“A big book of little poems,” says the press release. Except not all the poems are little, and not all the contents are poems. This is a sprawling book, an unruly book, and as I read I vacillate wildly between admiration and impatience. Perhaps that’s fine. Some of my favorite prose works are similarly undisciplined: Zhuangzi, Moby Dick, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and lord knows the Bible. Not bad company! Still, my editor’s hand itches as I read yet one more page of superfluous epigraphs that serve only to overwhelm the micropoems that follow, and titles that lie heavily on certain poems, closing off alternate interpretations. I feel as if I’m on a nature trail with too goddamn many signs to tell me what I’m seeing.
Maybe reading a book like this straight through is a mistake, but after reading for an hour or so I found I was beginning to miss the signs of human civilization that are nearly impossible to escape on this globe, especially in the places Beam identifies as the origins of these poems, places in Italy, France, Ireland and North Carolina. Where are the roar of jets, the rumble of motors, the jarring clutter of powerlines and subdivisions? Then, too, despite a fine homage to William Carlos Williams, who famously declared “no ideas but in things,” there’s a relatively limited vocabulary of images which after a while feel more like ideas and less like real things: wind, water, tree, sun, etc. The book begins to feel narrow despite its girth. The nature mysticism begins to feel unearned, and the persistent vatic tone starts to ring hollow for me.
It is of course unfair to complain that this isn’t quite the book I would’ve preferred to read, but I’m not trying to write a fair-minded review, simply share my response as one particular reader with my own set of biases. The thing is, I found a great deal to like, too. I penciled little checkmarks in the corners of pages I liked, and flipping back through the book now, I see that I’ve marked at least a quarter of all the pages, which if I extracted them with an exacto knife would make a book about 50 pages long. Even in the section of the book called “Green Man,” almost all of which I would’ve jettisoned had I been Beam’s editor, I find some lines that strongly resonate:
In order to make sense
of the ground
I build an earthen hill & sit upon it
(“The Green Man’s Man”)
Another longish poem, “Foggy Mountain Sutra,” has two lines I’d love to see alone on the page:
Anxious to waken anxious to go out
What grey bones dance me to my grave
A short poem called “Resurrection” has so much I like, I am itching to white out the title and the last word, which sits in a stanza by itself:
What late fire-dragons
fume from my body
The night tastes bitter
moss on my tongue
And don’t get me wrong: there are poems where I wouldn’t change a thing, such as “Treatise of the Daisy.” (Well, O.K., the typographic daisies separating the three sections were a bit much.) And here’s a poem where both the interpretive title and the vatic tone seemed just right:
Revelation of Beginnings
The cities pray but
not for long
Soon they will bend
There’s a poem just three words long, including the title, which I really admired —
— though I suspect that if you aren’t familiar with the wood thrush, hermit thrush or veery, it will probably make you shrug.
One more example shows I think the kind of gnomic quality that Beam was going for in many of the poems, here with great success to my ear:
The Visitation: Moth
No flame to explain me
The section called “MountSeaEden” was my favorite. None of the poems in this section have titles at all (except in the Table of Contents — an interesting compromise), and we’re told they originated from “Traversing the Healy Pass, Caha Mountains, Beara Peninsula, Ireland” with two companions in Autumn 2006. They seem appropriately light and free, and their cumulative effect lends power to the individual parts, where mountain and sea are blended to dizzying effect.
Sand in sandal
Leaf-print on pillow.
is one poem, and here’s another I really liked for some reason:
bright & mineral
where herds graze
where saxifrage assumes
I hope I don’t seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise. I got it as a review copy, but if I didn’t own it and I saw it in a bookstore, I would probably buy it, because I do love micropoetry and there’s a lot here to admire and learn from. Beam clearly understands how brevity can make a piece more suggestive and powerful. I just wish he’d applied that lesson to the whole book.
I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.