Useless Landscape might turn out to be the most affecting, as well as the most disturbing, book of poems published this year. Given its bounty of sonnets, Pindaric odes, pastorals, metaphysical conceits, and even benedictions, the book is incontrovertibly traditional. But with titles such as “Backdrop with Splashes of Cum on It,” “Reaching Around for You,” and “The Fluffer Talks of Eternity,” it’s also shockingly, comically, full of sex. And sex as such—gay and straight, vanilla and kinky—makes a notorious, often insurmountable challenge for literary writing, since it depends so deeply on idiosyncratic and instinctive response: what turns you on may repel me, or leave me cold.
Powell, almost uniquely among working poets, finds ways to finesse that challenge, to keep the sexual life in his lines both imaginative and believable: through mordant humor, through constant wordplay, through tones that swerve quickly between abjection and pride. Like his four prior books, Useless Landscape offers passionate, compact, figuratively inventive portrayals of gay male erotic lives. Like those books, it offers laments for the ailing, aging body, sometimes a body living (as Powell himself lives) with HIV. And like those books it also offers charitable recastings of Christian doctrine, with salvation through the body of the Son; ecological warnings and jeremiads; quests for glamour in déclassé places; and scenes from California’s Central Valley, where the poet spent much of his teens. Compared to those books, Useless Landscape is more backward-looking, or more traditionally lyrical, since it comprises short poems (few use more than one page) in short or medium-sized lines, often with an iambic pentameter base: Powell now reconciles himself not just to the genres but also to the forms of older poems.
Compared to those books, Useless Landscape is also more sexual. 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.)
Then there’s the poem with the splashes of cum, which begins: “Often I got stuck to the bottom of someone’s shoe.” Powell gets scandalously literal just as he gets most playfully literary: it was Walt Whitman who invited readers to “look for me under your boot-soles.” Other poets (see Thom Gunn’s “The Miracle”) have cum in their poems too, but none with such verbal abandon. Omnivorously able to see sex anywhere, in any arrangement of language, Powell’s punning style is therefore democratic as well, able (like Whitman’s) to take in almost anything—woodworking, kiwi fruit, “Space Junk,” or agricultural insect control, as in “Release the Sterile Moths”: “Just ask the woodbine to show you / where the varmints hide, / waiting to punk you in the plums.” Elsewhere Powell can take the Whitman of the “Calamus” poems and ratchet up the double entendres till the new tone cracks under the strain: “I am the spitting image of the night’s prehensile lips . . . . And I am the new sap, aroused by spring, the hard xylem, / the knotty stick.” There, alas, we already know what’s coming.
Each sexual pun, each outré scene, becomes a statement of solidarity, an existential affirmation.
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:
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.
Note the pentameters; note the irregular form, reminiscent of English Pindaric odes. Powell’s new attraction to older meters may have something to do with Dunstan Thompson, the openly gay, elaborately formal American poet of the World War II era whose work Powell and Kevin Prufer edited in 2010. Pentameter, occasional or repeated, also gives Powell a way to control pace and attitude, as in the jaunty “Bojangles”: “You’ve gone and gotten cozy with the doorman; / he’s so smitten, he’s ready to lose his job. . . . Now wipe those lips. Now wipe that runny nose.”
Useless Landscape also sees agricultural California, rather dutifully, as a site for other people’s histories: “In Corcoran, the Mexican strikers were refused relief. / Some infants starved. Some workers died.” Powell sounds more at home in “Landscape with Sections of Aqueduct,” whose waste ground, “dry hills,” “crushed aluminum cans,” make a fine place to revitalize Christian doctrine: “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.” (Compare Luke 8:5–15.)
These downtrodden landscapes, apparently bleak yet able to harbor so many human appetites, welcome animals too. As he did in Cocktails (2004), Powell likens himself and his kind to hungry dogs, “never really sure / if the humans will beat us or feed us.” Feral cats, “afraid to taste the stranger’s milk,” find refuge in “Riverfront Park, Marysville, CA,” which also serves as a lover’s lane: “Someone cares for you here. // Were you dying, here’s a fine place for your mangy head. / Hush. Someone’s backing in.” California also gives Powell occasion for other kinds of older elegiac verse, as in “Outside Thermalito,” a perfect brief seasonal lyric with links to haiku. Read it slowly, so it lasts:
Persimmons ripen with the first frost.
The bitterness inflicted on them
takes their bitterness away.
Would that there were some other way.
So much for landscape: what about the boys? The new book and especially its second half show sexual adventures—many involving ephebes, “boys,” very young men—that remain, even in 2012, taboo. “Chicken” imagines—or remembers, as Powell’s interviews suggest—the life of a teen hustler: “Each man who lost his stake in me had lost / his gamecock, his bathhouse boychick, / the pullet at the pumphouse, the tipsy one, free-living.” Note the pentameter, used, cut short, then stretched out into a fourteener (ahem); note Powell’s almost vindictive delight. The poem ends: “pull back the skin and crisp it.” The sonnet “Little Boy Blue” casts the poet not as the “chicken” but as the adult observer. It takes place “inside the Sunrise Mall”:
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.
Powell dares us to find those lines exciting, or else he asks us to imagine somebody who would.
Powell likens himself and his kind to hungry dogs, ‘never really sure / if the humans will beat us or feed us.’
Some of Powell’s poems fit the controversial, though well-supported, claims of Judith Levine’s Harmful to Minors (2002), a book that got its publisher investigated by the state of Minnesota. Levine argues, “Child or teen sex can be moral or immoral. And so can our treatment of the children and teens who desire it” since “touching and talking and fantasizing for bodily pleasure . . . is a valuable and crucial part of growing up.” Levine tries to take the “squick” out of such topics, to let adults discuss them reasonably; Powell instead keeps readers’ potential disgust—and their potential arousal—at hand. (I almost wrote “adult readers”; but teens read too—teens might read this book, especially if someone bans it.) Each sexual pun, each outré scene, in Powell becomes a statement of solidarity, an existential affirmation: gay people exist, and should exist (the poems say), and gay people will continue to feel passion, even when they are not adults, even when they are, for instance, members of a high school marching band:
A junior who slides through valves like that,
who works the phrase with such aplomb,
will surely be able to play me something
from the Great American Songbook,
be it Body & Soul or Jelly Jelly. Anything will do.
Except I Can’t Get Started with You.
Yet Powell is not young; here he writes out of lust, remembered and experienced, but also out of sadness. The brass player may seize the day and gather his rosebuds, but probably not with Powell, or not anymore. Powell can also write about advancing age—as in “An Elegy for My Libido”—with an overtly campy throwback voice: “Well, here it is, the Oscar race has started / and there isn’t a single movie / I’m dying to see.” And he is dying; as are we all.
Many 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. Those attributes make his new writing, on sex but not just about sex, not only sad and funny and grotesque and dense and resonant, but itself often thrillingly, shockingly sexy. One of the last poems in Useless Landscape even bears the title “Ode to Joy,” though it takes place in the apparently unromantic space of fast food restaurants, with “teens, as teens must do, eating the potato nuggets / of cupidity . . . . Their cups / of catsup and other dipping sauces creating little o’s / of transparency in their suck-me-off jeans.” The very next poem gets religion: “There is no God but that which visits us / in skin and thew and pleasing face.” Powell’s new poems could make you believe that too.