Saturday, September 12, 2009

Shaindel Beers' "A Brief History of Time"

Part Bukowski, part Kim Addonizio, part Lorca, with a seasoning of Emily Dickinson, Shaindel Beers' poems in A Brief History of Time resist being captured and placed in the standard cages of critical theory the way a giraffe can at times see its captors approaching and gracefully gallop away, or at times deliver a kick strong enough (as Beers tells us in "My Love, A Partial Explanation"), to "decapitate a lion with a single kick if it threatens her calf." The giraffe, in fact, is an excellent metaphor for Beers' body of work in this, her first book: the poems are fully grounded in primal imagery, sometimes camouflaged in the midst of the growing canon of smart barroom confessional ballads, and always standing tall above the dry savanna of mediocrity, reaching for, and almost always grasping, the choicest fruit in the topmost branches of poetry that the academy has to offer.

Beers offers us a mottled vision of human existence in the same way her poem, "Body Shop," serves up its life-embattled body parts: "fifteen pounds of fat," "the pale blue moons/from under [her] eyes," "the tooth chipped on the roller coaster," "the cyst from [her] imperfect hand," "the removed right breast--it has a birthmark and is smaller," by "turn[ing] the rest...inside out and/serv[ing] it up/all raspberry silk on a silver platter." And in consuming her words, we receive a deeper vision of our own existence, and even come to love (others yes, but mostly ourselves), without having the pressure of doing even that perfectly.

The struggle between the inherited love ideal and the growing edge of the actual has not been written any better to this reader's ear and heart than in "Rebuttal Evidence." "I've been loving in my own way all along," the poet begins in her defense of an evolving ability to negotiate through the roaring river of relationships with its unexpected turns and deadly rapids. In the second stanza, the poem fully engages the reader by turning into both an outer and inner dialogue:

"If I can't love, as you say, then why do I sometimes pick up the phone or hear
the creak of a door and think It's him?
That's different, you might say,
and maybe you'd be right because the dead can't hurt us
and we certainly can't hurt them, so maybe they are easier to love,
at least for me. Maybe this is my abstract way of loving,
which I didn't ask for, but which seems to have always been my way--
that existential struggle between the self and other--
the way I never see where I end and begin in relation to the world,
which somehow always seems to puzzle or offend."

With poignant vignettes, Beers fleshes out this ligature that exists between us all in the remainder of the poem--a corpus of shared abandonment--so that we are all united by our aloneness, bringing to mind a poem entitled "Company," by Suzanne Buffam:

"There is nothing to turn to.

There is an opening.

Beauty inquires within.

How long have you lived here?

Are you happy?

You answer each question

by repeating it, until its edges loosen.

A man walks by with a small dog wearing a sweater.

You are both more and less

alone than you thought."

There is not a poem in A Brief History of Time that does not resonate to and amplify this theme of a common existential dissonance. And there is not a poem unworthy of close examination and repeated readings. Listen to these lines from Beers' liturgical-like ars poetica, "I Give You Words:"

"Because the body is so ephemeral and corrupt,
what is beautiful today may not be so ten years hence,
I give you words."

"Because my thoughts are strange and dreamlike
and not to be trusted to icon or art,
I put them into words for you."

"Sometimes there are no words,
and I am tempted to make up new ones,
but what could new words do that others
in their lives of thousands of years could not accomplish?"

"So I try to use old words, inherited from generation
after generation, and try to make them say new things
as if there was never love before us
on this earth, as if every day we're not drinking
and breathing the molecules of long-dead lovers
who thought they, too, had invented love,
who felt the same tensions and betrayals
and tried to use old words to describe these hopes
and glories of the flesh and mind, and failed
as I have, to say the thing anew."

Reading A Brief History of Time will not necessarily be an easy read--not because the poems in it are not accessible, but because it touches the depths inside ourselves we need to access in order to change. Regardless of our response to the words, they do say things anew. And in this time, that is something very old--as old as poetry itself.