on Theories of Falling, poems by Sandra Beasley (New Issues Poetry & Prose)
“What we call Life is the scattered attempt to get even with those who ‘misunderstood’ us in childhood,” scribbled Ned Rorem in his diary, published as An Absolute Gift. “What we call Art is the disciplined attempt to get even.” This hyperbolic zinger seems especially to pertain to young poets, who having barely put any distance between themselves and their proto-antagonists, must sort their ways between waywardness and discipline, prodigality and thinness of material, hesitation and raw display.
Louise Bogan, who knew something about tough adolescence, said, “The poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem.” The young poet’s closeness in time to the “outright narrative” of her adolescence makes that “repression” both more necessary and tricky. How much has she absorbed and re-processed? She pressures herself to prove her legitimacy, perhaps even her superiority (she feels more deeply, sees more keenly). She simply hasn’t had enough time to experiment at length with imaginative descriptions of reality in which what she knows becomes related to the larger thing she doesn’t know. She hasn’t yet taken on the poet’s traditional, broader responsibility for an integrated expression of self, society and cosmos. In fact, it comes as a relief when the young poet doesn’t strain for some unique vocal signature, since space is allotted for sounds-in-process that may be classical, or forced by circumstance, or put in the mouths of strangers, or seep from a more private self. But when the essential distancing resources seem inconstant or absent, the slack is all too easily taken up by heightening the drama.
Getting even may not be quite as universal a creative impulse as Rorem says, but coming up even – hoisting up to the reader’s eye level an imaginative vision of what’s really happening – requires an equal contention. Speaking pointedly in this mode is the young poet’s satisfying prerogative. Displaying a large, feisty ambition as well as the talent to realize it, Sandra Beasley’s first book, Theories of Falling, reminds me of something Robert Frost wrote to B.F. Skinner in 1926: “All that makes a writer is the ability to write strongly and directly from some unaccountable and almost invincible personal prejudice.” Beasley is so equipped. Her persona cultivates a precocious apprehension of the nature of intimacy. She’s the one who cuts through conventional perception to reveal the deeper dynamic. But her prejudice saves her from sententiousness. Here’s the book’s opening poem:
Little bastards of vine.
Little demons by the pint.
Red eggs that never hatch,
just collapse and rot. When
My mom told me to gather
their grubby bodies
into my skirt, I’d cry. You
and your father, she’d chide –
the way, each time I kicked
and wailed against sailing,
my dad shook his head, said
You and your mother.
Now, a city girl, I ease one
loose from its siblings,
from its clear plastic coffin,
place it on my tongue.
Just to try. The smooth
surface resists, resists,
and erupts in my mouth:
seeds, juice, acid, blood
of a perfect household.
The way, when I finally
went sailing, my stomach
was rocked from inside
out. Little boat, big sea.
Handful of skinned sunsets.
Those loaded words – “bastards,” “coffin,” “erupts,” “blood” – are used with the glee of having come up even with the forces that got an early jump on her psyche: love a tomato, vomit over the gunwhale. This is speech that doesn’t care if its desire to make an impression is obvious. Mom, Dad, little boat, big sea: there’s the sense that the speaker, “now, a city girl,” is just recently unmoored from her origins. The book’s three sections have a mania for orderliness: family, lovelife, public life. It’s as if a proof is being worked out, a form to validate an insouciant knowledge. Creating order out of the corporeal elements of the world – approaching, meshing, clashing, departing – an order arranged provisionally during the action of the poem, is Beasley’s main impulse. She ends the second section with this splendid poem:
Who doesn’t love a small kingdom?
The lion has her pride, the mole
her starnosed tunnel. My mother
grows three kinds of basil, and I
collect movie stubs in a box marked
Memories. A whelk knows only
the golden ratio of its chambers,
its figure 8 of nerve endings –
drawbridge, mantle, moat ocean.
Washed up, its perfect enclosure
reeks of salt. I sort by color.
I file by coast. I know a man
by the cans and coffee cups
he leaves in his car, the thick
puppy mess of him. Who doesn’t
dream of cleaning out her small
kingdom, tilting the whole stable
on its Augean edge? Who doesn’t love
the disaster of her own making?
Boy, give up your slow reach
before I try to fix your life, before
I let your shell jangle to dust
in my pocket, before I burn
your operculum gate for incense.
I don’t know how to keep you
without killing you a little – the way
my mother pares down the rosemary
each year to keep its flavor bright.
The way we must make all our loves smaller
before they can enter our kingdom.
Those final two lines, their sense-vectors pointing fingers in several directions, take me back to Bogan’s point about absorbing and transforming the “outright narrative.” The benign aggression between girl-narrator and boy-shell is built into their relationship, just as it permeates the familial childhood scenes in the book’s first section. This preference for contentiousness is part of Beasley’s stubborn, personal prejudice. There’s a sort of orphic hectoring in many of her poems, though usually she modulates the vocal pattern to allow for surprise. Beasley’s love of the chant – in “Of Daughters,” “Of Mothers,” “The Field,” and other poems -- offers the obvious benefit of rhythmic conveyance – but the effect is sometimes undercut by revealing the rhetorical pattern too soon and in too many poems. So oddly, though she generates inventive significance in her phrases, the whole may come off as strident. My discovery of the poem becomes over-determined – as if I were her puppy and she is trying to fix my life. In these moments, her speaker seems more interested in asserting the nature of her own profile.
The stream of things-going-awry begins in the childhood poems – but the emphasis in Theories of Falling reverts back to self-definition and differentiation. In “The Green Flash,” the speaker recalls her girlish skepticism of any and every concept addressed to her: “I always flipped to the last page first.” And later, “I studied Houdini’s act / easing chains, slipping knots, / never revealing the secret of his escape. How could he // resist? I liked the trick, but what I loved was the reveal.” Perhaps this points to Beasley’s generosity throughout Theories of Falling: for all her pride in uncovering the truth in events, she almost always gives us the reveal – her exuberant youth testing its credibility, trying out stylized postures, pushing the edge of the persona.
Watch how Beasley “represses” memory into the beautifully suggestive poem “The Story of My Family”:
You’re a tooth I tongue and tongue,
tasting blood as you loosen,
testing the sweet root of the hole.
The shudder and catch, the god spit,
and though I dip the bone in gold,
no lover wants to wear the necklace
of you. Carry you in my pocket
and you smolder. Sow the field with you
and you sprout in hours, white tips
thrusting through the meal soil –
one book says a bean pushes its husk
away, hauling the used body to the surface;
one book says the army is born whole,
fingers scratching toward any light.
So much converges here: the childhood memory, the family regarded as something fallen from her own body, the persistence of familial power – and the imagery is surprising, unaccountable in its connections and scope. The strangeness is authentic and captivating. Beasley can also tell a good story, as in “Holiday,” which perhaps owes a debt to those movies about family get-togethers that go bad. She begins, “The tree is a spruce monster, refusing to fit -- / so my father decapitates it with a handsaw.” At the table, there’s “always a knife sharp enough / to cut the roast of our hearts.” That last line is pretty awful. But she comes right back with, “A lover said I’ve never / seen people trying so hard to make each other happy / manage to make each other so miserable. Clearly, I said, / you do not understand the true meaning of Christmas.
In the book’s second section, Beasley’s attention is focused on boyfriends and sex. She begins with “You”: “You are the whole building on fire. / You are the voice of sirens. You are / the dumb crowd milling, the capture / of Weegee’s lens. You are flames / licking on the escape. You’re the hovering / of a mother at the cliff of her window ledge. / You are the choice to drop her baby.” Beginning the section with a poem addressing a transpersonal “you” is a good move, opening the lens beyond the girl-boy poems to follow. The urge for self-definition continues. In “Fireproof,” “I am a basement of dumb boiler parts, sometimes mistaken for a plan.” In “In Which I Fail, Again, to be Vestal”: “I am the dog at her front gate // whining after the gutter fight.” In “The Field,” the speaker addreses the lover: “I am crowded with you, // you who sleeps on the floor, puts ketchup on strange things.” He is a boyish oddity, she heads out to the field. “Goldenrod flirts along the edges, // monarchs lay their burning wings down: these things / would not impress you.” He’s a dullard? Then, in the final lines, she defines herself by making a claim: “The thorns have noticed -- / now there is earnest biting, now there will be scratch marks, // now my feet will end up weeping again. I can’t help it, you / know me – this is the only way I ever cross a field.” (The repetition of “now” is a Beasleyism. I bet she’ll soon grow out of this tic, which shows up too often.) The glamming-up of the sex-as-violence in “The Fish” sounds like she’s been admiring Richard Siken’s poems: “Always, the body just an alias for something more urgent -- / one morning sex was a fist pounding on the submarine hatch; / once you reported our fuck rescued a dozen Croatian children. / Once you tried to call it making love and I said I don’t think / that counts, what we do.” Only she sees the raw truth.
The third section finds Beasley extending her sense of human violations into the public sphere. “The Angels” is one of the best of this group, an ingenious catalog of culture as witnessed by celestial visitors. The critique is heavily implied, but the details are entertaining. “Heretic” is comprised of a list of demands: “Offer me your prayers, those white / solvents. Offer me communion, little slips // of dynamite.” And then comes the wonderful “Drink,” another of those poems where Beasley gives up the repetitive chain-imagery of chanting and just dives in. The poem begins: “As slaughter holds a lamb, / as the lamb holds blood, / as blood holds iron, / as iron holds rust, / so this meaty corrosion / is held in your mouth / to be swallowed.” This is a poem about drinking scotch, the lover extolling the virtues of peat and oak. Its worshipful, tipsy tone deepens the book’s take on intimacy.
Are there more commodity-minded first books now appearing with an orientation to the media culture’s fixation on adolescence? “Over and over the talented or promising new poets of recent years organize their effects and their tones around some sort of adolescent persona, some avowedly immature voice, whose unpredictable language gives the poems their characteristic, contemporary effects … Such effects can dominate a volume,” writes Steve Burt in The Forms of Youth (2007, Columbia). Arielle Greenberg came up with the phrase “Gurlesque” to describe an adolescent style used by poets like Brenda Shaughnessey employing “a postmodern sense of humor, invoking brand names and cultural ephemera … a tone that is tender and emotionally vulnerable but also tough, with a frank attitude towards sexuality … in poems ‘dolled up’ in a specifically girly kitsch.” Of course, the persistence of the postmodern surface in poetry, the intentionally fake veneer of perception, also includes many other styles of speaking, mostly willfully vague.
But Sandra Beasley leaves no question as to how we’re to take her, and is far more accomplished than those merely satisfied to affect a jaunty surface. She is in the business of creating a common language of feeling, just as our most valuable poets have always done. The nine-part poem “Allergy Girl,” which ends the first section, presents a girlish character who is vulnerable to the most commonly delightful treats: the birthday cake mom bakes to take to school, the residue of allergens on her lover’s fingers. In Theories of Falling, what Beasley can’t take into herself (or what she takes in, and then dismisses, walking out into the field) is the “other” – but she refuses either to make the other her enemy, or to play on its emotions in order to restore some ruined past pleasure. We, her audience, are very much a part of this other. The way Beasley handles this dynamic is her own genius. It sets her apart as a poet to watch for.
[Published April 15, 2008, 64 pp., paperback)