Every generation should get the Frank O’Hara it deserves. Somebody to embody the experience of living within or along with the world, to testify to the truth of that experience, to restore both the precise details and intangible associations of the circumstantial to our day-to-day living and dreaming – but since these are also other words for poetry, I mean someone who does poetry in a way congruent with today’s movies and popular music, with trash magazines and hangovers. Joshua Beckman is this kind of poet. You can bring a book of Beckman’s into a bar with a clean conscience; radio and television don’t obliterate his voice; the kids won’t giggle when you quote him. His poetry is what the moment sounds like, yet it isn’t everyone’s moment, of course – it resonates mainly with the sweaters-and-Converses crowd, the suburban Dionysians, the heartbroken in horn rims and the BAs working service jobs, waiting for their big breaks and holding on to their last failing sense of bemusement. In other words, it’s a strongly tribal poetry and yet it’s still big enough to get behind. The attraction is that you can wear a book of his like a badge: it can be both an emblem and talisman, it can offer you protection and it wants to comfort you. This is, I think, what sets his poetry apart from most of his contemporaries: it is a poetry of deep compassion, of sympathy and solidarity. Joshua Beckman asks for our affection and he almost always earns it.
Shake is Beckman’s fourth full-length book of poetry (not counting his 2002 collaboration with Mathew Rohrer, Nice Hat. Thanks., as well as numerous translations, most notably of Tomaž Šalamun), and to my mind it picks up where 2001’s Something I Expected to be Different left off. In that book Beckman seemed to ‘find his voice’, or more realistically created it – a amalgam of his first book’s sincerity and vulnerability, Berrigan’s most lyrical side, a dash of Paul Blackburn, and Jack Spicer’s Martian electricity that when harnessed became compulsively readable. Shake refines his previous work, while at the same time exploding it: it is his most ambitious and focused book to date. Again, this has everything to do with voice – that his poetry is a result of his voice is its most indispensable characteristic. I can’t imagine anyone reading Shake and not being able to hear Beckman’s reading voice in their head. Those who have heard him read his poetry know his mesmerized deep-voiced delivery style. It is both emphatic and, at the right moments, perfectly mock-solemn. The danger with such poetries is that they reduce themselves to pure personality, become cultish, and certainly Beckman runs this risk both in his poetry and in his position as editor of Wave Books – a beautiful, innovative, and tremendously valuable venture based in Seattle. True, in this country everyone’s poetry seems part of some movement, whether the poet wishes this or not, and even if that movement consists of three people laughing at each other’s jokes. If there’s no escaping it, there’s still the possibility of resisting it. Beckman, so far, has resisted it, and it is precisely the risks he takes that make his poetry so exciting, compassionate, and intimate: that he can still directly address his readers without succumbing to confession or advertisement is his gift, and his secret.
The compassion of Beckman’s poems usually arrive in a moment of crisis, a mode that he first perfected in Something’s second poem, Leave New York. Everybody has known that moment when they thought they couldn’t go on anymore, and it is at this point that Shake begins, in a moment of desolate calm before (or is it after?) the storm:
Unslide the door,
uncap the lazy little coffee cup.
The pasty people must be part of the dinner.
And a city turns its incapacity in,
We are here in a bleak morning world, broken-off phrases floating through the half-asleep state of the poem as it begins, and then quickly, a memory breaks this quiet:
She was naked
and her halo all crushed against
the pillow while she slept, but I
didn’t care. Wake and totter.
Although the poem continues on a different course towards wakefulness, that swift change from emptiness to regret will reappear so consistently throughout this book as to become one of its dominant motifs. Almost every poem occupies this half-lit dream state, charged at times with rage and despair and frustration, at others times with a kind of exhausted tenderness lit up by moments of nearly transcendent magic. It almost happens, that hoped-for magic almost lifts these poems into ecstasy, but it doesn’t last: every time the poet tells us “That people, all at once, can be kind and thoughtful” he asks us to “Imagine how mean people / can be in dreams, and how / kind sleeping seems later”. If the poems in Shake are mainly what our sleeping seems like later, they never forget how mean the people can be and how their cruelty always seems to occur to us as in a dream, how our experience of our pain transfixes us, hypnotizes us, almost.
This first poem that I quoted from above is one of the eleven untitled poems that make up the first of Shake’s three sections (entitled Shake, Let the People Die, and New Haven), the other two sections being likewise composed of untitled poems. We can read these sections as either serial poems or as individual poems sharing certain themes or subjects in common, certain similarities of form, or, as in an opera, as aria and recitative.
For instance, the second poem in this first section begins a notch higher than the one before it, at a more sustained pitch:
In the days of famous want
the people acted cruel and sweet
the music was boring and insightful
and if one found oneself in a well
the others would pull you from that well.
That is how it was.
This is the fabulous oxymoronic situation of the everyday, transfigured through a voice talking “in plain American which cats and dogs can read” as Marianne Moore put it. We feel the rush and pull of a large story, yet the next lines are deflating:
unintelligible in its evaporation
and the people, their faces, full
and with nothing to do.
The poem continues in this vein of vacancy, detailing passing clouds and the “anecdotal annunciations” of the ordinary, until a sort of crisis is reached with these lines:
We had been left. We had poured ribbons
in each other’s bags. We had collapsed
beside each other’s beds –
Into this void, and suggested by the “annunciations” earlier, a spiritual benison rushes, flickers for a moment –
calla lily floats above the table,
about the hands of certain people,
Just as quickly, the moment passes. The poem speeds on to new deflations, new, yet sadder elevations (“the bridge, how you climb / atop it now and the waters / below you doing their stupid / repetitive thing”) and concludes with an exemplary crisis: “I empty myself of wit and begin”. Instantly filled with passing trucks, snowstorms, gloomy reflections on “the unbecoming ways of everyone”, the poem finally zeroes in on “your red pants, your cradled purse, / the next man who will leave / his lover for you.” There is no consistent “you” or “I” here, no narrative consistency, epistemology or “interrogations of the language”: what is consistent is this Voice, zigzagging from emptiness to grace, from tenderness to pain and regret, always wishing and failing to get beyond it.
Everyone knows Wordsworth’s claim that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but how many remember the next sentence? “The motion is contemplated, till, by a species of reaction, the tranquility disappears, and an emotion kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation is produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.” In many contemporary poems the tranquility never dissolves. While with other poets we do not get an emotion that “does itself actually exist in the mind”, with Beckman we see the mind in action, embodied by the breathless sentences bending across the lines. Such a mental pressure has moral as well as aesthetic power, for it performs the often painful expansion of the mind as it discovers truth – a truth, any truth. Reading Beckman at his best can be so revivifying because we feel at those moments that he can bear witness to truth. As Kafka said, “It is difficult to speak the truth, for although there is only one truth, it is alive and therefore has a live and changing face.”
This first section of Shake ends with a long, sustained grace note addressed to “the gently sifting public”, and which introduces the state of being that will form the subject of the second section, a kind of trance-like state. The poet sits on his floor smoking a joint while the shower runs, and once again begins contemplating his empty life:
Why have you begun to set a record for dreariness,
may I ask you that.
Why can’t the chevrolet seem like a swan
when that is what I want.
Surrealism is old, so everyone should get some.
Why did the water disappear before the swan arrived.
Why did the swan disappear before the swan arrived.
Why won’t the poem write itself as I drift into the shower,
as I levitate above the yoga mat,
as I perform the perfect pose upon the yoga mat.
These lines, with their funny-cool-serious tone, their evocation of stoned frustration and immobility presage the poems of the second section. If the truth of most of Beckman’s poems, and much of the first part of Shake, is concerned with the “Epic endangerment of the heart / which is broken, of the soul / which is broken, of the cracked / indistinguishable persona / which is cracked and broken”, then the second section of Shake is concerned with moments of grace – or its narcotic replacement – and as such it marks a formal breakthrough for the poet. The most obvious predecessors are Berrigan’s sonnets – all but one of the poems in this section are 14 lines, they are composed of repeating chunks of phrases, they are often inscrutable, physical, and disjointed – but they are importantly not collages, as Berrigan’s were. Yet, just like Berrigan’s sonnets, they address the traditional concerns of the sonnet – friends, love, faithfulness, and a profound desire for transfiguration. They are the boiled-down core of the book, the dream fugues at its center. To gauge the effect of one of these poems, one must hear one in full:
That’s the worst way. The thin tree. The
brick and its acceptance of light. The brick
and its continued darkness. Now, in the
wind, there’s no way to explain. The room.
It is comfortable. A quiet towel sits in the
windowsill. The hallway. Let me explain.
It’s the worst way. The hallway. Outside,
the light gives itself to the brick and the brick
accepts the light. The wind told me this.
I’m okay. A small towel flaps in the window.
The hallway. Yesterday, I’d say two days.
There is no way to explain. The brick’s
acceptance of light and the light giving itself to
the brick. The wind. There is no way to explain.
Nothing moves in this poem. The movement there is only adds to the sense of stillness, such as the “quiet towel” that “flaps in the window” – such a perfectly chosen image. As in the beginning of the book, there is no way to tell if the collapse is immanent or just past, whether grace has come or is arriving. We can’t tell if there is disgust or joy at the acquiescence of the brick and light to each other – or is it their ecstatic union? As opposed to the poems in the first and third parts of the book, these poems have found a form that allows them to express feelings of frustration, disappointment, fragility, and waywardness while at the same time blurring their boundaries: they both conceal and reveal those feelings. Their structure more resembles a Rubik’s cube than the puzzle of a traditional sonnet, and in their sustained exploration of the possibilities of recombinations, they open up fresh areas for other poets. They beautifully reveal the interconnections latent in all language, and they ultimately affirm the promiscuous affection of words for each other, or as Robin Blaser would say, that language is love.
One again, the poet moves on from these triumphs to the final section of the book, and attempts a final consolation. The poems in this section are larger, looser, structured more by a free-floating attention than the deep focus of the previous section. Still absorbed by the senseless vacuity of their situation, the poems finally affirm that it is “Beautiful to go and get what you want. / Wicked to sit back and watch others do it.” They recognize that, even though it is more pleasant to “have dreams of anyone” than to actually possess someone, even though one always dreams that “If you leave we will change”, in the end all you can do is “place another silken slip upon your dreams / and accept that that is exactly what they are.” They don’t attempt an elucidation, yet they are not “empty sound bounced off of a window / but the perfect execution of elevation”. While not every poem in this collection achieves that perfection – and who wants to read perfect poems all the time anyway? — each in its own way achieves a rare generosity, a human communion that keeps faith with its readers and insists on the value of the poet’s testimony, on the value of form and on the poet’s historical vocation. No many poets believe in that anymore.
Shake marks the moment of Beckman’s arrival into his own. It marks the moment when a substitute grace dissolves before real grace. If Ezra Pound is right that literature is “news that stays news”, then Joshua Beckman brings the news; we should listen to him.