O Circular Philosopher

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The field is integral, too, to Dan Beachy-Quick’s Circle’s Apprentice—the field of vision, field of the empty page and of the populated page, field of self/ body/maker, absence of field. It is from these fields that Beachy-Quick enters into a conversation with Emerson et al.

“In a field / I am the absence / of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing,” writes Mark Strand. Emerging from this poem is a speaker out of step with his environment, a self-uncertain in the field outside the body. How many times a day am I on fragile footing with myself? we ask. In the midst of Facebook status updates and innocent tweets, text messages and teenage-vampire tv dramas, we become the ouroboros: eating our own tails in an infinite performance of self-sabotage. Our fields of vision succumb to a haze of useless bytes. We become complacent. Our brains are unsure, so they rest. So we make a nest. Maybe infinity is a perfect circle, and maybe hell is, too.

In his essay “Circles,” Emerson writes, “The field cannot be well seen from within the field.” Emerson’s forest-for-the-trees moment: a field of vision, an acute knowledge that in the midst of gallon-tons of information, from antiquity on, we can’t see what makes the whole, but we know there is, in fact, a series of wholes that constitute the concentric circles of history. The field is integral, too, to Dan Beachy-Quick’s Circle’s Apprentice—the field of vision, field of the empty page and of the populated page, field of self/ body/maker, absence of field. It is from these fields that Beachy-Quick enters into a conversation with Emerson et al.

The penultimate poem in Circle’s Apprentice is a poem in a series titled “Tomb Figurine”:

The field was blank. Then the body lay down.
The body lay down on the grain.
When the body grew blank the grain grew blossomed.
The blossoms made an absence of the body
Among them. The blossoms could not be counted
So the body was one. The flowering grain was gray.

Pressure on a stone creates a mountain. Less
Pressure creates a mountain in fog. The body
Supine in the field sees from an angle the pines
Hover over the mountains. The body
Bears a weight. The weight is blank.
Trees and mountains echo in the field.
The sky is cloudless. The echo is in the eye.

In this poem (as in the whole collection), the desire to link as inextricable sisters field to body to grain to stone to mountain to fog to sky to echo to eye. There’s a sense of accretion in these lines that both permeates and intensifies the speaker’s sense of loneliness, as in I’m alone writing this, and yet everything’s interconnected, everything’s weightless and reverberating. It’s important to think of echo here and throughout as Echo, who could only ever repeat the voice of another.

Beachy-Quick not only invokes antiquity, but these poems lament the poet’s inability (as an apprentice) to yet step outside of the voice of the gods (the past). In “Circles,” Emerson claims that he is an endless seeker with no Past at his back. And yet. Part of the great struggle of the apprentice is to master his craft, but how to do so in a vacuum? We can’t erase the past, Beachy-Quick seems to say, it’s all there, waiting on the shoreline, in the mountain tops, at the city’s gates.

The field of vision, and more importantly, the eye that sees everything but the Self, is borne out of a primeval fire bestowed by the gods into the human eye—an early theory of light I’m stealing from Empedocles but which certainly permeates this book; how can our vision not include time past? How can we see ourselves in the field? In the fifth, and final, “Tomb Figurine,”

Must I include my face—
My face that I cannot see—through which I speak
This question about my eyes, about the field
Of vision, in which my hands press down these letters
Unattached to my arms

The poet asks how to situate himself in a larger context. When a writer does the work of writing, is s/he really unattached to the body? The terrible philosophies we develop! That the mind and the body are separate is the curse of the thinker.

The circles will drive you crazy! They do me on a daily basis, we think. We’re sitting in our offices at computer screens thinking about the twenty-five things we want to do and can’t because of all the stuff-of-living. We’re thinking, get words down on the page and then we’re thinking why? And then we’re thinking about the dishes and about a visit from our brother and about our dog with an oozing tumor the size of a softball and then we’re back to Emerson. And Beachy-Quick. And Empedocles and Lucretius and Lavoisier and Leopardi (mud is the world!) and Janus and Iphigenia and Achilles and Pound and children’s songs and sacrifice and German Idealism and Romanticism and transcendence the tragic fall. But all that’s Beachy-Quick’s fault, not ours.

Circle’s Apprentice has two epigraphs:

“Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another is drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” (Emerson)


“Everything’s a test, say the gods.” (Hölderlin)

In the spirit of argument, here’s a syllogism based on these dueling? epigraphs:

If life is an apprenticeship to the truth
and everything’s a test,
then the apprenticeship to truth is a test.

A definition of test: the means by which the presence, quality, or genuineness of anything is determined; a means of trial. If seeking truth is life’s trial and as Emerson says, “Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series,” there is no static truth, which means there is no passing the test because always the eye deceives and always the fog rolls in and always the mirrors, like Lavoisier’s, distort. In “The Ziggurat,” Beachy-Quick writes, “I read the page / Until it became a mirror.” The mirror then distorts the story; with himself in the picture, our speaker doesn’t know what to make of it. He’s the watcher, but is he also a character? Eco wrote in Foucault’s Pendulum about Lavoisier’s funhouse mirrors: “Wherever you see a mirror—it’s only human—you want to look at yourself. But here you can’t…You step back, find yourself for a moment but move a little and you are lost.”

Circle’s Apprentice is a series of endless recursions meant to make us dizzy, I think, because the poet himself is dizzy with the weight of situating poet-in-world. It’s one thing for Emerson to write that poets carry the truth in their back pockets; it’s another thing to be. a. poet.

The Self, the self-maker, the maker-self of Circle’s Apprentice is Janus-faced in his desires because, well, how can he not be, always looking forward and back, lording over beginnings and transitions. In “Antique Foundation” Janus turns on himself:

My face on either side of my face I tore
My picture in half to show the gate
You must climb inside your breath to leave
As fog the wind will bear you—

The Self is a descender into the Hell of broken memory in the second “Tomb Figurine”:

Spine-broken Ovid stands
Next to the middle of my life
I woke in a dark wood
Somewhere near memory
I heard memory go mute
I wrote about the birch-tree on a line.

The Self is always, too, looking up to the sky, to birds in the sky, to the sun and the sun’s refractions. Always looking up and asking, Why am I looking up?

In Beachy-Quick’s making, memory and vision are synonymous with writing. Scraps paginate the air in these poems, pages cover hands cover rotting peels cover worms. If Circle’s Apprentice is about self-making, it’s just as much about story-making. At middle of the book splay antiquity’s ruins. Iphigenia’s ghost strolls the shoreline lamenting her role as the fated pharmakos, the outcast scapegoat whose death (or the ultimate switch-a-roo of her body for a deer) ignites the wind for a whole army of Agamemnon’s warships. In “Poem, (Achilles’ Shield),” Achilles laments her death,

Where the circle she stood on, the circle of her own shadow,
Her own body under the sun
The circle became a spiral when she was lost to me her shadow became
a path that darkened by entering itself.

Iphigenia’s shadow represents the ourobouros refracted. When the circle breaks and spirals out, the memory’s lost to the elements, or the gods.

In many ways these poems are all the same poem, one muted and recursively folding epic question that begins at the beginning (lullaby) and ends at the end (tomb), with apprenticeship to architecture and ruin in between. Emerson: “Every ultimate act is only the first of a new series.” This is a book about the concentric circles of time, a self hovering mid-arc. In this way, an apprentice-self learns to apprehend, to perceive, the world.

If, in the book’s first section, “Demonstrative Lullaby” lays out the thesis of Circle’s Apprentice, hinting at the sometimes frustrating circularities of this collection, with its line: “Page opens field opens grave,” then “Minotaur’s Page,” is its heartbeat and sews the poetic line to the eye to the page to the hand (Emerson’s hand is more powerful than its creation, but more powerful still is the “invisible thought which wrought it.”):

This line is a thread attached to this point
Of its own utterance bending
Through the maze that to the eye
Not initiated appears blank

According to Emerson, man supposes himself to be not fully understood. The frustration we feel in our day-to-days: endless connections and circuitous routes the brain takes in its mundane repetitions: sky, bird, fire, eye, circle, fog, etc. etc. In some ways, this collection feels like the map of an obsessive mind, one overwhelmed by the myriad connections to all things, one that understands the simultaneous beauty and the pointlessness of art, and one that can’t tell its own story fully for fear of missing something, of breaking the unbreakable connection to the past. It’s not until the last poem of the book that Beachy-Quick looks ahead: “More soon on the nature of impossible constructions. / The man in the moon. The sea-rose. The living-room.”

And, too, Emerson writes, “The man finishes his story,–how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! On the other side rises also a man and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere.” Where will it end? That’s just it. It won’t end. Circle’s Apprentice takes the time it’s been allotted to reconcile the writer with history, the Self with the world. He wants like Emerson’s “Circles,” to pin a series of infinite concentric circles to the same axis point. But it also wants to argue with the pitfalls of round things and axis points. Circle’s Apprentice is, then, a grand and sometimes disheartening conversation with Emerson, with the gods, with the circle itself. Without Emerson’s grounding, Beachy-Quick’s Janus guards the city walls too tightly. Left alone, instead of concentric beauty, sometimes there’s concentric angst.

The poems here are manic repetitions and slight variations, jerking the eye up and down. They are journeys that end up being circular, which is sometimes only depressing. The toughest part of apprenticeship is the failing and screwing up before mastery. This book maps the poet’s suspicions that perhaps we are all born to create our own din, despite the noise around us. Silence, by its very nature lives in a cave beneath language and on the page’s white spaces. It’s ephemeral and desired and feared. Emerson makes this point loudly, and Circle’s Apprentice echoes: discourse may be great. Silence is better.

Alexis Orgera's poems, essays, and reviews have most recently appeared in <emAnother Chicago Magazine, Black Warrior Review, Drunken Boat, Forklift Ohio, Memorious, and Prairie Schooner. She is the author of two books of poetry, How Like Foreign Objects (H_ngm_n Books) and Dust Jacket (Coconut Books). She can be found online at alexisorgera.com. More from this author →