Done with Beauty: on Sandra Beasley—Festival Headliner
by Jennifer Jean
“And the artist in me saw a great opportunity in surgery.”
~bambam future M.D.
Sandra Beasley is a kind of surgeon. Her knife is poetry. Consider the penultimate line in her collection Count the Waves. “I am done with beauty,” she says. She’s analyzing a peacock’s rear. Not the feathers, but the butt, essentially. Throughout the poem, she’s parsing expectations—the usual direction of a gaze; the usual direction of praise or poetry; and, the usually ignored meanness of that bird. She’s staring hard at these things, and remarking. With precision. To end the poem, and the collection ends, she tells us: “Only a blinking eye can measure the light.” We end on biologic fact. On basic function. On a poet’s function.
To continue the surgeon metaphor—the flesh cut into, and sutured, is language. The major poem sequence in the collection, “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum,” serves as an example. In this sequence, originally a prize-winning chapbook from The Center for Book Arts in 2013, the poems are each inspired by a line from A.C. Baldwin's 1853 list of over 8,000 conversational/epistolyrical phrases for travelers. The intro to the section says Baldwin’s compendium (and Beasley’s subsequent work) are “creating a code for conversation over long distances.” Her poems riff on, expand on, and ricochet off of, his initial (odd) language. Here’s one of those poems—note how all extraneous verbiage has been excised, and Beasley’s hyper-scientist stare is on target:
The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #4646: “Vegetation Grows Rapidly”
Biting into a Calmyrna fig I taste
the frantic wasp, how her wings tore off
at the unripe hull’s door.
How her ovipositor thrust, failing,
enzymes seducing her gravid body,
which had already hauled itself free
from the goat fruit
swollen with her sisters—
caprifigs stapled by the handful to each tree,
married to the Calmyrna orchard.
I can hear those paper bags singing.
The air ripples with sugar.
The farmer tells me each fig
is a bloom, housed in its own stem.
My teeth slice to the nutty roe of drupelets,
a bouquet left on a graveyard stone.
~ Originally published in Blackbird in Fall 2013
In a Rumpus Book Club Chat, Beasley said, “The TVM titles gave me a space to explore the truths I was experiencing, but didn’t want to frame as confessional poems. I also loved that they connected me with the era of the 1850s—that technology, those tensions.” It’s interesting that she acknowledges an attraction to tech, artistry’s usual opposite! As well, she notes her resistance (in this collection at least) to the Confessional. I think her choice of perspective showcases this resistance. Many of the non-TVM poems have an omniscient-narrator with a strong but aloof presence—one who never names the “he” and “she” it observes interacting. A curious example is Beasley’s poem “Economy” which was originally published online using first-person-perspective:
After you’ve surrendered to pillows
and I, that second whiskey,
on the way to bed I trace my fingers
over a thermostat we dare not turn up.
You have stolen what we call the green thing—
too thick to be a blanket, too soft to be a rug—
turned away, mid-dream. Yet your legs
still reach for my legs, folding them quick
to your accumulated heat.
only a word can earn overtime.
Economy: once a net, now a handful of holes.
Economy: what a man moves with
when, even in sleep, he is trying to save
all there is left to save.
~Published as a Poem-of-the-Day in 2012 by the Academy of American Poets
Read the book’s version and compare it to this one. I found I liked this online version best because I wanted to know what would happen to her incredible work if she resisted resisting the Confessional impulse.
Like Colossus-era Plath, Beasley has masterful control over immense power. She’s an amazing poet doing amazing things. That’s why I can’t wait to read her next collection and to hear her perform and talk about all her wonderful works at the festival!
*Sandra Beasley will be reading on April 29th at 7:30pm in the PEM Atrium as a headliner poet; and she’ll be talking about the state of poetry in The State of Poetry panel on April 30th at 3:15pm in the PEM’s Morse Auditorium.
Sandra Beasley is author of three poetry collections: Count the Waves; I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; and Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize. Honors for her work include a 2015 NEA Literature Fellowship, the Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, and two DCCAH Artist Fellowships. She is also the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life. She lives in Washington, D.C., and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.
Jennifer Jean's debut poetry collection is The Fool (Big Table, 2013); her chapbooks include: The Archivist, and In the War. Her poetry and prose have appeared, or are forthcoming, in: Rattle, Drunken Boat, Crab Creek Review, Waxwing, Caketrain, Denver Quarterly, Tidal Basin Review, Solstice, Green Mountains Review, Mud City Journal, and more. She is Co-director of the Morning Garden Artist Retreats, Poetry Editor for The Mom Egg Review, and Managing Editor at Talking Writing Magazine. Jennifer teaches Free2Write poetry workshops for sex-trafficking survivors.