A Voice to Be Reckoned With: Philip Belcher on Sandra Beasley’s I Was the Jukebox


I Was the Jukebox, Sandra Beasley, WW Norton, 2010

If Sandra Beasley’s first collection, Theories of Falling, showed something of this poet’s promise, her second collection and winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize, I Was the Jukebox, makes clear that we are in the hands of a talented writer with a strong voice, a vivid imagination, and a bright future. This new collection is all about voice, and Beasley’s is unmistakable and clear.

Beasley’s organization of the forty-five poems in I Was the Jukebox hints at the formal strands weaving through the collection. The volume is divided into three untitled sections of fifteen poems each. Formal and thematic elements tie the sections together. Each section, for example, contains one sestina. One of this poet’s great talents is the dramatic monologue, and each section contains its share. Each section also contains one poem claiming to be “another failed poem,” although none of them is. Finally, Beasley includes in each section one or more “love poems”—for college, oxidation, Wednesday, and Los Angeles. In these poems and others, Beasley is fully in charge of her lines, her syntax, and their interplay.

Although Beasley’s fondness for formal elements is not limited to poems written in inherited forms—in this collection, the sestina—the sestinas do offer the clearest example of the poet’s formal dexterity. Unlike many contemporary poems written in traditional forms, Beasley’s sestinas have no need to sit and yell from the corner, “Look at me, look at me.” Even a reader unfamiliar with the sestina’s formal requirements will enjoy these poems for their music and their narrative force. Beasley writes sestinas with apparent ease; she forces nothing to meet the form’s demands. The first few lines of “The Platypus Speaks,” one of the three sestinas, display the poet’s humor, imagination, and commanding voice:

As far as the duck-billed platypus goes,
I’d like to point out there’s no other kind
of platypus. You don’t say horse-hooved deer
or moth-winged butterfly. A beast should be
her own best description. I deserve that,
having survived a hundred thousand years

of You would make a fine-looking hat. . . .

Another poem displaying Beasley’s facility with form is “Fugue.” As suggested by the title, this poem incorporates repetition of multiple themes—here, hands and mouth–and plays them against each other in contrapuntal dialogue. The musical atmosphere in the poem is heightened by the repetition of only four letters at the beginning of the poem’s eighteen lines: T, I, A, and H. Every line is end-stopped, and each line but one includes a complete sentence. Yet, nothing is forced.

In “Vocation,” Beasley reveals with a flourish her confidence with formal technique and her commanding voice. The poem’s eighteen lines employ significant repetition, but two other features reaffirm that Beasley is a poet intent on cultivating language with subtlety and care. First, “Vocation” highlights the poet’s fine ear. Beasley ends lines with “mall” (line 2), “Decimal” (line 7), and “calling” (line 14). “People” closes the poem with a chime. The poet expands this music by echoing sibling sounds throughout the poem: “Brahms,” “small,” “all,” ‘falls,” “want,” “long,” and “on.” Second, this poem reinforces Beasley’s finely tuned and quirky sense of humor:

. . . Once I asked a broker what he loved
about his job, and he said Making a killing.
Once I asked a serial killer what made him
get up in the morning, and he said The people.

For an example of this poet’s imaginative reach, one need go no farther than “Immortality.” The speaker describes her existential predicament as being one yellow marble indistinguishable from many others. She is “waiting for someone to chalk lines of play, waiting // for the thumb of God.”

Notwithstanding Beasley’s musical prowess, ease with both traditional forms and free verse, and imaginative humor, it would be a mistake to focus only on her verbal skills. She has infused I Was the Jukebox with a political voice, as well. In “Antietam,” Beasley describes a school trip to the Civil War battlefield. “Our guide said that sometimes, the land still let go / of fragments from the war—a gold button, a bullet, / a tooth migrating to the surface.” In an understated description of the magnitude of suffering recalled on that historic site, the speaker notes, “We tried to picture 23,000 of anything.” Other poems, including “The World War Speaks” and “Making History,” address similar political themes. It is in “Antietam” and “The World War Speaks,” however, that Beasley misses a note. Each poem ends with lines announcing closure too neat for the subject. In particular, “Antietam”’s final sentence—“Sometimes, at night, I feel / the battlefield moving inside of me”—just misses its intent to suggest that the battle has affected the speaker permanently. Readers will not accept easily the leap from one of the bloodiest battles in history to a child’s embodiment of battlefield horrors as a result of pieces of “gravel lodging / in the skin of my palms”—gravel eventually absorbed into the speaker’s body. Still, this is only a nit in an outstanding volume of poetry.

I Was the Jukebox deserves praise for two reasons. First, the poems themselves are a delight. Beasley’s eclectic imagination and love of language are on full display in these poems. The poet has an insatiable curiosity and draws on an impressive range of source materials, from mythology and history to observations of contemporary culture and language. Second, this collection promises that poetry readers have much to look forward to in Beasley’s career. She is already a significant talent, and one cannot help but anticipate her future work with excitement.

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Philip Belcher has published poems in a variety of poetry journals, including, most recently, Shenandoah.  In 2005, he won the Porter Fleming Writing Competition Prize in Poetry.  In 2007, his chapbook, The Flies and Their Lovely Names, was published by Stepping Stones Press.  He attended the Sewanee Writers Conference in 2008 and is a third semester student in the low residency MFA program at Converse College.  In that program, he is working with Nick Carbó, Denise Duhamel, Sarah Kennedy, and R. T. Smith. Since March 2000, Philip has served as President of the Mary Black Foundation, a private foundation serving Spartanburg County, South Carolina.  Formerly the Associate Director of the Health Care Division of The Duke Endowment in Charlotte, N.C., he is a graduate of Furman University, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Duke University School of Law.

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