Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys: Poems


New poetry by D. A. Powell, “the best poet of his generation—and arguably the most important poet under fifty” (Time Out New York)

I have this rearrangement to make:
symbolic death, my backward glance.
The way the past is a kind of future leaning against the sporty hood.

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Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys: Poems

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New poetry by D. A. Powell, “the best poet of his generation—and arguably the most important poet under fifty” (Time Out New York)

I have this rearrangement to make:
symbolic death, my backward glance.
The way the past is a kind of future leaning against the sporty hood.
—from “Bugcatching at Twilight”

In D. A. Powell’s fifth book of poetry, the rollicking line he has made his signature becomes the taut, more discursive means to describing beauty, singing a dirge, directing an ironic smile, or questioning who in any given setting is the instructor and who is the pupil. This is a book that explores the darker side of divisions and developments, which shows how the interstitial spaces of boonies, backstage, bathhouse, or bar are locations of desire. With Powell’s witty banter, emotional resolve, and powerful lyricism, this collection demonstrates his exhilarating range.

Winner of the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post - Elizabeth Lund
…[Powell's] strongest book yet. The poems, as always, are taut, edgy and erotic…His wit and brazen perspective make him a poet's poet.
Publishers Weekly
Powell has now turned the corner from promising new poet into established power. This fifth collection condenses his obsessions into poems clearer and more compact than ever, some scathing and others comedic, some based on life stories and others built on puns. Now living in San Francisco, Powell grew up in California’s agricultural Central Valley; the impoverished spaces of his youth stand out among his backgrounds and metaphors for ecological disaster, for gay sexual awakening, for sex itself, for illness, and for love. “The Kiwi Comes to Gridley, CA,” for example, recalls “this... overgrown berry with its easy sway/ and pubescent peel, how it will proffer its redolent fruit.” Another poem delights in “Having a Rambutan with You”: “Sometimes, I forget to spit out all the seeds.” Among other culturally omnivorous poets of gay American life, Powell, with his range of form and line, his dark but vivid humor, and his commitment to Romantic traditions, is set apart. Disneyland, high school marching bands, 1970s funk and disco, “donkey basketball,” and planetary astronomy join his expanding universe of figures for sexual pleasure, and sexual sadness; erotic experience serves as a lens through which Powell—a passionate lover of puns, like Shakespeare—views life and death, body and spirit, youth and advancing age. This book will belong on many lists of the year’s best. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Poems by Powell (Chronic) are the Apple products of the literary world: sleek, urbane, well-designed marvels. They are so startlingly hip that one can almost be excused for not noticing that they are slowly infiltrating the mainstream. The homoeroticism that lies at the center of this work is tongue-in-cheek, proceeding via allegory and dispensing with much of the campiness that characterizes earlier (and some current) queer writing. But as a literary artifact, this book's slick veneer and perfect lines sometimes seem at odds with the awkward and exciting messiness of adolescent sexuality, as if the poems had been disassembled and shipped off to Iowa City to have the rough edges sanded out. Powell's treatment of sexuality lacks much of the transgressive power of a Dennis Cooper or Kathy Acker, both of whom manage to transform eroticism into something as dangerous as it is transformative. VERDICT Powell is as good a technician as anyone in the business, and his latest book, both smart and accessible, will have award panels queuing up to sing its praises. [See Prepub Alert, 8/18/11.]—Chris Pusateri, Jefferson Cty. P.L., Lakewood, CO
From the Publisher
“Powell has a perfect ear . . . [His] great subject is passion, in all its stages and manifestations: passion sought, spent, relived in the mind, played out in language.” —Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker


“With his typical wry eroticism, an eagle eye for the places where men converge, and a compass that points always to desire, poet D. A. Powell leads us on a tour through a Useless Landscape, or A Guide for Boys, from gay bars to bathhouses and into the backwoods.” —Vanity Fair


“Powell’s fifth collection is a stunner . . . Memory, sensuality, and time all tangle with each other—altering each other as they go. Powell takes us beyond the ‘salty declivites’ of a Turkish bath into a wilderness of desire, a ‘region of want.’ There could be no sounder guide.” —The Boston Globe

The Barnes & Noble Review

In this mordantly funny, gorgeous, and bittersweet fifth book, D. A. Powell probes a lesser-seen California, a bleakly lovely Central Valley, where sprawl meets almond orchards and chaparral edges freeways. Here also are "the judge's house, the chicken farm, / a migratory camp, a flesh motel / a stucco digs?" — desert and semi-deserted places, western, crude, where "live oak begs relief / from hardened light." In Powell's verses, landscape, gnarled and blooming, takes center stage, but fields and fringes also lead us round to sex. Bodies join in industrial fruit tree fields and rural back alleys; in bathhouses, in riverfront parks.

One poem, "Landscape with Combine," a sassy, punning sonnet invites us out to one of those fields, singing:

My father's fields are far from here. I shot my share of blackbirds there. Drove a harvester in summer. Gathered plums. Gathered chums. The tractor-trailer rigs would come.
Having crooned, the poem inserts desire:
If I was asked to ride the John Deere then. To reap, I'd reap; to thresh I'd thresh. Men, I'd winnow you, I'd winnow a few. I'd take you, dear John, or whoever is you.
But just when we're riding the poem's rhythm, it ends, bitingly, suddenly:
Love is easier to achieve than you might think. Sooner or later the combine gives out. & Sooner.
Powell's texts are full of raunchy riffs, but they're also scathing, blistered with the injustices of California, the built-over beauty of California, the dead ends of California. A haunting poem entitled only "A Brief History of Internment" reads "Hence the wild daikon. / We've made the landscape mean here. / And then we put down roots." In another poem, the kiwi fruit arrives from Australia, just as Central Valley boys, barely ripened themselves, are sent to Vietnam. The poem, a tight, sad, sonnet, admires the fragile "downy nutsacks" of the fruit; then it says of the boys, "they all went to bliss in their little skiff."

Tart bliss indeed. In that poem, Powell claims "I may never understand the intersection of small & large / conquest and defeat." None of us may ever fully comprehend this cartography, but Powell, a master of mapping the crevicular spaces of land, body, and poem, keeps making discoveries.

These poems — deeply local but extending their tendrils beyond the small towns they spring from — surprise and unsettle us even as they feel like natural extensions of the deepest American traditions. Rural iambs upend and recall Frost, and the spaces where land and sex and anonymous men meet recall Whitman. But Californian strangeness, bald cul-de-sacs, and fading farmland give Powell something new and hardened, seductive and sad. And also ruefully hopeful. As Powell reminds us in the opening poem, "Just when we think we've been punished enough, / there's a bounty to contend with — " In this case, the bounty is Powell's own.

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times,andThe New Yorker.

Reviewer: Tess Taylor

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555976057
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 2/14/2012
  • Pages: 80
  • Sales rank: 1,446,976
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

D. A. Powell is the author of five collections of poetry, including Chronic, winner of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He lives in San Francisco.

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Read an Excerpt


By D. A. Powell

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2012 D. A. Powell
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-605-7

Chapter One


    In heaven, I believe, even our deaths are forgiven.
    —Dunstan Thompson

    Who could sustain such pale plentitude
    and not want to shake the knopped white blossoms
    from the swarthy branches.

    The petals seem more parchment, and more pure,
    in her upright phalanges

    with a box of soap flakes, tackling the mud-cake
    somebody made on the quarter-sawn floor.

    Just when we think we've been punished enough,
    there's a bounty to contend with—
    she's at the spinet, now, and every key's a plunker.
    She hasn't had it tuned since the flood.
    Yes, she really troubles heaven with her deaf singing.
    But after all, it's heaven.
    Even death will be forgiven.


    The dandelions, ditch-blown brood,
    the evening snow and dew-soaked phlox,
    the Brewer's pea, the Jepson's pea
    (these, the bright eyes of the viridian fields)
    in chaparral, the hillside pea and angled pea,
    intensities of light and pomp
    that distress the easy upswept grass.
    The smack the rain plants as it smudges past
    and penetrates the canvas.

    The smattering on field and railroad tracks,
    both hardy blooms and dainty flowers,
    the judge's house, the chicken farm,
    a migratory camp, a flesh motel,
    a stucco digs
    where all that mitigates the August swelter
    is the swamp cooler's immutable burr,
    a straggling house that draws its water
    from a hard-water well and flushes out
    with the help of a crude sump pump.

    Before the flatland is occluded
    by the staunch of light at end of day,
    I wanted to be content with all its surfaces:
    weed, barb, crack, rill, rise ...
    But every candid shoot and fulgent branch
    depends upon the arteries beneath.
    The houses have their siphons
    and their circuit vents.
    The heart—I mean the literal heart—
    must rely upon its own plaqued valves;
    the duodenal canal, its unremitting grumble.
    The brain upon its stem,
    and underneath,
    a network, vast, of nerves that rationalize.

    The earth's a little harder than it was.
    But I expect that it will soften soon,
    voluptuous in some age hence,
    because we captured it as art
    the moment it was most itself:
    fragile, flecked with nimbleweed,
    and so alone,
    it almost welcomed its own ravishment.

    I was a maiden in this versicolor 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.

    They call the chicory "ragged sailors" here:
    sojourners who have finally returned
    and are content to see the summer to its end.
    Be unafraid of what the future brings.
    I will not use this particular blue again.

      —for Betty Buckley


    I've already pieced it out in my head:
    there's almost nothing to go back to.
    The wide flat palm of the prickly pear
    outside Bent Prop Liquors. I kid you
    not that the air's so red, day's end,
    that it unlooses a fat ribbon of regret.
    Yet the air does not move; it hangs
    its squalid rags on the post; it poops
    dirty bats out of the public
    library's colonnade. I wasn't the first
    kid you raped. In this indifferent orchard
    where many a shallow boy got dumped.
    I think of you often. I think of you never
    so much I dare to touch my stolen twig.


    I can only give you back what you imagine.
    I am a soulless man. When I take you
    into my mouth, it is not my mouth. It is
    an unlit pit, an aperture opened just enough
    in the pinhole camera to capture the shade.

    I have caused you to rise up to me, and I
    have watched as you rose and waned.
    Our times together have been innumerable. Still,
    like a Capistrano swallow, you come back.
    You understand: I understand you. Understand
    each jiggle and tug. Your pudgy, mercurial wad.

    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.


    If the crown of day is not gold, then it's a marvelous fake.
    Merciful present tense: if the brown grass is always flowing,
    if the sun is always just brushing the dry hills, and if
    last summer's suicide is still a loner whose white t-shirt
    knotted, so tight it had to be cut off his neck with a penknife,
    then evening is the same bare patch and the same fat crows,
    the crushed aluminum cans and the hamburger wrappers
    or the ribbon of tire tread where a road crew hasn't come by.

    They have taken him away and I do not know where he is laid.
    Among the soft cheat and meadow barley, a live oak begs relief
    from the hardened light, the beating of its own gnarled limbs,
    and the unrelenting rustle of its own beige blooms that tumble
    together shyly like a locker room of boys once boisterous, now
    called to roll and suddenly bashful, clasping at dingy towels.
    Let the dead be modest. Give the tree, solitary being who feeds
    on wind and the mote of another's distant beauty, cause to brag.

    Except that the kernel would fall upon the soil, it abides alone.
    One guy peeled labels off beer bottles here; another climbed
    the remaining concrete piles and wrote JUSTIN LOVES, wrote
    stephen loves, wrote hang 'EM HIGH—CLASS OF '93.
    Cabbage moths flickered in tansy and clustered broom-rape;
    bore the pain of creation for a little yellow dust, a smear of light
    on their fidgeting legs and the sudden buoyancy in updraft.
    Ruin, by the wayside, you took as sacrament. You, abiding rock.


    A lone cloudburst hijacked the Doppler radar screen, a bandit
    hung from the gallows, in rehearsal for the broke-necked man,
    damn him, tucked under millet in the potter's plot. Welcome
    to disaster's alkaline kiss, its little clearing edged with twigs,
    and posted against trespass. Though finite, its fence is endless.

    Lugs of prune plums already half-dehydrated. Lugged toward
    shelf life and sorry reconstitution in somebody's eggshell kitchen.
    If you hear the crop-dust engine whining overhead, mind
    the orange windsock's direction, lest you huff its vapor trail.
    Scurry if you prefer between the lime-sulphured rows, and cull
    from the clods and sticks, the harvest shaker's settling.

    The impertinent squalls of one squeezebox vies against another
    in ambling pick-ups. The rattle of dice and spoons. The one café
    allows a patron to pour from his own bottle. Special: tripe today.
    Goat's head soup. Tortoise-shaped egg bread, sugared pink.
    The darkness doesn't descend, and then it descends so quickly
    it seems to seize you in burly arms. I've been waiting all night
    to have this dance. Stay, it says. Haven't touched your drink.


    When the previously withheld faces grew tough as flax
    or softened into pliant pine in the umber wood, inclined
    together, numerous, when the cobble crushed underfoot,
    and pistachios cracked in their shells, grown heavy,
    grown consummate among the nibs of leaves, then curious
    seemed the stars, those nether eyes which scrutinized
    each shape that stirred against the unlit trunks of trees.

    He could say he knew the men he did not know. Arrived
    in the cedar grove and parted, sated with little effort,
    or left unsatisfied, ruminating upon such unfamiliar flesh
    across the glade. Silent the approach, a fawn, fluid
    through the damp grass, the current in the full creek
    surrounding the mossy rocks, pulling them a spell
    a little ways downstream, inevitable their deposit.

    Thus he would peer the woods, and quarry eluded him,
    sloughed that lustrous hide and slipped innominate away.
    Retraction: there were times he stood the corsair's nip,
    gained midnight's reticent stroke, the haphazard coitus
    of loaded collegians stumbling the poison oak. Hermit
    thrush or Wilson's snipe. Something bolts the dark,
    flushed from the thick rushes, that most temporal cover.


    At first it seems truly foreign, like the downy brown nutsack
    in a health class textbook: almost too firm, almost too perfect
    to be edible. If it gives to the touch, it's ready to pluck.
    No robin's egg, though you might nestle it in your hands.

    A few more boys deployed this week. Under jade green vines
    they crawl on their crusty elbows, helmets tipped, their
    backsides up. And they all went to bliss in their little skiff.

    You may never understand the intersection of small & large,
    conquest & defeat. For now, miraculous surges simply come,
    a series of peaks which are not quite the purple monkshood,
    not quite the crusty, papillated surface inside an alien geode.

    Consider this odd yield: overgrown berry with its easy sway
    and pubescent peel, how it will proffer its redolent fruit.
    This mysterious being now enters you: to arms, to arms.


    When you come to a fork in the road, you've reached the limit
    of inhabited space. That goes for most points on the compass,
    leastways true north. And it is true, the pavement that splits
    the difference, offers you half its lean sandwich, sanderlings,
    stink bugs. When you just can't drive: offers you a pallet.

    The register sticks. The swatter will not nearly vanquish its prey.
    Bursts its lid in geyser spray, a jar of pickled pork rinds.
    Eats its way through tin, the green chile salsa called verde.
    Dies one afternoon, the rat who had nibbled too much cereal;
    and, though his location is vague, you can smell him decay,
    up through floorboards wafting. Light a candle then blow it out.
    When a customer wrinkles his nose, just look the other way.

    Grasshoppers pitch themselves against the wire front door.
    Nothing in the cooler they desire. They don't want flan or beer.



    The state, begun as a series of missions,
    used native men & women as cheap labor,
    edified through occasional public floggings.
    As the indigenous populations began to die,
    they were replaced by immigrants from China
    used to build railroads,
    with pickaxes and blasting caps.
    And when the Chinese were too many,
    the US Congress passed exclusion acts.


    In Wheatland, hops pickers, fired upon
    by Yuba County sheriffs and their henchmen
    for attempting to protect themselves
    against exploitation and unsafe working conditions,
    retaliated by rioting; were beaten and cuffed.


    In Cocoran, the Mexican strikers were refused relief.
    Some infants starved. Some workers died.
    The farmers dumped their milk into the sewers,
    and burned acres of corn, rather
    than provide for upstart laborers.


    Old man Nakagawa, divested of his property in 1942,
    returned to Marysville following the war
    and opened a small grocery.


    While then-governor Ronald Reagan
    stood in the capitol's rose garden,
    members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense
    entered the senate chambers,
    armed to protect their community
    from the abuse of power exhibited by Oakland police.


    When the Islamic mosque on Tierra Buena Road
    was set ablaze by arsonists,
    the neighboring Sikhs opened up their temple
    as a place of worship
    for their historic enemies.


    The rains still bring the rivers to a crest.

    [Here's where you imagine the rest.]


    Hence the wild daikon.
    We've made the landscape mean here.
    And then we put down roots.


    What a reprieve from all this stultifying heat.
    And all the threats implicit in that heat:

    the sweep and snare of blackberry,

    razor barb of concertina wire.

    The bluish teasel nearly chafed you
    with its bracts.

    You've made it through some muck
    with your absolute body
    still intact. So far,

    the Camp Far West lakewater is barely blue.
    That might make two of you.

    Who is the other whom you seek?

    They found a body in this lake; it wasn't his;
    it wasn't yours. And so the shore
    persists in summoning you.

    He may be waiting.
    His body hasn't lost any allure.
    & nor has yours.

    But sorry is the heart
    that knows
    what's round the bend.


    He finds himself inside the Sunrise Mall,
    but not at Waldenbooks. He seeks no solitude.
    His second great awakening has started,
    subdued interstices between kiosks and stores;
    the proximity of skimming eyes, or studious eyes
    that read him like a copy of Leaves of Grass.
    He has come in his holey, worn-out jeans.
    He has come there in his flimsy little thongs.

    And there's those hankering eyes that seem
    to sample him like Orange Julius eggwhite froth
    or bits of free salami cubed upon a paper plate
    & stabbed by frill-picks.
    Don't meet those eyes.
    The arcade's packed with Pac-Man players in a jiff.
    Gobble the cherries. Gobble that consecrated ghost.


Excerpted from USELESS LANDSCAPE, OR A Guide for Boys by D. A. Powell Copyright © 2012 by D. A. Powell. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Almonds in Bloom....................5
Tender Mercies....................6
Cherry Blossoms in Spring....................8
The Fluffer Talks of Eternity....................9
Landscape with Sections of Aqueduct....................10
Useless Landscape....................11
Bidwell Park....................12
The Kiwi Comes to Gridley, CA....................13
College City Market, College City, CA....................14
Seven Sketches for a Landscape, Unfinished....................15
A Brief History of Internment....................18
The Bathers....................19
Little Boy Blue....................20
Dying in the Development....................21
Dying in a Turkish Bath....................25
End of Days....................26
That's Where They Hide the Silos....................27
Panic in the Year Zero....................28
Landscape with Temple, Mosque and Little Crosses....................32
Landscape with Combine....................33
Release the Sterile Moths....................35
Valley of the Dolls....................36
Landscape with Figures Partially Erased....................37
Bugcatching at Twilight....................41
Head Out on the Highway....................43
Tarnished Angel....................44
Riverfront Park, Marysville, CA....................45
Love Hangover....................46
Landscape with Lymphatic System, System of Rivulets, System of Rivers....................47
An Elegy for My Libido....................49
Abandonment under the Walnut Tree....................50
The Price of Funk in Funkytown....................51
Traveling Light....................52
Outside Thermalito....................55
The Opening of the Cosmos....................56
One Thousand and One Nights....................57
Funkytown: Forgotten City of the Plain....................59
Notes of a Native Son....................61
Donkey Basketball Diaries....................62
A Little Less Kettledrum, Please....................64
My Life as a Dog....................67
A Guide for Boys....................68
Lessons in Woodworking....................72
Elements of a Cross-Country Runner....................75
Magic Kingdom Come....................76
Space Junk....................77
Sporting Life....................78
Dying in a Fallow....................79
Reaching Around for You....................80
Goodbye, My Fancy....................81
Midnight Cowbell....................84
Do the Hustle....................85
Once and Future Houseboy....................86
Backdrop with Splashes of Cum on It....................87
Transit of Mercury....................89
Platelet Count Descending....................90
Backstage Pass....................91
Having a Rambutan with You....................92
Summer of My Bone Density Test....................94
The Great Unrest....................96
Orchard in January....................98
Ode to Joy....................99
Missionary Man....................101
Mass for Pentecost: Canticle for Birds & Waters....................104
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