Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Dan Beachy-Quick, Arrows
Tupelo Press, 2020, $22.95

Review by Tirzah Goldenberg

I think of epigraphs as remnants of the author’s reading intuitively chosen to be guardians of a new book that is itself the stuff of remnants. In the case of Dan Beachy–Quick’s newest collection of poems, ARROWS, we approach epigraphs as literal remains—two fragments of Heraclitus: “Look at the bow and the lyre” and “...stepping near...” What we look at, stepping near, are surviving elements from an incomplete source text. What we divine at the threshold of the book are ancient images and metaphors of approach, their taut strings still resonating. (Just now my husband practices archery in preparation for the elk hunt in the fall.) What we anticipate at the outset are leftover desires from a lost text, appearing whole.

What I feel in the whole poems that follow on the heels of the epigraphic fragments is the pressure of the poet’s thought pressing the fragile material of that thought into the stuff of remains. Thought itself is often the subject of these poems, as is song, its close relation: “String of the lyre and the arrow’s string / Both fling out the thought they sing” (“Hunt & Hearth”). Who sings? Who shoots the bow? In the opening poem “Primer” our tutor is a ghost and our I a kind of stutter. The poet has been in this territory before, many times, “all bruised / the lips / from singing.” Yet the ghost of a tutor sings on.

Beachy–Quick—but I want to say Dan because Dan was once my teacher—is bound as a “band of nettles and forget–me–nots” to the act of making poems (“Some Rules of Grammar”). It is a fact that dwells at the heart of his making: “I lash myself to the letter I” (“A Century of Meditation”). In “The Made Thing Considers Itself” the made thing does just that by simply naming the fact of its having been made—from the silent aleph, the modest letter that is the first of the Hebrew word for “I,” to “the deer / on plastic legs in the overgrown lawn.” The poem ends with animals asleep dreaming of themselves “in this world of no proof only evidence.” Proof of what? When I was a child my grandmother told me I was wearing a pretty bow in my hair. “Who made it?” she asked me. My answer was “Hashem.” Hashem is an intimate name for God, a commonly used one that simply and secretly means “the Name,” the one I grew up saying most. Was it a Name so familiar that it flew off my tongue to adorn my head? Were those two syllables what I thought my grandmother would like to hear, or did I genuinely believe those two? Did the adornment look to her to be handmade and she merely curious about the hands that made it? Was she tutoring me on the means of production? What did the bow even look like? The bow and the lyre? Does the memory exist to keep my grandmother (may her memory be a blessing), long buried on the Mount of Olives, right there at the dining room table opening a mouth to say again and again “Who made it?” Do I consider the made thing or does the made thing consider me? What can be known along the flight line of this curious transference? Was my grandmother riddling me? The source text is incomplete.

“But the altar remains.” This line is like a plank from “Theseus’s Ship,” a poem in which Dan rebuilds an altar as a kind of ship or a ship as a kind of altar—each the alter of the other, perhaps. Again and again we return to the made thing. The poem is based on a story from Plutarch’s Life of Theseus. The ship the hero sailed in on was kept as a memorial to that man. But as the ship’s planks grew tired and worn, they were replaced with new ones, on and on until the ship was more or less made new: “Centuries passed and the boat grew younger / In a thousand years it became new.” A youth used the discarded pile of old timber to rebuild the old ship. The two alters

...stand side by side
On the long grass the wind blows like waves
When it blows it blows like waves the grass.
Poets and philosophers like to argue
About which ship is Theseus’s ship
And which ship is the image or impostor
While the grass rises in swells about their ankles.

Two stanzas of the poem are exactly the same, beautifully enacting this curious paradox or trick of the eye. The poet reflects that “different versions mostly end the same.” Here I am transported to a Hasidic tale retold by Gershom Scholem in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism—a tale that removes a plank in each of its iterations on its journey toward what we might imagine as the present moment—a tale about how a tale survives. Here it is from Scholem in full:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story–teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

With this remarkable story of a story of a story in mind, let’s return to “Theseus’s Ship.” The poem also remembers a dance, a prosodic dance, a sort of ritual. The storyteller gives us instructions on how to participate if we’d like. We’re to “Cut from the left side of the head some horns. / Build an altar.” This ritualistic detail is like a detail leftover, which must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. The poem is far more complex than I can spin out, but all of its parts—the two ships, the altar, the dance, the horns, “the wind [that] blows many things off course”—work to spin the yarn that is the poem. Generation after generation what is pertinent to each generation is lost. If we’re lucky we remember how we lost it, or simply that we did. If luckier we are left with “the story of one ship and some altar.” The alter is Dan’s. The poem is itself the lost woods, the lost fire, the lost prayer, and the story of all of these intact: “Even when the ship leaves the altar remains. / Sometimes the dance. Often the wind.”

The craft journeys on as a toy boat to the “Middle Ages,” one of my favorite poems in the book, residing near its end. Here the ancient past is childhood: “Once, I was a child. When did that horizon—.” Now in the middle years of life, the poet’s craft is moored in “this room / I cannot leave” with its “leaky door” letting loose “the golden age” and with it all manner of things. There are other doors; the poem’s current hinges on them: “Life’s ongoingness of doors, such / Improbable doors, we’ve drifted in on / To the threshold–condition.” This poem’s I addresses a You, the one who’s moored or crafted in the same condition. The fairytale–like images—reminding me a little of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space—help to build a middle world buoyed between past and future, childhood and later years, an ancient was and an equally ancient will be. Thresheld, the poet and his craft, along with the You who shares it, are bound for the whole, anticipating epigraphs in their wake.

Post by Tirzah Goldenberg on 9/2/2020 at 2:00 PM