I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley

I Was the Jukebox I Was the JukeboxSandra Beasley; W.W. Norton 2010WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Sandra Beasley has soul. This is useful to keep in mind the third time you encounter a title following the pattern “Another Failed Poem About X,” or when you labor through a sestina with “ginger” as one of its line-ending words for no good reason that you can see. Yes, genius can be annoying: how many of us would resist the urge to be clever at the expense of emotional impact if we had anything approximating Beasley’s gifts?

Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.
(“Vocation”)

But even her less-than-fully-successful poems are still pretty damn impressive. This book deserved its place on everyone’s top poetry lists last year. I don’t know what made me break my usual pattern of studiously ignoring whatever everyone else is hyping — possibly the fact that Beasley is a long-time blogger, or that she’s a Facebook contact — but I’m glad I did.

Why do I say Beasley has soul? Because she throws her voice like nobody’s business, taking on the personas not only of inanimate objects, plants and dead gods, but also historical events (“The World War Speaks”) and plural beings (“The Sand Speaks”):

Mothers, brush me from the hands

of your children. Lovers, shake me
from the cuffs of your pants. Draw
a line, make it my mouth: I’ll name
your country. I’m a Yes-man at heart.

Because, unlike so many young poets of a surrealist bent, she stays relatively down-to-earth and tends to give the uninitiated reader something to grab on to, even when writing a modern-day allegory (“Beauty”).

That night, something howled outside.
I opened the door. It was Beauty. Beauty
was muddy and senseless. I let her in.
I tried to towel her off, and she bit me.

Because she is so fond of apostrophe, she has written love poems to college, oxidation, and Wednesday.

You are the loneliest of the three bears, hoping
to come home and find somebody in your bed.
(“Love Poem for Wednesday”)

And now and then there’s a poem that appears to be autobiographical nonfiction, such as “Antietam,” and it’s all the more affecting for coming in the midst of wilder and woolier stuff. The narrator is on a school field trip to the Civil War battlefield.

Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go
of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet,
a tooth migrating to the surface. We searched around.
On the way back to the bus a boy tripped me and I fell—
skidding hard along the ground, gravel lodging
in the skin of my palms. I cried the whole way home.
After a week, the rocks were gone.
My mother said our bodies can digest anything,
but that’s a lie. Sometimes, at night, I feel
the battlefield moving inside of me.

I Was the Jukebox has been very widely reviewed, and since I have to go to bed early tonight, I’m going to slack off a little and just point you toward the links on the Open Library page. I do however want to say a little about the book’s packaging, trivial as that may seem. I was a little turned off by the publisher’s decision to put a short blurb right on the front cover, up at the top — that’s just tacky. The cover design is a mess. But both these failings are off-set, for me, by the pleasingly grainy surface of the paperback cover. There’s a lot to be said for a book that feels good in the hands. It won’t slide off the couch as easily easily as a book with a glossy cover. And like sand on the beach, it makes you want to dive in.

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