Reviewed by Celia Bland
This volume describes a slip—both personal and cultural—into self-indulgence and escapism. In poem after poem, romantic ideals are subsumed in quick encounters, dirty puns, and Powell’s figurative décolletage of a dowager poet, a witty but jaded survivor of the courtly lists. Which is not to imply that Powell is in drag—she’s no Lady Bracknell, squeezing bon mots from a derisive moue—but rather a mature poet whose lyric gift is nearly unmatched in modern poetics. The problem with Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys is that his verbal gyrations have become the weary swivels of a go-go dancer. It is sad that a poet of such skill describes, as his title promises, the useless. Even his appreciations of the natural world are temporally bound. In Useless Landscape, everything is ravished; little is ravishing.
Three hundred years ago, John Locke outlined a sacred right to property, beginning with our right to the property of our own bodies, that most personal of properties. Powell, a poetic Lockean, claims the body as inspiration and territory, proscribing and describing all its needs. These poems focus, in a series of confessional and rather abject persona poems, on encounters that never really approach the status of relationships, fizzling in physical, emotional and psychic frustrations:
I could not tell you then who actually was attractive.
I’d blow the devil if he offered. Apparently he did….
Love, when it’s truly sorry, is sorrier than a broke-dick dog.
I used to love ideals, but that wasn’t cool. Plus there was money to be had.
And ass. Scads of ass.
(“The Great Unrest”)
I am simply a hand inexhaustible as yours
could never be. You’re nevertheless prepared to shoot.
If I could I’d finish you. Be more than just your rag.
(“The Fluffer Talks of Eternity”)
[NB: A “fluffer” is the company employee who facilitates a male porn star ‘s hard-on before a big scene.]
These persona cum confessional poems portray scene of waiting, as Powell might put it, for the money-shot. There are no philosophies here, and post-idea, Powell spends his gifts (to borrow an image from “Missionary Man”) on word-play and sensuality. His personas are never allowed to breathe independently nor do they invite us into vulnerability or complexity; instead, he proscribes limitations as if unable to cotton transcendence or redemption. He’s poet as “a broke-dick dog.” He delights in the campy euphemism—“Space Junk,” the “hammer in my pocket,” and, in his most tasteless example, man as morsel in “Chicken”:
…Yes, I’m a little overdone,
I’ll warrant you. You want a little cut. Get in here, then,
Pull back the skin and crisp it,
Before the insatiate drunks come round with greasy fingers,
Distribute me between the bars, and pinch my biscuits.”
The poet’s gorgeous ear and innate sense of when to frustrate the reader’s expectations—shifting from pusillanimous metaphysics to the vocabulary of the workaday—backhoes, culverts, milk snakes and saddle ponies—is married to a Southerner’s love of straight talk. One also senses the poet’s longing after a rough hewn faith, but he consistently forswears any system of belief that might sustain his poetics. These poems illustrate loss; loss of love, beauty, and sexual attraction (if not desire):
My undesirable body, you’re all I have to fiddle with.
The fiddle’s wood has cracked but it still plays…
You are the form of my exhaustion as you break.
[break as in a fiddle break – an improvised jam – and in its more common usage. Fiddle as in “play with” and “diddle.”]
Tenderness is the testes, tenderness of mind.
I have come to admire you in the water.
You are the yellow crown of some narcissus afterward:
the fizzled salvo. The burst of yolk
that has begun to dry on the stoneware plate.
The language in this excerpt from “Landscape with Lymphatic System, System of Rivulets, System of Rivers,” is interesting; the images, ditto, but one senses Powell is playing to an audience that will applaud disregard his poetry’s chill. Yeats, too, lamented the desires that racked his old body, but one felt in his work the pathos of a cry against mortality. Powell mourns youth’s promise and beauty, and he delves into the unflattering weaknesses of body and spirit, but teeters on this side of feeling. At least this is true in most poems. He is at his best mourning the glittering disco life that existed before AIDS, memorializing friends dead and dying. These poems are infiltrated by religious liturgy as in this litany of “of” in “Ode to Joy”:
Of horrible missteps with fucked up chums.
Of low desire. Of powerful urges.
Of release by one’s own adulterous hand.
Of and of and of the feeling.
Of somebody else should drive.
This is not a time to think the trumpet vine is sullen.
Rather: the trumpet’s bell is but a prelude.
It says we all are beautiful at least once.
And, if you’d watch over me, we can be beautiful again.
This from “Boonies” where “we could be boys together.” Here is both a longing after and worship of youth in all its awkward stupidity, cupidity, and vulnerability. If only Powell would get out of the way more often and let these boys—and the men who love them—come to life. Powell is at his best when he sets aside Wildean cleverness and stops Bunburying. If he let his poems scree with Dionysian lust and rage, or weep like Sappho with frustrated love, or settle his accounts in the red and black like Collette—he could, as he says wants to, plunge into decrepitude—and swim.
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