Why I Chose D. A. Powell’s Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club


Rumpus Poetry Editor Brian Spears on why he selected D. A. Powell’s Useless Landscape or A Guide for Boys for the Rumpus Poetry Book Club in February.

A couple of nights ago, I was on the phone with D. A. Powell, setting up our book club chat. He is, I learned, just up the road from me these days, teaching at the University of Iowa for a semester. (It’s in the midwest and places like it where a 4-hour drive can be called “just up the road.”) It took all of five minutes to figure out a convenient date, but we stayed on the phone for half an hour. I don’t say this to suggest that Powell and I are close friends. This was the first time I’d ever actually talked to him. We’ve exchanged occasional emails and tweets, but we’ve never met in person, never talked until that phone call. And yet we chatted like old friends, he after spending three hours among other writers and I after a 7 hour shift at the market where I sell wine and beer.

I don’t want to draw too many conclusions from this single telephone conversation, but my experience of D. A. Powell the person matches up fairly closely with my experience of Useless Landscape or A Guide For Boys. It’s a book that invites you in and makes you instantly comfortable with the narrator’s voice and sense of place. From the second poem in the book, “Tender Mercies,” (which immediately evokes the Robert Duvall film), we get the lines:

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.

These lines come in the second half of a poem rich with detailed descriptions of landscape–vibrant images of color, sound, odor–all locked in by this one “moment it was most itself.” Not necessarily beautiful images: there are swamp coolers and sump pumps in this poem as well.

“The moment it was most itself” seems to me to set the tone for this book. The intimate moments–and there are many, as in the poem “Backdrop with Splashes of Cum On It”–do not aspire to the classical sense of beauty. They aspire, instead, to honesty. “Our love was lonely as a handjob,” Powell writes in the aforementioned poem, “and as frequent.” And six lines later, “We lived in an age of adolescence and irony. / Unless I’m thinking of another dude. That happens a lot.”

I’ve also spent some time thinking about the second title of the book, “A Guide for Boys.” Is Powell talking about a guide as in an instruction book, or as a person who leads others down a path? Difficult to say, but I’m reading and rereading these poems with that in mind. And I’m looking forward to talking to the rest of the group about them.

It’s not too late to join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club and get in on the discussion of D. A. Powell’s book. Here’s how you do it.

Brian Spears's first collection of poetry, A Witness in Exile, is now available through Louisiana Literature Press, and at his personal website. He is the Poetry Editor for The Rumpus, and teaches poetry at Drake University. More from this author →