I like a poet who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, a poet who doesn’t hide her mind behind sentimental sunsets or foist her feelings onto elaborate fireworks displays. Jan Beatty’s poetry is always candid, sometimes cutting, and never a distraction from the truth, however hard-wrought or hard-won that truth may be. I trust implicitly this speaker who tells me in the first poem of Beatty’s new collection, The Switching/Yard, “I decide I’ll call myself ‘bastard’—/it’s plain and accurate, you can count on it.”
As a reader, you can also count on this poet’s sharp vision and incisive voice, struggling to name what she sees. For instance, while riding “the San Joaquin Line/ between Modesto & Merced,” our itinerant speaker observes “a young couple playing cards/ across the aisle” and marvels “does she know the way/ he looks at her is what people spend lives/ looking for?” Later, from the California Zephyr, she reports, “We’re coming out of nowhere into the next nowhere” and then reveals slowly, “This train makes me think of my birth father,/ the smooth glide through nowhere,/ alive in Boston, how I walk around in his nothingness./ How I look like him but don’t know him.” While riding the dirt line to Winnipeg through the province of Manitoba, she tells us how “the sky’s/ blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” and wonders “Is anyone else on this train tonight looking for ghosts?”
Here, in this title poem of the collection, the speaker names herself a “ghost explorer returning, looking for blood.” Watch how she follows that trail of blood, how she fearlessly opens and reopens the wounds that small, primal word conceals. Blood is everywhere as the speaker imagines her parents—“two bodies slammed together/ […] and I was made,/and in the making the blood ran”; as she studies the light “from a signal,/ shooting the whole traincar bloody red”; as she predicts, “Tomorrow in the open I will be legion—/ you will see me bleeding from every pore,/ a woman in the switching/yard.”
The last slash here between “switching” and “yard” does not indicate a line break in the original text of the poem. It marks something else, a pattern Beatty repeats throughout the collection so that certain words or phrases become linked, inseparable, as if they were joining arms in a Red Rover game where Tidy Conclusions and Easy Reductions have been “sent over” and subsequently repelled. A comma would indicate a series, a progression or elaboration on an idea, but these forward slashes are hard lines drawn at an angle, implying force, resistance, an unwillingness to choose. This is a speaker looking for a life line in her blood lines, a speaker who has considered the “so much under us unsaid” and the “great relief to not say” but has chosen to say it anyway, all of it, the possible words and ways of naming pain that pile upon each other like platelets: “the lone bulb in the garage/the hammering/ the goddammit/ the silence.” All ways of naming truth suddenly leveled—equally right, equally hard, equally not enough.
Joyce Carol Oates writes of the “prism of technique” that allows us “to speak the unspeakable.” I think Beatty’s slashes are part of the violent, skillful technique that allows her speaker to voice, and more than voice—to instantiate divisions within herself—“I’m at home when I’m not at home/ in all the buried stories,” “me, arsonist, burning down the house of them/with me inside.” And because this speaker can allow into language such keen self-awareness as “Some days I’m oceanic in my ambivalence,” I want to follow her outside of herself, too, speaking back to that larger world, speaking back even to Best American Poetry: “Your sonnet is impotent,” she says, “and I have a hard-on.”
Beatty’s speaker asks American Poetry, “Are you kidding me? […] I’m bored to death—is anyone alive out there?” She is, of course, the answer to her own question. These poems aren’t manicured, aren’t neatly coiffed. They aren’t the tidy, safe, gilded poems most frequently anthologized. When we see the world through this speaker’s eyes, we see first what is jagged and gritty and fractured, perhaps beyond repair; we recognize “the wrecking ball in all of us.” For William Carlos Williams, it was saxifrage, a flower that split the rocks. For Beatty, it’s something more like a handsaw welded to a chisel—a handsaw/chisel perhaps. Our speaker tells us there is “nothing as beautiful as a split rail fence,” a “split tree,” “all the hearts splitting, the rantings, the fright of it.”
When Beatty’s speaker raises her handsaw/chisel and splits rocks in her poems, I promise you this: there are jewels inside these geodes, large unexpected crystals, bright and rare. Inside you will find the angry, tender, perfect “brokenness of a highway dream,” but also a “lake full with glacial water,” and even “an old forest road.”