Tupelo Press ($16.95)
by M. Lock Swingen
When the aesthetic climate of our age champions recursive internet memes and pop culture references, irreducibly knitted mash-ups and bottomless wells of meta-this and meta-that, the poetic corpus of Dan Beachy-Quick, in contrast, hungers refreshingly for source and origin. The poems of his latest book, gentlessness, sift through the modes of expression of the literary past in order to instantiate the poetic immutability of the lyric voice. In other words, Beachy-Quick does not merely trawl the literary past in order to reference his forebears; in gentlessness he summons the voices of the past in order to reanimate them in all their originary power.
In his pursuit of source and origin Beachy-Quick places himself somewhat cockeyed in the tradition of the High Modernist poets, such as T.S. Eliot, who revived expressions and forms of the past in order to reconcile an agonistic present. However, whereas Eliot wandered a wasted European landscape in a nostalgic effort to stitch together the detritus of Western civilization, Beachy-Quick can be seen to trail rather the poetic path of Ezra Pound. Pound likewise beckoned personas, voices, and forms of the literary past but with the intent of nourishing and progressing his own literary epoch. Where Pound gave the early 20th century the voices of 12th century French troubadour poets, for example, Beachy-Quick offers us the voices of Beowulf, Wordsworth, Bradstreet, and Pound himself.
Beachy-Quick moves from one literary period to another, resurrecting voices, melodies, tropes, and obsessions in sections whose titles map distinct literary periods: “a short treatise on the nature of the gods,” “heroisms,” “puritanisms,” “romanticisms,” and “modernisms.” In the first of these, Beachy-Quick recalls the powerful voices of Greek poets Homer and Virgil:
Write an ode and evict the gods, O gods
And goddesses, hear my voice and lean out
Just a little, and give my song light, so what
Is blank is seen, O lean over and give
My song melody, so what is seen
Won’t fall apart, O lean out, you gods
In addition to these sections, gentlessness opens with “monadism: a proem” and also interludes with a long poem titled “overtakelessness.” In an interview with the Kenyon Review, Beachy-Quick extrapolates upon his close relationship with the literary past. “I feel just as keenly that the words I use contain . . . a history of uses—often by the poets and writers I most love—which carry forward in nearly occult ways in my own poems,” he explains. “Even more than an appropriation of works and lives, I suppose I think of the poem as a kind of conjuring and a kind of repair.” What distinguishes Beachy-Quick’s poetry from his more obliquely ironic contemporaries, whose allusions can sometimes verge on extraneous and murky, is that Beachy-Quick conjures the voices of the past in order to embody them completely. His poetry does not mime or reference the Romantics, for example; it possesses and conjures them. In the section “romanticism,” Beachy-Quick employs the sonnet form:
Gnats breed, mind broods, a cloud in the air
Breathes out one breath until the cloud is gone,
And the sun pours down heat in glaring hours
That prisms wings as thought prisons song.
The grass dreams other dreams than those the crickets
Conspire—dreams of being those taut lyre-strings
Pulled up to the sun despite the thicket’s
Maze; . . .
Here Beachy-Quick embodies the very poetic preoccupations and song of a Wordsworth or a Keats. In a time when writers avoid old school images like “a cloud in the air” or “lyre-strings,” Beachy-Quick’s revitalization of these Romantic tropes seems almost courageous.
In addition to Beachy-Quick’s resurrection tour through different literary epochs, the poet is also always concerned with the very material of language that recalls these voices and summonings. In an essay for the Boston Review, B.K. Fischer hones in on this aspect of Beachy-Quick’s prose and poetry. “Like so many of his peers,” Fischer writes, “Dan Beachy-Quick came of age in the heyday of post-structuralism in American universities. The lessons of Derrida infuse his work with a persistent awareness of language’s contradictions.” In gentlessness Beachy-Quick indeed returns again and again to one of the central tenants that poststructuralist theory imbued into his work and generation at large—that is, that language is never totally here nor totally elsewhere but somewhere always between. Beachy-Quick extrapolates on this central attribute of language and of his poetics in the aforementioned Kenyon Review piece: “Language asserts and betrays its own materiality, seems always more than and less than an object . . . Part of the nature of the material is its metaphoricity, its pointing at that which it isn’t, and in pointing, verging into what it’s not.” In the eponymous stanza of gentlessness, Beachy-Quick writes:
gentlessness is a word
to describe that
which must deny itself
In spite of Beachy-Quick’s self-aware preoccupation with the contradictions and pitfalls of language, the poet abstains from reveling in the poststructuralist fixation on absence, instability of meaning, and the impossibility of origin or truth. On the contrary, Beachy-Quick’s poetic voice is urgent, generous, and, above all, unabashed in its singing for the presence of the literary past. “A fragment acts flagrant but is not,” he writes. Elsewhere, in the opening volley “monadism: a proem,” Beachy-Quick affirms:
sing me open to swerve error astray
but prayer makes a point inside
of infinite angels so sin learns
a song to sing o source asleep
Beachy-Quick’s poetry embodies what Emerson once reminded us—namely, that “every word was once a poem.” gentlessness searches for the source of language, that poem in every word, in a time when our aesthetic mainstream maintains a constant distancing from the wellspring of art.