A century ago it was practically de rigueur for novelists to moonlight as poets and vice-versa. Hardy, Kipling and D. H. Lawrence proved adept at both forms despite professing a clear preference for one over the other. Oscar Wilde dazzled with prose, poetry and plays. Nowadays such showmanship is rare, and the poet’s claim of being equally proficient in producing a novel is greeted with skepticism. Literary ambidextrousness, it would seem, is either showing off or a delusion of grandeur.
However, one of the surprise publishing successes of recent years was Ben Lerner’s short but shrewd Leaving the Atocha Station. Lerner had three poetry collections under his belt before he tried his hand at a novel that was snapped up by Coffee House Press. Whichever form he opts for next, he has a readership won over by his merits.
Lerner’s Coffee House stable-mate, Dan Beachy-Quick, has traced a similar career trajectory. Beachy-Quick has five collections of poetry to his name, together with two books of prose essays, A Whaler’s Dictionary (2008) and Wonderful Investigations (2012). Now, with An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, comes his first novel. Unlike Lerner’s debut which clearly evinced novelistic intentions and, for all its tangential musings, actually read like a novel, Beachy-Quick’s stab at fiction is not an entire departure from poetry. It feels like a hybrid work, a half-way house that uses the novel only for its framework and furnishings (beginning and end, narrative, characters) while retaining poetry for its interior design (descriptions, moods, frequent meditations). We enter in and are immediately disoriented. In time, though, it pays to surrender our desire to pigeonhole and classify and simply succumb to what is, in essence, a beguiling story of loss, memory and the art of telling tales.
So runs an attempt at a neat sum-up. But An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky resists that more detailed break-down. At its heart is a first-person narrator called Daniel, who may or may not be modeled on Dan Beachy-Quick. Daniel is struggling to write a partly autobiographical novel (‘about the fiction of the self’). Plundering past memories is tough. He is racked by perpetual self-consciousness and refuses to show the novel to anyone, even best friend and fellow professor Olin. Daniel’s mother and sister are dead; his father, an academic who translated myths and ended up being besotted by them, has disappeared; his lover, Lydia, has also absconded, upping and leaving on hearing Daniel cannot father their unborn child.
Characters are thus jilted, responsibilities shirked, hopes quashed. Beachy-Quick diffuses the drama, disclosing his facts piecemeal, never in indigestible chunks. They remain, however, facts. Interlarded with them are strange Borgesian dreamscapes, the flip-side of fact, or at least perceived reality. The most bizarre concerns a pearl that falls to the floor and becomes Pearl, a girl who falls through the floor, into the sea and, in a sense, outside the novel. Added to this are letters to Daniel from his father filled with mythical allusion and cryptic thought (‘Songs are doors. Singers betray thresholds’), fairy (or ‘faerie’) stories, broken verse and Daniel’s belief that his student, Ishmael, is the son he never knew.
‘There is a line across which the fact wanders and becomes imaginary, but like the equator, it is an imaginary line,’ Daniel muses. Beachy-Quick explored that same boundary in Wonderful Investigations; here he traces it again, if only to routinely erode it. At one point, Daniel upbraids Olin for being economical with the truth. ‘“I’m always telling the truth,”’ Olin protests, ‘“I mean, I never am. It’s hard to tell the difference. I get so confused.”’ The reader does too, nonplussed by shifty characters and Daniel’s slippery evasions and ellipses. When he tells Olin about Wonders and Tales, a fabulous and illicit book from his childhood, and how he ‘lost sense of what was real and not real’, Olin’s response is: ‘A worthless division.’
The real-unreal frontier is recycled but more intensively examined. What has recurred most often throughout Beachy-Quick’s work is his interest in – one might say obsession with – Moby-Dick. In A Whaler’s Dictionary he took pertinent thoughts of Ahab, Ishmael and the crew and fleshed them out into essayistic reflections. In Spell (2004) he fashioned poems from Melville’s lines. Here, Daniel, a ‘Melvillian,’ teaches Moby-Dick, impressing student-son Ishmael but flummoxing others.
Whales appear and reappear as a leitmotif; so too do apples, butterflies, footprints and pearls. ‘A pearl is made of consecutive layers of nacre,’ Daniel explains, describing in the process the structure of the book in which he appears: layer upon layer, reality and unreality, one image begetting another, multiple themes and metaphors dovetailing and interlocking.
Also merging, of course, are poetry and prose. This is a novel infused by poetry, the lyricism its warp and weft. In some places the poetics are born of the syntax (‘once wine enough was in him’), in others packed tight into the language (‘I could taste time in the water when I drank it, stale metal in my mouth’). A couple of pages are poems, stanzas rather than paragraphs, suggesting a reluctance on Beachy-Quick’s part to let go his first love and fully embrace fiction. His language is, by turn, beautiful, unsettling, buoyant, mesmerizing.
If there is fault to be found it is in certain rhythms composed of repetitions. On one page we get: ‘It was the old story, the story her mother told’ followed shortly by ‘That was the world everyone slept in, the world before the turbulent dreams began.’ What is no doubt intended to be lulling and cadenced comes across as a perpetual need to qualify. A similar trick is at play with near repetition – ‘Gravity wasn’t a grave’, ‘Memory is igneous more than ingenious’, ‘the salvage in the selvage’ – only it is all show, too clever for its own good.
There are readers who are more likely to be averse to the larger linguistic swathes, not to mention Daniel’s admission that the novel he is trying to write ‘has no plot’ and is ‘Self gazing at self.’ Indeed, some of that poetic contemplation reads like sustained navel-gazing. Search a little further, though, and we discover Daniel ‘dredging from dim memories crystalline moments – the angle of light on a pane of glass, the smell of sherry on breath – imagination wearing memory’s mask to rescue clarity from dim suspicion.’ Not only do we revel in his thoughts, we marvel at his author’s dexterous way of encapsulating them.
Ultimately, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky is charged with more unreality than reality and is all the better for it. Beachy-Quick floods his novel with a rich confluence of ideas, some limpid, many opaque, but every one flowing. This is fiction that challenges and perplexes laced with poetry with the power to affect. Or as Beachy-Quick’s hero, Melville, once wrote to Hawthorne: ‘But truth is ever incoherent, and when the big hearts strike together, the concussion is a little stunning.’