A Brief History of Time, Shaindel Beers, Salt Publishing
A Brief History of Time by Shaindel Beers reveals her tensions at the duplicity of her life which finds her sometimes stuck back on the Midwestern farm of her childhood, still struggling to shed the air of baled hay and sweat from her existence, to the cold and calculated marks left by the city she always longed to be in. The temptation and memories of home, no matter how bittersweet, are never fully released by Shaindel.
This is Shaindel Beers’ first full length collection of poetry and Salt Publishing could not have done a better job in its presentation. The high gloss cover depicts the essence of the prairie with fields and a windmill all encased by barbed wire. There is blue sky for miles and the edges of the book are faintly branded with a repeated Art Nouveau design. The title is done in a beautiful script that invokes the feeling that a feather quill was used. All of these visual cues set the tone for the reader before they even open the book that their journey will lead them to distant, but familiar lands with surprises tucked into the periphery.
Shaindel has several recurring themes in A Brief History of Time and they are masterfully intertwined to take you on an adventure through her childhood and her impressionable years living in the Midwest which are laced with quiet longing to be somewhere else, to really see if the grass is greener on the other side.
This theme becomes evident in the poem “Elegy for a Past Life” where Shaindel speaks of the curse of every young person stuck in a small town, let alone rural America where you know more livestock than you do people. This poem is rich in capturing the idea of escapism both figuratively and literally. There is something sad about it that tastes of unrealized hope:
“Back then at sixteen
I thought we’d make it out together,
And become writers, the only job we could imagine
Where we wouldn’t smell like shit or hay or cows
But too many months passed when I didn’t bleed
And when we were safe, the test negative
And burned in the rubbish heap behind the barn,
You left, too afraid of being trapped
In a cornfield town
To wait for me.”
and in the poem “Why Gold-digging Fails” we find young girls wanting above and beyond what they have, desiring fancy, well-to-do boyfriends, because a good and honest man never seems to do when they are in the thick of the moment:
“and there was that odd moment of recognition
and fumbling for words
when quantum theory hit me and I realized
if we’d tried harder instead of merely flirting
in parking lots at the beach and the Dairy Queen
and the drive-in that sold gallons of homemade root beer
either of us could be that chubby blonde woman
with the fat baby”
Along this gently curved road through her life, Shaindel explores very touching episodes of love and loss. She looks acutely at her own misgivings as a wife and girlfriend, and all the while staying true to the fact that she wishes she could erase these blemishes of character. In the poem that captures the book’s title, “A Brief History of Time”, we see prime example of this idea:
“I’m no good at this love thing
nonetheless, I keep trying, like the benchwarmer
who begs to be sent in and is carried out crushed every time.
I wish just once someone would
cry out from the stands, Quit putting her in there.”
In the poem “First Love”, there is a tenderness that is wrapped in aloofness about love. It is as if she cannot allow herself to connect with him personally, to show how vulnerable her love is, so she focuses on things that can be mended, on things that give results:
“I’d fold his hands in mine
Like folding sugar into butter
And lead him past my disapproving parents
To my makeshift triage
Under the fluorescent buzz of bathroom lights.”
Shaindel’s piece “Rebuttal Evidence” shows how distant from love she has to stay in order to maintain emotional survival. It feels like she tries to save the rest of us from her inability to materialize love, to let us off the hook for possibly feeling this way as well:
“Maybe this is my abstract way of loving,
Which I didn’t ask for, but which seems to have always been my way—
That existential struggle between the self and other—
the way I never see where I end and begin in relation to the world,
which somehow always seems to puzzle or offend.”
Perhaps her greatest achievements come in her keen observation of the interaction of people and how the human condition is lost on many. In my favorite poem in this collection, “Triptych….The Light, The End, The Light”, the title suggests that there will be three defined sections to this piece, but the lines of separation are thin and one must read carefully to find them. The poem starts out surreal and gives us the first light:
“I slide into the soil.
The metallic taste of dirt fills me—
nose, mouth, and lungs. Days pass.
A sharp stab of light wakes me
when a shovel breaks ground, just missing
my head. It is little Jimmy Millican,
from next door, attempting again,
to dig to China.”
and “the end” is something quite moving, but no less tragic than if a bomb went off in the center of town. The character’s misery steady and shouldered the best it can be:
“Stop fucking around Jimmy—It’s not
funny! That astounding sound of loneliness
when the first shovelful of dirt
hit your mother’s coffin—“ but he trails off,
train of thought lost in a cloud of numbness.
Jimmy reaches down, pulls me out—
his father’s gone again.”
This poem’s last light is evident. The whole piece is a small journey of losses and discovery that lead to more losses. It pulls on the heart about how hard it is to be a child and lose one parent to death and one to loneliness.
Shaindel has a firm grasp on history and science and a delicate touch to her language. Her poems are by no means simple and many are written without stanzas leaving the reader to climb each mountain of a poem and hope they are prepared for the descent. She digs into hard subjects like cancer, death, and backhanded prostitution. In this collection, some of the longer pieces tended to drag out and I wondered if less might have equaled more for me. There are touches of her academia in this book as well, as Shaindel entertains several sestinas and a grand work based on mythology called “The Calypso Diaries”.
A Brief History of Time touches so many emotional buttons for me as a woman and as a reader, and I could go on quoting tender lines and well-crafted images for hours. Shaindel’s understanding of human relationships, even the dark edges of them, puts one in the moment hoping and wishing for sunny outcomes for the characters in her poems that never really materialize, leaving the reader slightly disheartened, but feeling alive in the craft of the tale she has spun. Many of her poems linger in the heart and the mind allowing for an easy path to return to her work again and again.