The Inside of an Apple by Joshua Beckman

Reviewed By

In his introduction to Things Are Happening (Copper Canyon, 1998), Gerald Stern describes Beckman’s early verse as “figurative or metaphysical encounters done with concrete and ordinary language whereby the literal in itself becomes symbolic.” In The Inside of an Apple, Beckman’s seventh book, one poem closes with a quote from Thoreau that enacts the idea of this duality exactly:

“An oak tree
in Hubbard’s Passage
stands absolutely
motionless
and dark
against the sky.”

Literally, it’s just leaves and air, a tree perhaps like any other. But keywords “passage,” “motionless,” and “dark” suggest kinetic momentum and ominous energy, as if an individual oak stands any chance in the face of daunting odds. Beckman includes this quote at the end of “Silver streamers dazzling winter,” one of many pieces to in- and evoke nature, albeit one of the longest. For the most part, these are tiny poems of sensory immediacy and lasting impression, from tumbling autumnal scenes of leathercoated pomes to stalactite tabernacles beneath the stars. Composed in slim, compact stanzas, of one- and two-word lines, the lyrics move like animal tracks or rainwater runoff, others like snapshots framed in syntactic fragment. Here’s two examples in their untitled entirety:

flowers from
the outside
now, full of
living water
like a cloud

and

reveling in the
light
not of a
thing, just left
the door open
like it was summer
and walked out

These are fantastically imaginative and impossibly tiny, reminiscent of Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms (Wave, 2011). Like Andrade, Beckman employs strange, deceptively simple imagery, knotted together through speakers who appear, at times, to obscure identity and embrace bare language and, at others, comfortable with funny, informal filler (“kinda,” “I guess,” and “Yeah, well”) and terms from casual conversation (like “zip” to mean “zero”). This plainspoken patter, familiar to the poet’s previous work, places Beckman’s masterfully controlled phrasing in only higher relief. Throughout the book, he delivers three-word wonders of successive monosyllables, like “cold rose soap” and “Grey light shadow, ” delivered at such a clip as to render each passage necessarily re-readable.

The Inside of an Apple is not all stand-alone stanzas of brilliance and brevity. Where certain threads recur, they surface and return, renewed, or altered. Blue glaciers appear early on, then re-appear in matted white, framed on the wall of a second person’s office. Elsewhere, “the cold water’s / big white sound” becomes “a burning white gray sky / that is also water.” Such repetitions and revisions reveal an obsession with the double-take, the re-consideration, with especial attention paid to ocular absorption: “If one feels nothing / and still sees, sees with his eyes / if one sees with his eyes sees with his eyes.” “In the air” interrogates further the apparently paradoxical conditions of vision:

How vacant is the real unseeing stare,
they want to call it dead but dead’s
too much alive.

Here the speaker questions the extent to which the “unseeing stare,” that all-pervasive, indiscriminate gaze, is actually terribly vacant. As if the unseeing can be said to be alive at all. And yet, like Thoreau’s sauntering eye or Emerson’s “transparent eye-ball,” Beckman’s speakers seem not to search for anything, per se, but see in all things an animating spirit, inseparable from the physical. As if, in this imagined world, to paraphrase Emerson, natural facts serve only as symbols for spiritual facts. But I suspect it’s not so simple and straightforward. Maybe, as Stern suggested way back at the beginning of Beckman’s career, the natural and the spiritual need not exist in isolation, or even in any relation to each other. Perhaps they’re one in the same, literal fact and figurative symbol both. The careful, swirling macrocosm of The Inside of an Apple affirms this.


Diego Báez writes regularly for Booklist and Whole Beast Rag. Other work has appeared most recently in Hobart, Rain Taxi, and The Review of Higher Education. He lives and teaches in Chicago. More from this author →