We Come Elemental by Tamiko Beyer

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The idea at the heart of Tamiko Beyer’s We Come Elemental is that queer is a natural order. She offers a series of intimate observations that human, and especially female, sexuality, lesbian sexuality, and the natural world are mysteriously intertwined. The poems also offer a beautiful response the medieval and retrograde view—mostly from the Republican Party and churches in Salt Lake and Rome—that queer is somehow against the natural order, sometimes called “natural law.” So, in some ways We Come Elemental speaks truth to power, but its vehicle is the lyric poem. The lyric poem as a form has been stagnant lately because its powers are often reduced to the ironic and sarcastic modes. This is different.

Often Beyer uses the first person plural to show the speakers’ communion with the sea, the sky: “Beach walking we / who siphon the wet”; “We are remembering to breathe if little else”; we find each other—muted bodies a call across land, across sea”; We step into humid light”; and so on. She also uses a clever nonce form, a prose poem paragraph followed by a tercet; this form suggests the miniature figure standing before, or below a vast oceanic space. The seascape and all its creatures are obviously important to her, and she uses this affection to push her language.

In “Diablo” she says: “Devil blue water I want to dip my blister body into, my ragged skin into your perfect wet. Your cool, captured absence—no mud, no algae, all angled. How does water do that?” The alliteration becomes a way to mold the words into new substances; in this way her form mirrors her content organically. The idea of a body of water as a body tends to prove her point.

Likewise, in “Lake Merritt,” she says: “Bird and girl at the banks of a body rich in molecular history: once estuary, once Ohlone hunting ground, once sewer full of ammonia runoff from gold boomtown.” Rarely is the sound of a line molded so well to the meaning and purposeful of a line. Beyer clearly has practiced her craft to make her meaning functional on many levels.

A long poem, “Where the Current Takes,” imagines varying attitudes towards currents in all its meanings: existing now, valid, passing in time, and flowing, as of a river. Here she invokes puberty, aquariums, The Graduate, and childhood memories. Elsewhere in the book, Beyer uses history to deepen her exploration of sexuality and the environment, both of which have changed depending on current political frames. In “Boundary Line,” a poem set in St. Louis, Lewis and Clark’s heroics take on darker implications: their explorations of the Louisiana Purchase and the opening of the continent to slavery.

In their book Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in AmericaScholars John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman have shown how racial and sexual ideology can be seen in the attitudes of whites who moved into and annexed western and southwestern territories. When whites encountered American Indians, they condemned their sexual practices (cross-dressing, sodomy) as sexually debased. Beyer’s interest in these profound ideas are done so via her term “legibility” which we “pass through.” In other words, we read sexuality via all sorts of other lenses, none of which are good lenses—racism, imperialism, the destruction of the environment.

D’Emilio and Freedmen go on to describe a toxic confluence of public policy towards AIDS and the urban environment associated with disease:

Finally, the AIDS epidemic and the politics it spawned emphasize the persistence of sexuality as a vehicle for social control. The mythology about blacks propagated by slave owners, the nineteenth-century medical campaigns against abortion, the nativist implications of the white slavery scare, the wave of lynchings in the South, the Cold War preoccupation with homosexuality: these and other episodes demonstrate how commonly sexuality has fostered the maintenance of social hierarchies. The response to AIDS continued this long historical tradition. Gay activists attacked the slow response of the Reagan administration as a sign of how little value it placed on gay lives. The reluctance of government agencies to fund safe-sex campaigns and to provide intravenous drug users with sterilized needles as parts of a comprehensive program allowed the disease to keep spreading not only through the gay male community but also among inner-city black and Hispanic populations where drug use is a serious problem….Power over sex is the power to affect the life and death of Americans.

Tamiko BeyerThe profound and moving thing about We Come Elemental is that it uses the supreme form of lyric poetry to give voice to all these intertwined and misunderstood problems and questions. At the same time, though, Beyer never shies away from beauty. Her political points never get lost, yet do not take precedence over lyric beauty. Try these:

:: but now it is a far off
wave and what the sunlight tricks
and what the body tricks :: we are all seeing what we wish. (“Dear Disappearing”)

:: dig deep into. They excavate we’ll dance.
When they find more than we see we’ll click-a-clink-a-
trouble. No, we’ll be more than trouble we’ll be terra-siren
jackrabbit caterwaul cassandra cassandra :: we’ll be worth it all. (“Dear Disappearing”)

It’s not us, it’s the legacy
of our bones. This tilting to the earth.
And what if we move

to the place outside our skin,
pretend a garden, a sun,
pretend a pastoral house? (“What We’ve Left to Shore”)
Then in such field quiet we understand our alliance to that
bay down south crowded with ghost ships and torch, elbowed
skyscrapers, underground velocity, to our own chaotic bodies that
have followed us north, tenacious as salt’s press. (“Hudson River”)

Beyer’s book overflows with such language. There is little sex in We Come Elemental, but the book cannot function without its sensuality oozing from every poem. She uses fresh forms, and brings the sad, tiny lyric poem that lately has been used to express mere post-postmodernist nonsense, and delivers to us a charged, politically relevant, aesthetically revealing book.

Beyer is the real deal. Read this book.

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →