Bruce Beasley has a capacious mind. He is one of contemporary poetry’s most cerebral and searching voices, his body of work as challenging and provocative as that of Harryette Mullen, Brenda Hillman, or Jorie Graham. This is why I found it fitting that he published a collection of poems called Lord Brain, which I investigated—his work cannot be merely read—over a long Thanksgiving weekend several years ago. I finished the book, and as with all Beasley books, it was then the real work of inquiry and contemplation began.
I recently immersed myself in the poet’s newest collection, Theophobia, this time while sprawled in the late autumn sun a few feet from the Atlantic Ocean. This setting seemed apropos, as there is a tidal force at work in these poems. They rush toward the reader with frenetic intensity, then slowly recede, leaving us drenched in language that is working at its highest level, language riding meaning the way foam crests a wave.
He’d always secretly wondered why if is was
the present tense they always called it
the verb-to-be, as if it hadn’t yet arrived,
and if that was what led to all
Me and You
are like heterographs:
the difference, say,
between the sound of the g in God
and the one in naught.
serioburlesque & subcelestial.
& all these manic
enigmas of the banal
The history of emergency starts within.
Beasley’s poems are powered by the twin engines of disorientation and illumination. There is no light wading here, only deep plunging, the exigencies of the rip tide palpable for reader and writer alike. In one of my favorite poems, “The Scale By Which the Mapped Concerns the Map,” the speaker pleads:
to me something
I can’t expect, or negotiate-
against, or boundary-draw:
draw me a map wherein
no legend’s legible, or needed.
The poems in this book proffer such unexpecteds, such non-negotiables. Beasley speaks directly to the territories he cannot define or contain—faith, doubt, knowledge, fear, and that ultimate ambiguity, God. In so doing, his meta-articulations give form to the seemingly formless:
in the flame, anonymous
and obliquitous be thy name.
One such form appears by name in the poem, “Year’s End Paradoxography.” Perhaps anticipating our furrowed brows, Beasley provides a definition:
paradoxography: an ancient literary genre composed of lists of occurrences considered bizarre, abnormal, portentous, miraculous, and inexplicable.
Through prodigious juxtapositions of secular and spiritual language, the reader hears anew the bizarre commandments of contemporary times:
Wait, the gas cap warns
me, until the hissing stops.
Take, the medicine bottle advises,
If you’d like to talk to a live person, just say “live person”
These adopted phrases take on new and haunting meaning in their postmodern context:
Explorer has encountered
an unexpected error
and needs to close.
Beasley’s poems, catalyzed by that “[l]ittle uncancellable voice of 4 A.M.,” speak of and to our riddled language in its native tongue. These are vexed incantations, skeptical psalms, troubled proverbs:
O terra infirma. The confirmation
code will confirm—
on earth or heaven—
At one point, Beasley ponders, “Are there extralexical elements here, and if so, how are they to be/written?”
But the strong, residual current of this text seems to insist on the primacy, and perhaps the totality, of the lexical. For all our euphemisms,
She said oh for zero, she said
my set for her breasts and his package for her lover’s genitalia.
and all our analogies,
As cervix to vagina, so the Law’s
letter, to its spirit.
and all the inevitable misunderstandings of our speech,
As a kid I always thought it went
Our Father which aren’t
In heaven, and sat
staring at His stained-glass throne, wondering
where instead He were.
language is also our only viable means for navigating experience, consciousness, and the What-May-Lie-Beyond:
I’m not sure I got
that: did that sign
say God is nowhere
or God is now here,
Despite his enormous intellect, Bruce Beasley is remarkably humble. This humility is never more apparent than in the poem, “Self-Portrait in Ink,” where the reader glimpses Beasley’s perspective on his own poetic vocation:
little poem, little
out my dissipating
name on the water,
emptied sac of self-illusive ink.
This is not a poet who announces himself from the mountain with a megaphone, “Come, gather ‘round, and I will share with you my wisdom.” Rather, this is a poet who whispers wisely, “Come, follow me on this pilgrimage. We will leave no stone unturned, and under each, we are certain to find another question.”
Beneath his Notes at the volume’s end, Beasley has added, “As if the exegesis could ever cease.” Thankfully, as long as Beasley continues to write—by which I mean to probe and plumb and push the outer boundaries of the craft—it never will.