back toJacket2
   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

Tim Kahl reviews

by Dan Beachy-Quick
61 pages. Tupelo Press. Paper. $16.95. 1932195246

This review is about 6 printed pages long.

Weaving the Modern with the Puritan

Dan Beachy-Quick’s Mulberry weaves an intricate web of lyrical quasi-Dickinsonian fragments together in a manner that is reminiscent of a silkworm eating a mulberry leaf and, from its mouth, spinning a web from a single thread. This is the silkworm’s cocoon that eventually transforms the silkworm into a winged creature. The metaphors for the poet and the spoken word/text are apparent.

I use “spoken word/text” mainly because it is evident that Beachy-Quick intends his assemblage of found text and common utterance to be music in the mouth. Just as the text reiterates the fact that the silkworm’s silk is spun from its mouth, Beachy-Quick is noting that the point of origin for all poems is the mouth. The central organ for the poet is not necessarily mind, but mouth.

Mulberry cover

Another element that Beachy-Quick features prominently in the mix is a 6000-year-old Chinese urn that was constructed by rolling the clay into a thin coil and forming ring upon ring until the urn was completed. This is Beachy-Quick’s model for constructing Mulberry in such a layered fashion. Each poem is a vessel that is made of an accretion of “language coils.” These coils are often repeated in the design of other poem-vessels in the rest of the book. To my taste, the word that best describes the movement in these poems is swirl, a path circling around an absent center that is slowly filled with a sense, almost an apparition, of what is there.

The motif of the coil also presents itself in the overall organization of the book. The major sections are set off by small bullet-like dots that mark the beginning of each section. The number of bullet-like dots varies at the beginning of each section, and they follow the pattern: 1, 2, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 4, 4. The repetition and re-sequencing in this series of dots mirrors the kind of repetition of the motifs that exist in the musical fragments. In addition there is an icon of a coil that is used to break up sections (perhaps individuate single poems?) within the bulleted sections. Like with the aforementioned bullet sequence, there seems to be progress, but then there is always backtracking, starting over from the beginning.

Record no oiled tongue, diary—
Note my lantern bruises the low
Clouds with light the evening
We talked. Almonds in a bowl;
She ate none. I did
Not bid her remove her dark
Gloves as sometime before she had done.
Her dress not so clean as before.
A last brand not rescued to flame—
No billow but breath, and breath
Too short a line to twine
Our hands in marriage: I left
A last time. Her in widow’s silk—
My lantern clothed in morning
Dawns on this road so late tonight
The white birches I believe,
I believe I could have loved
Her, her white wrists
White the birch trees by lantern bared,
Black gloves pulled off at night
Become the night . . . . Do you hear?
That pulse? The deer wander
Between her hands, glean fallen
seed at hand, bed down in fallen
Needles and grass. Those green discs
Afloat in the night are their eyes
Caught in lantern light. Can it be
So many wake the forest glows
With sight? See and am seen. A pulse
At the stump is breath and rest
And breath again. Infinite
In store the game of this land.
Note the plumage of the turkey.
Note the thick meat at breast.
Sap: syrup. Pine: plank. A copse
Of wood is cord for furnace. A copse
Is cottage, too. The owl in the hollow
Tree screeches because I am too close
To truth. Note the almond
Tree overmuch with fruit. The almond
Pressed is oil sweet. The almond bit
Is a smoky meat that leaves—note it:
The tongue bathed in oil.

In this piece “Record no oiled tongue, diary” the resemblance to Dickinson is apparent in the title, the often inverted structure in the sentence, the odd enjambments that color the ensuing line, and in the capitalized first letter of each line. This tendency toward the antique meshes with the subject matter in this poem. Much of the language seems to be culled from one of Beachy-Quick’s favorite sources for found phrases, the diaries of early settlers. Interestingly, though, the domestic situation maps onto the rustic contemporary almost as readily, and this is the intriguing spell of the work by Beachy-Quick. The contemporary and the antique conflate. One begins to believe, especially in other parts of this book-length poem (spun from a single thread) that the wife that is being referred to is the author’s (Beachy-Quick’s?) wife, and that these are lyric poems of a quiet, domestic life.

The almonds, the breath, the silk, the lantern, the white birches, the black gloves, the pulse are all repetitive images. The poem is bookended by the notion of a tongue bathed in oil, a phrase that generally means a smooth talker, someone with a glib tongue. Is the male speaker in this piece just such a man? The man who has left this widowed woman even though he could have loved her?

Even though the oiled tongue at the end is a literal one and at the beginning is a more figurative one, the fact that the poem uses the oiled tongues as poles for the poem suggests an invitation to judgment of the man even as he insists he does not want his diary to depict him as speaking in any other but a straightforward manner.

Certainly this is not the case for Beachy-Quick whose iterations of images strike this reader as very mannered constructions. The poems are as much about their craftedness as they are their subject matter, which for the most part, is the realm of the domestic. In this way Beachy-Quick owes as much to George Oppen as Forrest Gander does.

But along with these American writers, the swirl of his words owes even more to the Italian neo-avant garde writer Antonio Porta whose “to open” with its violent semi-narrative. Porta’s swirl of signifiers seems to reference some specific sexual violence, but like a rape narrative, never quite lands on the actual thing that has happened. It glances off the very thing that it is trying to articulate. In much the same way the speaker in these poems seems to be circling around the gist of the matter, partly out of respect for that kind of truth which is difficult to disclose with pinpoint accuracy and partly as an homage to the now, the present, that makes language insufficient to catch up and to express living in the present moment.

However, in a poem that is clearly even more pointed about its reference to the lives of the past, the lives of the early settlers, the speaker in “Posterity, this is me Now” uses a similar “language coil” effect, layering phrase on phrase, reworking the interstices between layers so that the vessel will hold water. What makes this piece particularly interesting is that it is a kind of disjointed narrative with the crucial information about these settlers withheld until the last two lines. When Beachy-Quick delivers:

We live in the sound. He found
Our voices pinned to the trees.

the reader understands Beachy-Quick’s affirmation of the insubstantiality of sound in the present moment. In the second line the reader comprehends the drama that has been building up to that last bit of revealed information. Sonically, the internal rhyme between “sound” and “found” is the motor that drives our ears to the end of the line. Also, the voices of absent people who have fled the village (only to disappear entirely from the historical record) connects logically back to the sound in the previous line.

In addition to the interconnectedness between the lines of a particular poem, one can also find word-allusions to other parts of the book. One might notice that “sap,” “syrup,” “the woods,” “a breast” also appear in “Record no oiled tongue, diary.” In a variation on a theme, the “pinned notes on the trees” appear in other poems elsewhere in the book. Once a word appears, Beachy-Quick has no inhibitions about circling back on it and spreading it throughout the book, mapping it to different contexts, in this way connecting one poem to the next in a long, continuous thread. It is this interwoven connection that also hints at the responsibility of the part to the whole, of the individual to the collective, of the dead to the living.

In #8220;east east the great lake”the speaker’s voice seems much more contemporary, but as readers we are never very far from the idyllic. A plethora of natural words and imagery flood this section. The presence of the wife echoes against the would-be wife in “Record no oiled tongue, diary.” Yet, the poem is much more self-conscious than other sections. Beachy-Quick even seems to drop in a little ars poetica (always necessary in a sprawling poem for those who might be wondering what in the heck the author is doing.)

I sing my love to thought
in time // a silken art // philosophy
in margins // the eye cocoons
within the tongue one silken strand

Here we have something of Beachy-Quick’s poetic process. Vision is the font of the material verbiage which encases the tongue the way a silkworm encases itself in a cocoon. And of this hand-to-mouth feeding of the visual to the spoken, Beachy-Quick resorts to using the term “thought” to describe this process, a kind of marginal philosophy that has no system except for the placement of its words in interesting patterns of sound, with meaning connoted. This marginal philosophizing holds up the supple god of the present moment. All is at once extemporaneous and ever-associative.

Yes, thought takes its place quite readily in Beachy-Quick’s presentation, but is there “feeling” for those who might, more traditionally, seek this. Even though Beachy-Quick would be easily tagged by such a reader as an experimentalist, there are plenty of human connections and hints of the sensuous for the reader. First and foremost of these is the relationship of marital love. Beachy-Quick’s speaker(s) are frequently in consort position, yet never is there any full frontal display. Creaturely habits endure, and are for the most part caught within nature’s web. Occasionally, the speaker agonizes over a fit of anger or invokes grandmother whose palm was the whole bed of the lake. Most of these connections, though, are subsumed within Beachy-Quick’s habit of looking closely and seeing pattern. It is almost an ingrained sensibility, the way a spider or silkworm spins its web or cocoon. I can imagine that spider or silkworm almost anticipates the pattern before it happens. The human relationships are leveled with the setting and even placed next to the insect world (as Beachy-Quick, in Kafka-like fashion equates himself to the silkworm).

Beachy-Quick’s comparison of surfaces might unnerve some readers who look for rhetorical display that is short on ornamentation and interesting foible. This kind of reader (let us call him “laconic hombre”) will surely tire of what he sees as Beachy-Quick’s incessant word games. But this is not to say that Beachy-Quick’s Mulberry is bereft of incisive bursts. Many of the short Dickinsonian fragments penetrate and break the skin of the reader, yet it is through their repetition and re-contextualization that they lose their edge as words aimed at making a direct impression. These are words that do not assert themselves, but allude to other situations from which the reader can draw his/her own patterns of association or even of what may have happened.

“I said no prayers, but had milk” reflects Beachy-Quick’s interest in the hesitancy to speak. The poem begins with italicized phrases, phrases which are assumed to be from a diary of an early Puritan settler. With these italicized sections (and a few other italicized phrases like I danced my dance) Beachy-Quick connects a contemporary domestic scene. The wife is reminding the speaker to practice his Hebrew, but the speaker seems nonplussed by this, matter-of-factly saying, “I spoke a page.” The speaker seems much more intent on watching an inchworm eat a leaf in its own backyard, watching it do its own thing. In this way its own instinctive behavior connects to the repetition of I danced my dance previously in the poem. The fact that the speaker is reluctantly concerned about the language of the past, a learned and codified language, yet engrossed in the personal expression of the inchworm, underscores Beachy-Quick’s seemingly intense focus on the instinctual habit of making language new while being shackled by the languages of the past. If behavior is another such language, then Beachy-Quick seems to be calling for a re-invention of human gesture, a re-invention of human speech patterns in particular.

While some might describe Mulberry as rangy, to this reader, the range of diction never strays from “poetic language”. Despite Beachy-Quick’s expressed interest in early American history, Puritan diaries, language philosophy, art history, and religious mysticism, (or maybe because of it) his poems never drag any diction from any contemporary setting beyond the domestic situation and natural imagery. There is not a city in sight. Perhaps to do so would have undermined the credibility of the one continuous thread from the past Puritan settlers to the contemporary domestic milieu. However, without a nod in the direction of a more familiar contemporary setting, it was hard for this reader to make the associative leap that the lives and struggles of the past are intimately connected in a single piece with those of us living in the present moment. This is curious as Beachy-Quick certainly would like for us to exalt an all-inclusive now where the past is contained in the present. Perhaps Beachy-Quick means to have the past lives of the Puritan settlers whose diaries he has mined to stand apart and separate from us now. Are they merely historical artifacts? Too many associative leaps are drawn between the two for me to believe that is the case.

Can one live the life of the Puritan in the city? Is the Puritan way of life just an oddity that makes for something to muse on, given that its mores and means are so far from our own today?

Ultimately, Beachy-Quick is probably not all that interested in the kind of political statement that pits the traditional versus the modern or one that equates the two. Rather, he seems to have a more aesthetic interest in the quality and fabric of these kinds of lives. Like Oppen, he might prefer to point out that the personal is the political. The small patterns embedded in the way one lives one’s life are intensely political. the way one uses things, today, for example, is as important as to whom or to what organization one has mailed a check of support. The small rituals of one’s domestic life is the locus from which all political choices spring. This would probably be something that Beachy-Quick’s Puritans could understand. Their daily procedures were all geared towards showing their love towards God in particularly ritualistic ways. There weren’t many flourishes tolerated as far as behavior was concerned. The fact that God (and showing one’s love towards God) was the primary organizing principle for the Puritans, then it is easy to see how one’s daily devotions reinforce the group cohesion, which, in turn, is a political act.

Beyond this observance of the political in each daily act, Beachy-Quick’s assemblage of the routines of daily life into a non-linear, dynamical space, hint at an almost mystical order in the daily routines of life. Ultimately, juxtaposing and intermingling a strangely patterned nature with an equally strangely patterned domestic life, Beachy-Quick draws a haunting parallel between the realm of nature and the realm of the human. That these two are of a piece strikes me as the raison d’etre of Mulberry. The inherent order/disorder of nature is at work pulling, pushing, gnawing, clawing also at the most basic fabric of our lives.

You can read more of Dan Beachy-Quick’s poems on the internet:

Tim Kahl

Tim Kahl

Tim Kahl’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner ,American Letters & Commentary, Berkeley Poetry Review, Fourteen Hills, George Washington Review, Illuminations, Indiana Review, Limestone, Nimrod, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, South Dakota Quarterly, The Journal, The Spoon River Poetry Review, The Texas Review , and dozens of other journals in the U.S. He has translated Austrian avant-gardist, Friederike Mayröcker; Brazilian poet, Lêdo Ivo; and the poems of the Portuguese language’s only Nobel Laureate, José Saramago. He also appears as Victor Schnickelfritz at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup (