, before he, too, molders.”
(A Guide for Boys, page 66)
In the penultimate poem of the book, called “Missionary Man”, Powell includes a quote from Oscar Wilde’s Salome that states, “We must bear away the body to another place,” and this is precisely the transformation that Powell’s poems cause. The “useless” landscapes of the Central Valley, so banal in their planting, their existence as plots of human use, are also reflections of value. These landscapes and lessons don’t teach us how to operate the land, as a Boy Scout Guide might usually do, but rather how to un-use it, how to let it do its work upon us. As the poet-speaker faces the development of disease, of the hazards of the unnatural, he simultaneously reaches a poetic apex, a spiritual progress that extends beyond the body. In D.A. Powell’s beautiful and flawed universe, it is the spirit’s ability to “stay ripe/ to one another’s lips, and welcoming to hands” that makes the landscape perform its ultimate worth; it is “not only the hope of nature” but “the nature of hope” (“Boonies, page 70).