“Morels,” the opening poem in Nashville poet Dan Powers’ new book Mighty Good Land, declares a rural Southern ethos in its first stanza: “Two years ago, my friend Vantrease / said farming would not pay his bills. / He sold his milk cows and leased / the Sears catalog store in town.” Somehow the reader is instantly certain that any man christened “Vantrease” cannot be a New Englander or Midwesterner. And rhyming the name with “leased” does more than just convey the facts about Vantrease’s career change. The word calls forth associations with tenant farming and the financial juggling acts of poverty. These four lines evoke an image of the Southern yeoman in all his cultural oddity and economic tenuousness. The poem, like most of Powers’ verse, is deeply personal, but has a rock-solid sense of place and cultural milieu. No doubt these qualities influenced its inclusion in the 1996 PBS special, The United States of Poetry, where it shared airtime with poems by figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Joseph Brodsky.
Born in Madison, Tenn., when it was still a semi-rural town (the phrase “mighty good land” is a reference to Neely’s Bend before it sprouted subdivisions), Dan Powers took up writing poetry in a serious way at age 37, after he was established in a career as a TVA engineer. He has been a fixture on the local poetry scene for 20 years, appearing regularly at open-mic readings and editing an anthology of poems presented at Windows on the Cumberland. Now retired, he lives in Buffalo Valley, which he describes as a “holdover agrarian community” about 70 miles east of Nashville. He still appears occasionally at readings around town, most recently at the open mic hosted by Jamie Givens at 12 South’s Frothy Monkey.
Mighty Good Land is the second title issued by Nashville’s Black Greyhound Media, a press founded in 2000 by another local poet, Brian Daly. A New England transplant who, like Powers, has been a regular on local open-mic stages, Daly brings a gonzo aesthetic to a press dedicated to condemning all that is effete and precious in contemporary poetry. (BGM’s first book was Daly’s own Lesbian Trapped in a Man’s Body, and the slogan “poetry not for pussies” appears on all BGM press materials.) Powers works in an altogether more conventional and more serious vein than Daly, but in its earthiness (and unapologetically masculine point of view), his poetry is not out of step with BGM’s literary mission.
Most of the poems in Mighty Good Land take the form of personal narratives, employing concrete images of life as it is lived. They cover a range of experience—teen lust, grief for a brother lost in Vietnam, aging parents, the pressures and anxieties of fatherhood—but they are all tied together by a recurring echo of longing for an agrarian past. Powers’ parents came from farm families and were forced into wage earning by economic pressures. As a poet, his core theme is the resulting sense of loss and dislocation, and the way this trauma is passed from parent to child. In “Good Earth and Poor,” a father teaches his children what amounts to mythic lore of a farming life he cannot provide them:
One spring he built a small wooden boatand took us fishing in the bend of the river,taught us how to hold the hook in our minds,and floating in the current,we watched the shoreline passand learned discernment, good earth from poor.
A farmer’s relationship to the land is paradoxical. He must love the earth and respect its cycles even as he seeks to exploit it. All his work amounts to a bet that Mother Nature will pay out before she storms off in disregard, taking his money with her. It makes for a persistent attitude of hopeful resignation, marked by an odd mix of sentiment, superstition and suspicion about the natural world. This sweet/sour ambivalence is a chief feature of Southern regional culture, because there are still so many Southerners who are not many generations removed from rural life.
Mighty Good Land sits squarely in this cultural niche. The poems assume a love of land and family, even to the point of fetishizing them; yet the narratives suggest that the sacred is inseparable from suffering. Family relationships are painful, and even natural beauty is suffused with cruelty, as in these lines from “Drought”:
Tonight in the heat that smothers uswe’ll lie awake in our bed,try to keep our bodies from touching,and listen as the fingernail moonfalls on our farm to rattle and scratchthrough the bones of our fields.
Much of Powers’ verse has a straightforward, literal tone, more heartfelt than ironic. He writes from a moral certainty that is not the norm among contemporary poets, and readers who lose patience with navel-gazing will find it refreshing. But even those not sympathetic to Powers’ Red State aesthetic can appreciate the tragic dimension of these poems, with their celebration of ideals for which there is literally no longer a place. As Powers has said when describing his current home, “Buffalo Valley is one of the last outposts of a world being consumed by technology, industry and upscale housing…. Farms are being sold piecemeal. It’s important to me to write about it before it’s gone.”