Reviews | May 07, 2016
My Pal Keats: Contemporary Poets at Play in the Anthology
The Waste Land and Other Poems by John Beer. Canarium Books, 2010, 128 pp., $14 (paper).
Who Said by Jennifer Michael Hecht. Copper Canyon Press, 2013, 88 pp., $16 (paper).
Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles by Lee Upton. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2015, 100 pp., $15.95 (paper).
gentlessness by Dan Beachy-Quick. Tupelo Press, 2015, 112 pp., $16.95 (paper).
That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Many years ago, to fulfill a class assignment, I memorized Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” in Stephen Mitchell’s translation. I can still conjure the first fourteen lines perfectly and the next eight imperfectly before my memory falls apart, but it is the first line that floats up to whisper through my days. I have often listened to its grave rhythm and almost as often said it to myself as the most inside of jokes. Stuck in traffic that feels like a precursor to hell itself? Boy, is that the deep uncanny mine of souls!This line is the most frequent visitor from the poems of my past, but others pop up too—Frost’s What but design of darkness to appall? Auden’s If it form the one landscape that we the inconstant ones / are consistently homesick for . . . These snatches of poems come not as message or music but something in between. They feel like incantations, a kind of spell the purpose of which feels obscure yet important. My rational mind thinks they serve as antidote to my internet habits. In spite of many well-founded concerns about the persistence of our digital footprints, the online experience feels to me like the opposite of persistence. The pleasure of a well-made sentence still exists online, but the context is so immediate and dissolving that it seems to beggar our ideas about what it means to be well-made.
It is, of course, as old as Plato to worry and complain about the effects of new communication technologies on our mental capacities, so the problems the digital world presents for our attention spans and depth of thought are not worth rehearsing here. Besides, the web has been a boon for recordings of poets’ voices, connecting us to the heard quality of poems that gets lost in books, so maybe we poetry lovers will reap a net gain when it comes to new media. In any event, if you are an interested reader of poetry, there are inevitably some lines that stick for you the way Rilke’s uncanny mine does for me, lines you don’t need Google or Lit Genius to find or explicate.
The four books under review here are, in varied ways, about the pleasure of such echoes and the way poets cherish, cultivate, resist and revise the voices of other writers inside their heads. The poetic sources that recur across these collections include revered writers, the most canonical of the canon—Eliot and Dickinson, for example. Keats is everywhere, an intimate of whoever aspires to write poetry. Poe also pops up more often than one might guess; these poets testify that his rhythms in poetry are idiosyncratic and indelible. Prose writers like Henry James make their presence known as well. Together these recent poets’ responses to their forbears constitute a sampling of influential poets in English, showing both breadth of reading and the limitations of the tradition they inherit. These rewritings of the poetic past are irreverent, but it is significant that they mostly leave intact the sheer whiteness of the “greatest hits” list of poetry in English. Maybe the anthology heavyweights are most in need reinvention.
Of these books, John Beer’s is the most extensively engaged with a single poet and poem. By the audacious act of titling his book The Waste Land and Other Poems, Beer fully commits to his rewriting of a poem some readers might consider sacrosanct. Like Eliot’s poem, Beer’s “The Waste Land” surveys an urban landscape scarred by violence, but rather than international war, the violence is internal, often between citizens and the institutions that should serve them. His homage to Eliot is nervy, often funny, but also reflects a clear devotion to the poem. Like a good cover song, it hews closely enough to the original for readers to appreciate the skill of its imitation but departs enough to keep things interesting. Beer begins with a list of names for “the city I cannot name” and finds his way to an ironic take on Eliot’s iconic first line: “April is the coolest month, which brings / happy policemen the pleasant dreams of spring.”
Readers of Eliot may know that the original title for The Waste Land was “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” a reference to a character in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. Eliot’s title suggests that a single speaker mimics the various voices we encounter in The Waste Land. For Beer, the police (and the stories in the police blotter) are not an opportunity for dramatic reenactment—they are central to the decay spreading across the nameless city, which is and is not Chicago, as Eliot’s city is and is not London. Section III, “Ballad of the Police Department” is a retelling of the Orpheus myth set in the underworld of the North/Clybourn train station. Its rollicking “song of policemen,” composed in rhymed couplets, tells of a mass police action designed to round up unsavory elements (“Each anti-war changer, each car window soaper.”) but which leaves the city feeling empty and bereft.
In addition to questions about power and powerlessness, Beer raises concerns about the role of art in a decaying civilization. He transforms Eliot’s conversation between two women in a bar into a discourse on artistic ambition and its limits—financial realities, the problems of being original—interrupted repeatedly by the call “THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING AT BORDERS. / WE WILL BE CLOSING IN FIFTEEN MINUTES.” In the final section of the poem, “Death to Poetry,” Beer writes of Orpheus wandering through the destruction of the city, but he interrupts this mythic journey with his authorial voice: “And once the poem ended, commentary began.” While Eliot had “fragments” of poetry to shore against ruin, Beer has only “footnotes.” Though his “Waste Land” is far from the dry exercise the word “commentary” calls up, this concern about being simply an addendum or an afterthought to the great voices of the past surfaces throughout the book. “I wanted to say something important,” says the speaker of “Theses on Failure,” “no, something profound—no something by which you might remember me. Why was I unable?”
“The Waste Land” is just the first in a varied and captivating collection of poems, which range in their references from Rilke and Keats to Swift Boat Veterans and the pretzel that felled President Bush the younger. While Eliot is the most obvious influence on this book, Beer notes that Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations guided much of his composition. I felt this philosophical thrust most immediately in the latter part of the book, in poems that analyze how people make use of the inputs of our senses. If this sounds a bit dry, see Beer’s poem on the foundation of the perfume business Lancôme and his parody of celebrity spokesperson culture: “Uma Thurman is a contemporary woman and sole master of her life. / Uma Thurman is about style. / The key to her success? / Her ‘passion for life.’”
Like all the poets I will discuss here, Beer draws on a long list references, and though his poems are also engaged with contemporary politics, he suggests that their engagement with the past might complicate their stance. In the striking poem “John Beer 1969-1969,” the writer, “born dead,” speaks from the grave: “This is not, for example, a political poem, / Because the dead have no politics. They might have / A hunger, but nothing you’ve ever known / Could begin to assuage it.” He draws on a force that encompasses yet supersedes politics, the deep well of human desire.
The way these writers treat allusion suggests that poems are not—or not only—works under study but also songs that accompany our lives, so it makes sense that popular music gets mixed in with their literary references. A line from the Pixies’ “Gigantic” creeps into Beer’s parody of “The Waste Land”; Jennifer Michael Hecht mashes up Dickinson’s “I Measure Every Grief I Meet” with Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” This kind of blending is typical of her method in Who Said. In “Lady Look-Alike Lazarized,” she borrows a title from Plath and a rhythm from Poe to write about a photo of an ancestor: “It was any of many years ago / in this half townhouse, with this tree / that a woman lived whom I don’t know, / in a photo you can see. She baked bread, / ate with two fat men, / and her picture looks much like me.” The influenza epidemic that killed this ancestor comes on with an eeriness that echoes Poe, but the true anxiety of the poem arises from the speaker’s thought that she might have to witness horrors similar to those this woman saw at the beginning of the twentieth century, “because I know more than she / and, even from here, it near blinded me.” Hecht poses the strength of love, “She for her men, I for my / small and tall friends” as a counterforce to these haunting episodes, but she can’t seem to escape the “dark dream” this face, familiar yet strange, inspires.
In the introductory poem, “Key,” Hecht makes more explicit than Beer does the combination of devotion and irreverence that drives the collection. To new readers of poetry, Hecht professes that this work is made by “echo’s stolen golden tongue (my heart)” and to those readers deeply familiar with the poems she plays on, she offers “humbly, a little bit more.” Yet, of “obeying the rules of the dead,” in poetry, she asserts, “you’re right to ask yourself, Who said?” The book’s title is a question about echoes and authenticity. In the middle of these poems, a reader might stop to ask who said “Half in love with easeful Lenny Bruce”? The reader who heard that echo would be thinking of Keats though, of course, Keats said no such thing. In a different vein, Hecht questions articles of poetic faith. The speaker of Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” claims “I have promises to keep”, but Hecht doubts it: “He had no promises to keep, nothing pending.”
In addition to a mix-master, Hecht is a technician of prosody. The forms she inhabits in this book include villanelle, pantoum and sestina. She takes on the challenge of these well-trod patterns with wit and invention. As interested as it is in received form, Hecht’s book is even more deeply infused with wordplay. Sound devices drive the poems on, and sense tags along with them. For example, in “Hard Won,” inspired by Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” she writes, “Passed over / without an honest past, we coast and feign. / Others feint and faint, we can’t get any fainter.” In “Valentine,” “Love is the song of the shovel. / Love shoves.” The punning and homonyms are substantive and funny both. The poem “Backyard Scene, or Fragment of a Vision” rewrites “Kubla Khan”: Coleridge’s phrase about the earth breathing in “fast thick pants” inspires her to these lines: “From this romanticism, with seetheless turmoil ceasing / wearing hot pants and panting hotly for this reason…”
If the force behind Beer’s playfulness is at least in part epistemological (How do we know what we know?), what underlies Hecht’s playfulness is existential dilemma. Why are we born? Why do we keep living? What meaning do we ascribe to life? These questions take one shape in a series of poems about an infant son. Hecht describes a parent feeling what parents feel, the impossible-to-prepare-for newness of love for a child: “So this is the tidal of the babe’s face! / The wave of blood-love ferns its way / under pendulum, behind round clock. Something about you alone / among my made things: you look back. Down / into the river, in love beneath the moon.” The questions appear in another form, and most bluntly, in poems that reject suicide as a possible answer to questions about life and death. Suicide is an issue Hecht has taken up elsewhere, in Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It. Her poems revisit these philosophies in the intimate terms of the lyric. “No Hemlock Rock” begins with the plea “Don’t kill yourself” and ends with the promise, “I won’t either.”
Hecht usually makes note of which poems she is riffing on, but she presents her notes in a cryptogram readers must choose to decipher. For puzzle lovers, this is an added bonus. By contrast, Lee Upton’s Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles contains very minimal notes, leaving the reader to identify those places where she engages with luminaries of English language poetry, from Shakespeare to Gertrude Stein.
Upton’s poems have an unassuming air, perhaps because they tend toward short, irregular lines. They can seem casual, almost flippant, but the conversational tone admits opportunities for sharp observation and insight. Any apparent simplicity to Bottle the Bottles is deceptive; the poems are layered, as the title suggests. Upton surveys mundane scenes and finds apt language and imagery to communicate complex questions, such as how thinking guides action. In describing a man losing control in “Drunk at a Party,” the speaker asks, “What latch keeps a brain / from spinning like a prawn / dropped on a stranger’s parquet?” In “Gorged” she asks, “Weren’t even our first mistakes / copies of their original forms? / Every time I swallow / my philosophy hurts.”
The gustatory nature of these examples is typical of the book. Images of eating and drinking arise over and over. Given their allusive quality, I am tempted to read into this interest in consumption a metaphor for how readers ingest literature, but it is closer to the truth to say that for Upton the need to eat is a drive that creates action. In the case of “Hunger,” she notes that the story of Hansel and Gretel is propelled at every turn by eating, but perhaps any plot is driven by hunger of some kind. Drinking, on the other hand, offers an escape, for better or worse, from the plots pushing us forward. In “Beer” Upton writes, “I am dread’s quencher, / anxiety’s antidote, / guilt’s blotter. / You. You’ve had enough / existence for one day.”
Like the allusions in Beer and Hecht, Upton’s references to famous poems are sometimes iconoclastic. The poem “Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May” begins “Like there’s another choice for ye.” Another poem is titled, “The Liar, Emily Dickinson.” In “The Mermaids Sang to Me,” she imagines an anti-Prufrock who finds at last that the mermaids are “a bunch of bores” who can’t stop committing “the crime of singing so much / about their own lives.”
Upton also composes by sound as much as by sense. In “Pandora,” the speaker looks at her box and wonders about its contents: “What if it is pillars, / golden birds, the mountains, and slow clover and snow cover…” The small modulation of a phrase changes its meaning entirely, and subtle moves like this suggest how delicate language can be as a container for our most crucial ideas and questions.
The most moving of Upton’s poems, and the most central to the book, is “A Terrarium.” In this poem charting a constellation of family deaths, the references to other poets largely fall away. In fact, Upton brings up Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” only to mention her failure to finish a poem about her mother called “The Belle Dame Sans Her Tea.” The mother and sister are the most immediate deaths in the poem, and the most painful to mourn. Their losses come so close together that they get mixed up in the speaker’s mind: “It was my sister, not my mother, lifting a cup / which made us believe she was recovering.” The poem also recognizes previous deaths and near-tragedies, like the baby and mother who survived even after the doctor insisted the only way to save the mother’s life would be to take the baby out “leg by leg, arm by arm.” Once the accounting begins, “The deaths spread forward and back. / My mother’s sister’s first child: polio. / Her great uncle who kept the eye of her doll / when his sister Anna died— / twelve years and two days old: typhoid.”
The terrarium in which the poem preserves the beloved sister is a memory of two young girls standing in the snow together: “We are laughing so hard the snow is landing in our mouths.” Upton returns to this scene several times, a moment of connection frozen by making it into an object d’art. When the poem seems to veer off at the end, describing a gift from Elizabeth Bishop to Flannery O’Connor, a “bottled cross . . . made up of an altar, / a ladder, / and a cross carved from wood,” we see the present from one writer to the other as another terrarium. Though the body of Christ is missing from this bottled cross, the display is another way of understanding “The body that bottles agony.”
In gentlessness, Dan Beachy-Quick takes on a project that is, in its scope, the most ambitious of the books under review here. gentlessness offers an abridged and idiosyncratic history of poetry, written as poetry and organized into sections like “heroisms,” “puritanisms,” “romanticisms,” and “modernisms.” These sections allude to famous poems that characterize the time periods, but their greater ambition is to reflect the common modes and obsessions of poems in each era. In “heroisms,” the hero returns from his journeys, “His penis grown so long he loops it through / His belt-loops to keep his pants up / And still its tip drags in the dust behind him // Drawing a line pointing backward / To everything the hero’s entered.” Like the other writers I have discussed, Beachy-Quick makes casual reference to earlier poets in a way that only one immersed in the tradition can do, but he does more than allude to beloved poems; he analyzes the deep structures that shape them.
Beachy-Quick’s archetypes of puritanism, romanticism and other eras can’t help but contain some fragments of the monumental poems that inform them. However, his aims seem more programmatic and less playful than poets like Beer, Hecht and Upton. In addition to echoing key words and phrases such as Pound’s “apparition” and “wet black bough,” he also, for example, highlights the modernist interest in portraiture and offers an interpretation of what that genre means to poets like Eliot and Pound, namely that it allows them to explore the tension between surface and depth we feel when we look at other people. In “Portrait (After Arcimboldo)” he writes, “I want to say the face is a thinking thing,” but it is not the face we see that constitutes a person: “The voice inside the mask but it’s the mask that sings . . .”
In a work with these aims, it’s hard not to see Beachy-Quick’s every invention as a potential metaphor for the book itself. The most persuasive candidate comes in “The New World,” which describes a man endlessly reading the same book. His knowledge of this book is such that he can perform an impressive trick: “Give him a push-pin and he can push it in . . . And by memory the nameless man recites / Each letter the pin he pushed pushed through.” This act not only testifies to his memory of the book; it also suggests the connections that arise when you cut through the text in a new direction.
One of the happy curiosities of this collection is that the influence of great poems seems to override Beachy-Quick’s rough division of the book into time periods. Keats’s personification of autumn sitting on a granary floor appears in “modernisms,” and a line from “Endymion” gives rise to a section of “puritanisms.” William Carlos Williams’ “so much depends” crops up in “overtakelessness,” and the very Dickinsonian word “Circumference” arises twice in “heroisms.” The book seems to be haunted, across several sections, by the image of a flower incidentally cut down by a passing plow. The image comes from Catullus 11, a poem in which the speaker curses his lover, who he imagines moving on to bed 300 men at once. The profane and nasty curse gives way to a last image full of pathos, in which love is the flower and the woman’s forsaking is the plow.
In “overtakelessness” Beachy-Quick explains the strange title of the collection: “gentlessness is a word / to describe that / which must deny itself / to exist. // It is a word I made up / to describe / to myself / myself and other fields.” This invented word reminds readers that no matter how prevalent and persuasive his influences, the poet is always making his way as he goes. It also suggests that poems contain their own disintegration.
These books are about the pleasures of knowing and remembering. Beer parodies the overload of our era in “Total Information Awareness,” mixing up political analysis from Thomas Friedman with gossip magazine reports about the coming and going of a hotel heiress and her boyfriend. Readers of poetry, however, cultivate a singular awareness. Screen-mediated information can feel like it is all surface—I am skimming over it, it is skimming over me, mind and matter barely touching. Even so, even now, the lines of poems we love nestle deep in the uncanny mines of our souls, valuable elements we can unearth again and again.
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