I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
What does it mean to give a voice to the voiceless -- a mouth to those who have been underrepresented in majority governments, to those whose opinions, sexual orientations, or color of their skin suggest “otherness” and therefore preclude them from participating in the community and the mainstream? This is one of the major questions of the postcolonial writing world; perhaps one can even argue that it’s a question that piques any writer, regardless of social status.
Sandra Beasley takes this “voice to the voiceless” to the absurd extreme. As the title I Was the Jukebox hints, Beasley gives vocal chords to world wars, pianos, the platypus, and, evidently, a jukebox. Her project’s challenge is to inhabit anything that contemporary humans cannot communicate with via words. Words may create the foundation of poetry, but the words in Beasley’s work more so create the foundation of character in the inanimate, personality in the object. Such defamiliarization with the subject-speaker gives us an amusing and sometimes insightful look into the voiceless. Though perhaps this is more of an exercise to look into Beasley’s active, nimble imagination.
In “The World War Speaks,” we get exactly that; the narrator starts out as an inchoate being, one that sounds like any typical child. Yet we know something’s slightly amiss: “When I was born, two incisors / had already come through the gum. / They gave me a silver bell to chew on.” Slowly we understand -- through language that feels cold, distant, and unmoved -- that this being is created not for the procreation of the species, a biological reason why most children exist: “I learned to dig a deeper kind of ditch. / I learned to start a fire in three minutes. / I learned to sharpen a pencil into / a bayonet.” The innocent student with a pencil manipulates himself and his tool into being an instrument of war. This crescendos until we realize that the war’s parents “wanted an only / child: the child to end all children.” The words may echo Woodrow Wilson’s about World War I, but they takes on a sinister, shadowy presence here. It is uncertain as to whether the war is speaking about further wars when he speaks of children, or if he is speaking of human children in general.
“Another Failed Poem about the Greeks” takes us to a first date at a theme park between the narrator and this Grecian demigod, probably Perseus as “His sword dripped blood. His helmet gleamed, / He dragged a Gorgon’s head behind him.” The Greek thoroughly enjoys himself on the thrill rides: In one of the more humorous quotes from this book, the narrator notes that “We went on the Pirate Ship three times, / swooshing forward, back, upside down, // and he cried Aera! waving his sword / until the operator asked him to please keep // all the swords inside the car.” For some reason it’s not hard to imagine a bronze clad Sam Worthington lookalike in the middle of Six Flags.
But this grand date deflates, like a grape sunning itself into a raisin, as the narrator acknowledges that even though they’d both like to go on a second date, it could never happen “since he was Greek, of course, and dead, / and somewhere a maiden rattled in her chains.” They are mismatched, not only through time but through archetypes -- the narrator isn’t the Greek’s damsel-in-distress type. Yet Beasley allows us to have a glance at this chance meeting, at what could have been, at what we would consider an impossible meeting.
In the poem “Immortality,” Beasley showcases one of the stronger aspects of her collection: her lyric, forceful voice through short, firm words, wherein she’s able to connect rhythms and thoughts aptly. The poem’s narrator acknowledges that you won’t find him on the back of a nickel; you won’t find his name given to a species of rosebush. He’s not impressed with the fact that his DNA may be in the blood of his great-grandchildren. It’s not enough, he admits, for
who doesn’t dream
of being both kite and wind, boat and ocean?
I want to be the ball and the bat and the mound
and the sweat and the grass.
I want to be the vampire who drinks
a tall cool glass of me so he can live forever.
With a staccato rhythm amplified by the Ouroboros image at the end, the poem lives in a world of paradox: The words want to end -- they are common monosyllabic words -- and yet the narrator does not, willing to suck his own blood for immortality, killing and quickening himself simultaneously. The question is, have we moved far from the thoughts of when the World War spoke?
A detriment to this collection is that so much depends upon the final lines, creating a quick a-ha! moment which changes your total perspective of the poem. The three cited poems here all use that as a trope, and the experience of reading becomes slightly lackluster. The other disadvantage is the fact that as the reader turns the page, he may find himself full of lethargy when he realizes that the next poem is about some other voiceless object. The effect that each poem may have had if it stood on its own is lost when it’s in the sea of pages of this collection. The voices created aren’t strong enough, and they don’t modulate in order to succeed as a fugue or variations on a theme. By the end, it might be a task to want to see what Beasley has up her sleeve. The magician’s tricks numb the mind instead of massaging it.
In the poem “Antietam,” the narrator’s mother says “our bodies can digest anything.” The narrator replies sharply, “but that’s a lie.” There might be too much food on the plate, too many voiceless voices, here to take in; but as individual poems, they are a treat.
I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton & Company