Review of 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 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).

D.A. Powell


Into the Snow: …

Reflection by Casey McAlduff

Into the Snow: Selected Poems of Gennady Aygi

Translated by Sarah Valentine (Wave Books, 2011)

In reading Aygi, I realized that being a new reader of a poet’s work might be more conducive to reflection than it is to be a practiced one. This got me thinking about how we continually apply Pound’s ‘make it new’ to the author but rarely to the reader. Instead, we consider knowledge or familiarity an asset in the taking apart of text, in the creation of ‘trustworthy’ opinion. And perhaps we are right in doing so. Perhaps discourse about a body of work should be treated like surgery, allowing only practiced, calm hands to doctor and to claim. Regardless, I dove innocently into Aygi and found significance in his verse. This is not to say that it was easy, not to say it wasn’t marked by epiphanies of violence.

In order to converse and ingest the floating fragments and disparate voices of Aygi’s poetry, a reader must be patient and able to approach a text without assigning it a distinct expectation. In order to find resonance in the work, Aygi’s reader must permit different tonal registers to live in a single space. Aygi’s verse asks for a reader, in short, who is cognizant of the oppressed, one who hears in silence not nothing but everything not being spoken. Aygi asks for openness; for a resistance to shutting the book on a difficult face.

For years, Aygi, who is from Chuvashia (then a Soviet Republic) wrote his verse in Chuvash, only beginning to write poems in Russian later in his career. Though many scholars state that Aygi began writing in Russian to better protect himself against Stalin’s persecution of ethnic minorities and cultures, Aygi’s actions point to a much more rebellious nature than to one of a poet who merely complies. Rather than choose to simply write in Russian and lose the representation of his personhood, the poet—once named Gennady Lisin (a common Russian surname)—changed his name to “Aygi”, an ancient Chuvash surname (Introduction, xii).

This re-naming as statement is a rebellion against oppression, similar to that resistance inherent to the free-verse form. Though writing in free verse may not seem so groundbreaking to those of us shaped by a Whitmanic vision of poetry, our experience is much different than a poet’s who lived in Moscow in the 1950s, where writing in free-verse was not only considered an act of dissonance, but was also declared a political offense, one that could be cause for punishment.

But Aygi’s free verse is not necessarily “resistance literature”, as it is not subject-driven. It is not pertaining to a distinct victim but belongs to the essence of action, of speech. This is what I think of as Aygi’s “less-ness”, his ability to use language to evoke the condition of things and their environments rather than to define and exclude.  For example, in the poem “The Last Ravine” (p. 9), Aygi employs this beautiful string of states: “restless,” “needless”, “painlessness”, “facelessness”, and “openedness.” It may come as no surprise that this poem is dedicated to Paul Celan, who like Aygi, understood language as presence; language as a way to stave off both ethnic and individual obliteration. By adding the suffixes “less” and “ness” to a word, Aygi enacts a paradox of existence: the “lessness” of the word makes it physically longer, allows the word to loosen into an instance of being rather than a transform it into an object of temporality. The word “face”, for example, does not keep rippling, but “facelessness” does.

Aygi’s cultural otherness as well as his attention to metaphysics as an essential process in the making of art is perhaps what most differentiates him from the other avant-garde writers of his time. By moving ‘into the snow’—or into that which covers, and melts; rather than that which erodes and exposes—Aygi becomes the silence and the hidden thing within it, a voice whose hope for proof of existence will not be found in dug-up bones but in the persistence of memory, in some attempt to record that which is buried by space, time, and/or force and cannot be recalled into tangibility.

Because of this balance between stillness and movement, between the concreteness of language and its evolving evocations, between remembering and moving forward, Aygi’s work renders for the reader the actual movement of experience, rather than a description of the content that composes the experience.  Thus, the poems work on two levels: the universal experience of living as a human in the world and the distinct experience of being a certain individual in the world.

In this way, Aygi’s work is creating a discourse between the snowflake and the snows—the phenomenon of unique design and the disclosure of design in plurality. Perhaps it’s reckoning with a problem of crowds. Of massacre. Things big enough to deflate the body’s size. The way a tragedy can incite the empathetic mind to always think—that could be me. This is more than a sentiment; in fact, of all things it’s physical, scientific. The struggle between the fact of matter as undefined, and our perception of ourselves as a form, a coherent material.

By inhabiting this space of possibility and giving it voice rather than definite face, Aygi transcends the barrier between the hidden and the present worlds. Here, despite the lack of subject in the verse, Aygi still successfully makes lyric, inhabiting what Allen Grossman calls the “orphan voice” in his essay Summa Lyrica —the voice of the poetic speaker who is on the brink of creation and destruction and who, because of his ability to postpone destruction, instead creates (p. 209).

Rather than allow the violence to occur and the subject to be forced into definition, Aygi enacts

“the summit; the summit

like an empty face (for all

has been given away): as where painlessness

towers—over wormwood.



the form





(“The Last Ravine”, p. 9)

Of course, this success also owes its dues to the work’s translator, Sarah Valentine. Because I don’t speak Russian, let alone Chuvash, my reaction to Into the Snow is filtered through Valentine’s deft translation of the work. The poem called “Untitled”, for instance, not only contains within itself many layers of silence and sound, but is also accompanied by a scored counterpart, entitled “On Reading the Poem ‘Untitled’ Aloud” (pgs. 16-17), which, like stage directions, tells the reader of “Untitled” just how it should be read.  This pairing of poems—one of the primary examples of Valentine’s talent—creates a wonderful enactment of the metaphysical relationship between silence and speaking that is a major theme of Aygi’s work.

Reminiscent of Cage, Aygi here teaches a reader how to listen to herself, how to let the fragments play out in an air-epic. While reading “Untitled” aloud per Aygi’s instructions, the reader feels the gap of millennia and centuries that are elegized in the silence, while also remaining rooted in the experience of the now. Aygi’s “pauses”, “pauses twice as long” and “a pause, not longer than the first” insert a collapsible time into the text meant for the page, heightening the poem’s drama while also opening it up; freeing it of its anxious containment, its stasis.

While reading “Untitled” on the page, the reader first sees a red block, which can be read politically, or abstractly.  It is the Soviet Bloc and Stalin’s purges, but it is also the Russian futurists, the avant-garde, and the resonance and power of color and shape. It’s blood. Perhaps it is the first dye. And then, striking the reader out of her contemplation, the red block is changed by the seeming qualifier that follows it, the line

“brighter than the heart of any single tree”

and then again, the mind is suddenly making new connections (or non-connections) between trees and blood, between the square and the heart, between brightness and voice …

But when this block is replaced by a piano adagio (or the score for a piano adagio) in “On Reading the Poem ‘Untitled’ Aloud”, and the music is followed by a pause, with the above line told to be delivered “distinctly, without intonation,” then the color red suddenly melts into sound, squares become fluid. And, even despite Aygi’s instructions to heighten the line’s individuality and somehow also erase its emotion, the statement “brighter than the heart of any single tree,” nevertheless takes on the residual, communal tones of the music, counteracting the attempt at distinctness.

Valentine’s translations seem successful because as a reader, I felt Aygi’s poems move, and was able to feel the tension between the materiality of the text and that materiality’s reliance on space and time. Really, it is as if Valentine was able to render the spirit of the poem rather than directly translating its meaning—an ultimate elegy for the work and for its author, and in turn, for the authors and artists to whom Aygi dedicated many of his poems.

As a developing poet, Aygi’s work has shown me how poetry is defined by that which it is not—namely by its ability to not be completely silent—to be nearly wordless:

“(In real despair, art is nearly wordless..—

for such is the light that squeezes through.)”

(“A Few Notes on Poetry, pg. 36)