Mulberries, Names and Common Words
Mulberry, Dan Beachy-Quick [Tupelo Press, ISBN 1932195246, 62pp]
Name Withheld, Lisa Sewell [Four Way Books, ISBN 1884800688, 74pp]
For Love of
[Louisiana State University Press,
Three new American editions here, each definitely worth reading for
very different reasons.
Dan Beachy-Quick's Mulberry is
a beautifully produced volume of poems, firmly in a lyric tradition, yet very
much in the 'linguistically innovative' field. This is finely wrought,
meditative stuff, continually surprising, beautifully constructed. With its
repetitive central metaphors of 'coils of clay in a pot / threads of silk in
a silkworm cocoon / fingerprints / whorls', the language is aptly chosen,
progresses around itself, developing, revisiting, with a charming spiral
syntax and spatial arrangement on the page
birch trees by the lantern bared,
pulled off at night
night .... Do you hear?
The deer wander
hands, glean fallen
Seed at hand,
bed down in fallen
grass. Those green discs
their night are their eyes
'Record no oiled tongue...')
This is poetry abounding in musical and rhetorical devices, repetition with
variation, and insistent rhythms, images and ideas. Whilst natural ecology,
relationships and a certain spirituality are firmly part of the subject
matter, so are bigger concerns: universal/cosmic themes, history, and that
old 'language' chestnut (I start to lose it with Beachy-Quick a little there,
but... there you go, I'm just too much in the world for the continual referring back to language).
Better for me are the excellent poems where the concerns of words are
embedded in the realia of the
world, such as 'We'll walk toward the thought':
toward the thought
of the lime-tree
lane, the morning sun
tense, logic my lament
the nerve. A day
its nigh-edged skirt
box-spring of our bed,
love the larch needle
window when wind blows
etches - Do you
Hear? - and echo of pen on page
Writes a moan
our murmur in ice
on glass, light wakes -
that through desire is seen.
Lots of echoes and themes from other poems within the book here. And a
singular music, unusual syntax, and great freshness of spirit. Thoroughly
Also thoroughly recommended, but utterly different in style and
intent, are Steve Scafidi's poems in For Love of Common Words. Another beautifully produced volume, with lots
of pleasures, great humour, and a lightly-worn philosophic depth that had me
wanting for more of the author's humanity and wisdom. This work is spiritual
in intent, but funny with it, and mostly working through another form of
spiralling syntax (tho different from Beachy-Quick's) - the single,
breathless sentence. The tone is conversational for the most part, but
peppered with lovely rhythms, strong images, and inventively constructed
ideas about 'the big stuff' of Life-Death-and-Everything. 'The Boast'
exemplifies many of these qualities:
I am so
good-looking even the angel of death
follows me around step-stepping quiet
wherever I go
and I know it
is only a matter of time until
gravity takes over the business of being
and a worm wakes
bruised humus of my brain and the earth
turns the same as the moment before
and the spirit - if that word
properly describes what will lift out of
new husk -
will lift and
lift up as now the drifting
buzzards of my region lift on invisible
that come by
everyday at about tree level
and sway through the twiggy impossible
as if some
sublime proof of forever is going on
and my labyrinthine sad grammar reflects
as I try to
describe the things of the world
accurately with a language that overpours
my sense of
(from 'The Boast')
Touche. Brilliant stuff this. And in many of the other poems too: 'After
Homer's Catalog of Ships', a fantastic list poem; the surreal 'The Egg
Suckers' and 'The Boy Inside the Pumpkin'; the quiet lyricism of 'Pieta',
counterpointed by the baroque audaciousness of 'if I am lucky enough to sweep
the bright threshold of hell'. This is a spiritual and spirited imagination
going full-tilt at the rhythmic, musical, image-laden business of poetry;
life, death, sex and 'the raw luminousness of the naked body' fully
Scafidi also challenges his reader with a complex 'anti death-penalty' poem
in 'On the Death of Karla Faye Tucker', a form of inverted eulogy that
subverts the common words of 'that common murderous bitch' and supplants them
onto state violence. It's a moving and expertly conducted manoeuvre. If death
features strongly in many of the poems, not least the ironic 'conversation
with 'My Friend Todd Hardy Who Says We Die and That's It', then praise of
birth also features here. 'Witness to the Work' is a beautiful elegy to the
poet's wife in childbirth, that begins in knockabout humour:
If I could
knock a house down with my crotch or pull a train
cross country with a little string tied to my cock well then
that would be
something. Not much, but at least something.
develops through beautiful elegy:
pushes that baby out of her and the baby finally
says OK and galumph, just like that, this lump of breath
the world and is lifted to her mother's breast.
And she is
crying and people are snipping and cutting, saying
Oh isn't she, isn't she and the room is spinning hard
spinning spins the earth and the earth spins faster.
and which ends with a spiritual form of knowledge that only being can produce
(you see, Kant, ontology does come before epistemology):
And I always
thought that life was like a blue donkey
named Disaster that we ride to death and whisper to.
Now I know.
It is this bloody holy work that mothers do.
This is one of the most fantastic poems I've read in a long while, and is
complemented by others in the collection that wear their wisdom and humanity
unashamedly on their sleeve, but treat of them in a new, individual manner.
There are lots of poems of direct address here: elegies, praise poems, odes,
poems dedicated to friends, family members, passing characters, invented
people. 'To A Girl on A Broken Porch' - in which a father talks to a teenage
daughter in depression, which ends:
So let this
thing sweep through you slowly.
It affirms and persists.
It hurts like a motherfucker.
I don't know
how else to do this. Who does?
We are all making it up as we go.
Whatever it is let it sweep through you. Slow.
and 'To My Infant Child on a Winter Night', being exemplary of their kind. I
realise I'm eulogising a book of eulogies - but this one really is superb.
Lisa Sewell's Name Wihheld is
also fascinating work. Again deeply humane, and feminist; challenging and
imaginatively inventive. Sewell has invented all kinds of form for herself
here, with many of the poems collaging lines from other writers; or
genealogical facts. There are scientific registers and languages, mixed with
journalistic events that are re-cast through the poetic lens. 'Ghazal for the
First Day of Spring' is based upon the reports and diary entries of peace
workers living in Iraq during the Spring of 2003. Here lies the overt
political poem, with an inventive slant. We also find a feminist slant in a
poem that collages lines from Anne Boleyn before her husband whipped off her
head. 'Masters of Fate' is composed entirely of statements made by witnesses,
news commentators and local and national government officials on the day of
Timothe McVeigh's execution. 'Cento: Last Words' compiles the final
statements of many different people who have been executed. You can see in
these few examples the recurring themes of the book, and the fascination with
the processes of writing. I very much enjoyed this book for its energy, its
commitment and its individual take on the imaginative responsibilities of the
writer. For that I can thoroughly recommend it again. Perhaps the only thing
that bothered me about it was that so many of the poems rely on 'tricks' like these to form
themselves in the reader's mind. To make a political point powerful, playful and poetic is no mean feat.
© Andy Brown