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… is UD‘s category for the terrific poetry of D.A. Powell. (Read earlier UD takes on Powell here and here.) UD and her friend D (also a poet) are excited that Powell has won this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. Powell shares Charles Wright’s long sly metaphysical line, but Powell’s voice is broken down, debilitated, old before its time, and quite pissed off. Powell’s a little like Richard in that Joni Mitchell songcynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe – only he has somehow surgically removed the boredom from this cliched body. These dark cafe days, sings Mitchell, and that’s a lot of Powell’s poetry — dark, post-AIDS, cafe days… The rage of the young romantic suddenly dragged by disease into dying.

Here’s the title poem of the book for which he won the award.

Useless Landscape

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.

Nothing grows in this alkaline potter’s field; the poet’s eye ranges, with acidic exactitude, over the useless landscape of himself. All diseased, the earth here ends by taking the shape of a tumorous tree burl which seizes the speaker in its arms and spins him into a death dance. But before that sudden final descent, the poem’s all been variations on the same thing – the earth dessicated, deformed, chemically fouled, death-bearing. The genius of Powell allows a sick particular self to infiltrate these earthy lines; the clearing, for instance —

its little clearing edged with twigs,
and posted against trespass. Though finite, its fence is endless.

This is the specific private space of the speaker’s own demise, his certain end (finite) infinitely closed off, as experience, from anything he could share. Dying, the best he can hope for now is a paltry

shelf life and sorry reconstitution

which is to say no life at all, closeted away, only half-mended.

There’s no escape, in this landscape, from death — If you’re lucky enough to flee the fumes of the crop-duster, you’ll find yourself

between the lime-sulphured rows

– that white graveyard generating only lifeless sticks and clods for harvest.

Dopplers and squeezeboxes remind us we’re in the very immediate present, though gallows and millets and clods and conversations with devilish (sulphurous) death offer a grotesque medievalism for counterpoint, and for a reminder that nothing in the way of suffering and treachery changes. Squeezebox – again the brilliance of Powell – at this point in the poem seems a medieval word for grave, no? Dark little buried thing just big enough for the shrunken body of the sick man. Rattle of bones, rattle of dice and spoons – no one does associational thinking as well as Powell, no one so well conveys with this sequential array the movement of the bitter and sorrowing mind.

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