Poetry News

Stephen Burt Reviews D.A. Powell's Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys

By Harriet Staff

Stephen Burt writes about sex in the poetry of D.A. Powell for the Boston Review (guess he's done musing on the adept fictions of @TweenHobo). Powell's newest book, Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys (Graywolf 2012), "might turn out to be the most affecting, as well as the most disturbing, book of poems published this year," writes Burt. More:

All Powell’s books are frankly homoerotic; this one is unmistakably NSFW—not safe for work, in online parlance. One poem envisions “Yellow nylon shorts, willing to glide / into crimps and gentled spans, as needed” along with “The axillary funk, odor of the groin.” Lines with double meanings, and lines with clear meanings, address not just body parts but kinky acts. “Do the Hustle,” for example, imagines the poet directing a fetish porn film: “Move in tight on that tight urethra. / Planning an accident, are we? You’ll want the full insurance. // Elsewhere: the mess I made was to be nobody’s boy.” A poem called “Boonies” describes the precious rural space “where we could be boys together”; Powell looks at the sky and sees “Clouds, above, lenticular, the spreading fundament, / a glorious breech among the thunderheads.” (Powell’s poems and mine, by the way, now have the same publisher; not to say so would be to breach some ethics guidelines.)

But it's not all just sex:

Yet Powell can excel in dignified modes, such as the fourteen-line “canticle” on which the book ends: “There is no cause to grieve among the living or the dead,” Powell writes, “so long as there is music in the air. . . . High, high the baldpate cries, and in the air, / and in the air, the red-winged blackbirds chase the damselflies.” Such lines look up not just to Whitman but also to the elegiac, homoerotic, ancient pastoral poet Theocritus, and to John Keats. And Powell has no rival with things Whitman could not have seen: donkey basketball, for instance (google it), whose “rules are fairly similar” both to real basketball and to real, troublesome, sexual life: “Touch your own foolish beast at all times, / even as you covet the strong asses of others”; “Go on and beat this dumb animal / if it drives him down the court.” That donkey may seem to stand for a sexual partner, but by the end it’s a poem about body and soul.

Powell’s dual title names his book’s two sections. “Useless Landscape” refers to the Central Valley as memory and as metaphor—poems have titles such as “Landscape with Combine,” “Landscape with Lymphatic System, System of Rivulets, System of Rivers.” Powell wants to bring his concern for the land and the language together with his attention to desiring bodies. All require care and circumspection, and should not be left alone....

Burt also writes that "[m]any GLBT poets (as we say now) write about sex; many seek not just libidinal celebration, not only attentive mimesis, but also ethical stances against prejudice and denial, disease and death. Even among those peers, though, Powell’s puns and his ironies, his command of genuinely elevated along with grinningly rueful tones, his refusal to simplify the life he depicts, and his sense of the shape of a line set him apart." Read the full review here.

Originally Published: June 14th, 2012