Shake by Joshua Beckman
“...I crisscross/ in some inventive personal way.”
I don’t know what to make of Joshua Beckman. I read his book Your Time Has Come two summers ago and it still lingers around my house in a practical way; I browse it, use it for various projects and examples when teaching. I like its prettiness (both in form and content) and I like that it is at once approachable and endlessly multiple in its meanings. The sort of post-confessional self-referencing that takes place in that book is stimulating: a nonsense puzzle with which to toy. Beckman’s poetic self seems clearly, though mysteriously, shadowed by the real self. Your Time is concerned with making of poetry a record of existence in space, or making of such records a kind of poetry. The simplicity of that project does have a hand in his latest book, Shake -- though this endeavor is less clean, more achy.
When I say I don’t know what to make of him, I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy reading his work, old and new. I mean that I am not sure about how to add up these details: Beckman is a “hip” poet, a small-press superstar; his PR for the book states that he is “one of his generation’s most important voices: fervent, generous, intimate, new” (all book backs are guilty of drama-queen behavior, I suppose); he works, often, in collaboration with poet Matthew Rohrer (the two of them, in fact, appear -- separately -- in the newish anthology of young poets, Legitimate Dangers); Beckman’s work is overtly informed by his community, local and global, real and imagined. All of this seems very exciting to me. I am part of Beckman’s generation. I enjoy that he uses absurdist observation and la-dee-da language to build humor and sadness in one stroke. I like that he writes poems about getting high. I like his aesthetic choices. But, here is the thing that troubles me (as silly and potentially wasteful of an observation as it might be): Beckman’s last book came from the very respectable Verse Press. Recently, Verse Press collapsed into Wave Books. Wave Books put out Beckman’s latest book. Beckman is an editor at Wave Books.
There are two ways to take this, and both are relevant to an interpretation of the work and, indeed, Beckman’s important and probably lasting position as a Voice in his (my) Generation. The first is this: an exciting pseudo-DIY thing has been happening in small presses and in the creation of books of poetry. Knowledge of book-binding (by hand, with a needle) is an edge now. (Beckman himself has a book art background.) Access to someone’s grandpa’s old press is a fantasy. Typesetting is something a young poet might be able to chat about. Groups of writer-friends gather and create mini unnamed “movements” based on aesthetics, forms, ideology, process, etc. And so, it is possible to see Beckman’s position as editor of the same press that prints his books as part of this movement. The group running Wave is certainly soliciting some new work, but they are publishing what they like and disregarding if it happens to be by themselves or their known peers. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their world is too small; it means that Beckman is part of a genuinely interesting community of writers and readers of poetry -- and that this worldview might be reflected in his work. It has become more and more crucial to me, in my thinking life, to establish clear connections between my ideological positions and my consumption and creation of art; the circumstances around our current dubious moral existence as a country and as a world demand it.
Shake is tri-sectioned. Ultimately, it is the last section of the book that I really fall into. The others have their wonderful moments and heartbreak of imagery, as in these opening lines:
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,
foolish city. She was naked
and her halo all crushed against
the pillow while she slept, but I
didn’t care. Wake and totter.
Place a hand over your mouth,
a hand over another.
A killing pain, a bag all organized,
an inch of skin along your leg.
It’s like they kept making babies
and stopped making baby whistles.
And later: “If, before you head back, I run out to the store and buy you two very white/ tennis socks, will, in that little naked morning you’re bound to have soon, you put on these socks?” The whole second section, "Let the People Die," warps form and repetition and allows for a new sort of rhythm to emerge. Beckman’s instinctive taste for formalism’s perks just peeps out of these odd little constructs (pantoum-like, at times). And the form helps, somehow, to build a rise in bitterness, a humor that is cutting and cynical and comprehensible. “I came in here because/in here it’s air-conditioned... It’s all this horrible conquering and the heat and the way/a little song plays inside you and the Christians whipping you/with their horrible heated debate.”
All this is engaging, but the last section intimates; it whispers something about place and its impossibility in the mind. “And so both projected, we are now/part of a garden, that is part of a/landscape, that is part of a world/that no one believes in.” The funny haze of pot and sarcasm that colors the first two sections is here a haze of inconsequence (or resistance to it). The little cherry-on-top details that Beckman deftly deals in become frantic and melancholic -- and they merge more and more with an “analytic meditation” style. “I have fucked the brains out of/every incandescent virtue I met, and look/where it got me -- a whiskey sticky on my feet,/a senseless filling of the taxi with distant you.” There are specific names here and mysterious (again!) references to events out of the reader’s realm of information. But the language does something to transcend the specificity of its origins. “I have set/your aura a runnin and from it (its sun)/I gather light.” All the poems in the book are without titles, but in this section, they clearly announce themselves as lightly linked wisps of things -- ephemera, maybe, in the long run. “We live for recognition and the failures of recognition/and such attendance gives us strength.”
And now I return to my original concern: the second, more negative interpretation. If Beckman’s editorship at the press which coined that aforementioned drama-queen style of back matter on his book (“fervent, generous, intimate”) is to be taken as a symptom of “in-crowd” politics, then his work risks seeming too small. The endless names of specific individuals in his poems, the assumption that his “everyday” is something worthy of poetic documentation, the depressive meditations on his personal and romantic failures, even the self-effacement -- all seem negligent, frivolous. But that’s a risk that Beckman must know he is taking. He must know that, indeed, all poetry at once challenges and succumbs to the overwhelming largeness of the world. All poetry has to scuttle into the light to be beaten. I prefer to think that Beckman knows this very well. He’s just a little weepy about it. And earnestly so.
Contrive a windy mutuality if you must
but the pills will only make you pleasant to yourself --
and what is to follow is but weather and circumstance.
The day speaks of the night and the night speaks of the day
and always clouds elevate themselves into translucency.
Somewhere a willow sways above a pool.
Here is the pool.
Here is where the willow will go.
Shake by Joshua Beckman