Joshua Beckman's SHAKE
The fourth poetry collection by New York poet Joshua Beckman, after Things Are Happening (Philadelphia PA: American Poetry Review, 1998), Something I Expected To Be Different (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2001) and Your Time Has Come (New York NY: Verse Press, 2004), as well as two collaborations with poet Matthew Rohrer, is SHAKE (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2006). Working the long poem/sequence through three sections—SHAKE, LET THE PEOPLE DIE & NEW HAVEN—Beckman's poems work in a cumulative effect, building and repeating until a breaking point, where the poem has nowhere left to go but further. Beckman seems to favour poems that exist in small moments that build and accumulate, reworking and working the same phrases over in the same small spaces.
I saw them all walk through
with a promise pinned to each sprouted smile.
The saw, the guitar, the sweet blue pulse
of every eye. This is how
people are said to act,
but get yourself together
and I'll start in on another.
Did you ever see the lovely daisy
of your chest held to?
That's a crowd.
That's a crowd of the sincere and wantful.
That's the sound of a pink sweater
hitting the floor.
Always we will want
but next year I will take
your pretty palm into my pants
and the Flanagan Family Singers
will pipe up with their only aloofness
and we will sing along
we will take each single sound
and leave it inside you
for there you are, afraid again
falling over every memory on your way
back from the bathroom.
Ugly people cover themselves in smoke,
and I'm one of them.
Countries fill their countrysides
with sheep so that their countrysides
can be nibbled upon – everyone's trying
But you're at home jumpstarting each pore that opens.
Did I ever tell you how, when I was young,
I was the biggest doer,
all fathom and future,
pretending to understand?
Well, that's who you're sleeping with darling,
that's who stares into your eyes waiting again tonight.
Soon a place.
Soon a little open place.
And if you want to I want to too.
Swing over the sleeping earth
and fuck at will. ("SHAKE," pp 12-3)
His accumulation lyrics remind me somewhat of the American poet Joshua Marie Wilkinson [see my note on him here], but without the real lyrical thrust of Wilkinson, writing a more matter-of-fact line of emotional facts, or even Toronto poet Jay MillAr's chapbook accumulation sonnets [see my review of such here], which seemed less accumulative than the writing in these poems. The tightest and most effective of the three sections is the second section, "LET THE PEOPLE DIE," that begins:
A rake in the garden. The garden
is rotting. The house and the yard.
The garden is rotting. A rake in
the pond. The pond and the swimming.
The house and the yard, the garden
and pond. Outside the neighbors
a rake in the garden. The rake,
it is rotting. The yard and the pond.
Out past the neighbors a woman is
walking. Out past the neighbors
a rake in the yard. The pond and
the swimming. The woman is walking.
The rake in the garden. The rake
in the yard. Out past the neighbors. (p 31)
And moves further, to pieces such as:
We have us here again in no good sort. The sky
and the mythic make a horrible cocktail.
The bartender hates me. She hates the dark,
the quiet, the sordid lounge. I joined
this club to learn about billiards, and that's it.
Crisscrossing the hall like a horrible bartender
looking for someone to pill a drink on.
The sly anecdote versus the mythic anecdote.
We have us here again in no good sort.
A quiet descends on the sordid lounge.
I joined this club to learn about billiards
and that's it. The cue ball, descendant of a
mythic cue ball. The eight ball, descendant of a
sly eight ball. We have us here again in no good sort. (p 49)
This is where the accumulation really sings, writing fiercely tight lyric that astound for how much they bring through the process of building and repeating (he should really get his hands on the work of Toronto writer Margaret Christakos, who also favours reworking her own texts).
Named after the town in Connecticut where he was born, the third section, NEW HAVEN, works structurally more in keeping with the first section of the collection, almost as bookends around a tight middle, but writing with more regret, writing:
Now begins our immaculate summer
or the clutter of what tunes itself near the truth
or they have made glasses just for me (gloomy things)
or her hand there on my chest (the street of champions)
or the chorus of taught and clumsy common quality
we have made ourselves unable to share. See, Vivian,
the whole world's gone typical, crying,
the bed's now set, the sun the same (snow) and you
kept painting (so rather studious) and for me,
remember, everything's fine, I think of her
universal and divine. She has a patio too, proud,
and in stillness one beautiful thing is brought forward
after another, and refused. Leisurely and pleased
I go. To collect of things is all I ever know.
What all three sections have in common is that they all seem to move into a crescendo that by the end, becomes more and less, and muted, instead of the expected explosion; I would very much like to get my hands on some more of Joshua Beckman's poetry, to see what else he has done, what else he is capable of, and just where it is he is going. Currently on the infamous "poetry bus," working fifty readings in fifty days across the United States and Canada (they came through Ottawa a few days ago), check out their website to find out where he might be by now.