Now Make an Altar by Amy Beeder

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In Amy Beeder’s poetry, we are surrounded by the refuse and remains of the past: memories and photos of lost generations, the bones and fur of animals used to adorn ourselves, the smell of fallow plants. Her second collection of poetry, Now Make An Altar, explores those remains in verse both haunting and brutal.

Beeder creates a narrative that explores destruction imploring creation, suffering calling for beauty, such as when she writes “Yes, they liked your mother’s stark & balding head/but also wanted ghosts: some charismatic/ ancestors conspiring in those hospice corners” in “I Liked the Poem About Your Mother Dying.” She impels the reader to join her loss, but also to recognize the moments of (fading) beauty that force themselves upon the mourning, as she begins the poem with, “gold leaves bunched in the gutter.” Beeder goes on to explore the isolation of loss, the inability to communicate the exactness felt in pain. She writes, “to sit at least and quantify, expand the parasite/clarify the tulip’s fluke, the turnip’s blight.” Her failure to declare her experience in the words of others leads her to draw a parallel between herself and “the wild boy of Aveyron/ who never learned to speak in any dialect but thicket.”

“Anatomy Lesson” turns to the bloody and public exploration of the human body in the name of science and knowledge. Have we surpassed our ancestors, who crowded anatomy halls? The guts of humanity are spilled out by Beeder’s pen, and I read as transfixed as if I was watching some ER-set soap, or crime scene investigation television. Despite the callowness of death, Beeder balances a child-like sense of wonder, describing the dissection as, “his frocked assistant fishing in that yawning slit/ from which blooms a mass of tubes.” While someone weeps for their loss, we are learning, finding answers to our own questions of limitations and possibility.

Beeder explores the duality of pain and knowledge by focusing on historical footnotes in ekphastic verse, such as the poem “I Rightfully Curse the Author of so Pernicious a Machine,” which examines the legacy of Ambroise Pare, a barber surgeon and expert in battlefield medicine. Perhaps it’s Beeder’s work as a human rights observer in Haiti and Suriname that led her to recognize that the advances in medicine have contributed to advances in human cruelty and destruction.

“Jaguar in the Bullring” examines the desire to right the wrongs of history—but the acceptance of how such tragedy pushes life on, for art and the mundane. The jaguar in question has been skinned and its pelt mounted to a wall in a bar. Yet the image retains its power—and transits it to the poem. We’re still fascinated by “old gore,” still telling stories about bloody moments of power. If Beeder could return back to that fight, would she truly rescue that jaguar from the brute crowd/black bull’s dewslapped slab”? Or would she have stood and shouted in the stands, wanting her to win, and knowing that she couldn’t?

The poems in Now Make An Altar seem to blend together. Beeder ends many of the poems on ‘em-stops’, leaving me to wonder where the boundaries lay. Perhaps that’s the root of this collection, as I could not just read one poem, but was led to the next, and the next, digging deeper into the past.

Brynn Downing is a poet from New Jersey, now living in Denver. She’s part of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and is applying for graduate school (or would, if she’d get her act together). You can find her online sometimes, at: More from this author →