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.

Risks and Expanse: Caroline Klocksiem on Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling


theories-of-falling

Theories of Falling, Sandra Beasley, New Issues Poetry and Prose 2008

I first read Theories of Falling in a waiting room while getting my car serviced. I didn’t know I’d end up reviewing it at the time; I only knew that I kept wanting to read each next poem and eventually didn’t care how long my oil change would take.

I’ve never met Sandra Beasley, but I sense that, on some level, she was thinking of me in her crafting of Theories of Falling. Here is a poet who wants to create an experience for the reader. Here is a poet who takes risks with language and form. These poems sprout from the seemingly mundane into dynamic, communicative and ultimately surprising lyrics.

Of course, Theories of Falling contains some poems that might be called “personal,” like “Story of my Family,” “Allergy Girl,” and “The General,” but Beasley finds a way to orient them outwards, so that we are in the poems rather than beholden to them. It seems to me that the writing is so compelling that the question of “how autobiographical is this” is the least of what’s interesting about them. (Really that question only occurred to me after reading Theories of Falling, when I came across an article for Hayden’s Ferry Review in which Beasley discusses being asked, essentially, how true the poem “The General” is.)

Beasley does not grasp her poems too tightly. They are not owned, but shared moments of language. What is true is the experience of the language, the breathtaking effect of a sharp-focused lens. Like the opening to “Story of my Family”: “You’re a tooth I tongue and tongue, / Tasting blood as you loosen, / Testing the sweet root of the hole.” She opens with this perfectly magnified sharp image, but quickly moves on to another note. Here, a family is restless, and the poem itself is restless. No longer a tooth, it quickly grows into some surreal necklace “no lover wants to wear” until it’s a field, a sprout, a “used body.” The family transforms from being the one “tested” to the tester— pluralized, animated “fingers scratching toward any light.” Each knockout image or phrase is quickly abandoned in favor of another, and we are swept along with them.

For the sense of restlessness and quick movements that typify a good deal of Theories of Falling, the book itself is organized with great care and insight. “Story of my Family” accompanies others in the previous section “The Experiment,” which hovers around issues of familial ties and coming of age discomforts. The middle section, “Theories of Falling,” tends toward a more expansive and sensual tone. Bridging the disparate voices, images and tensions throughout the book, it may be the strongest section. The last part, “This Silver Body,” is at times introspective (but never exclusive), restless, tender and complicated.

The poem “You” is thoughtfully chosen as an usher into the second section. “You” is more complicated but also compounded by the poem “The Experiment” from the first section. It is in itself an experiment. “You” (and subsequently the rest of the book) moves away from an experiment of “I” to an experiment of “you.” Look at the expanse and transformative play in “You.” Always looking forward, the poem divines that you are, could be, or will be all these things:

You are the whole building on fire.
You are the voice of sirens. You are
the dumb crowd milling, the capture

…a mother at the cliff of her window ledge.
You are the choice to drop her baby.
You’re the chance of a beckoning crowd,
Six hands gripping a sooty raincoat. You
are the only option. You’re a simple drop.

You are like a cloud. Gray
And you don’t hold anything. You are
That moment before a falling, the falling

…And by the end of the poem you are more and more outside the building, until ultimately, “the whole building burns with you.”(!) The poem “You” seems to set the tone for the entire middle section—infectious, uncontainable, unpredictable.

As Theories of Falling goes on, there’s an escalating sense of directness and desperation, a growing immediacy with each poem. In “Fireproof,” for instance, the speaker demands to be reprimanded—“now make the bitch of me my love”… “even the tame dogs dream of biting clear to the bone.” In the title poem, “Theories of Falling,” a cat swivels and bounces, but the isolated, unsweetened bottom line that drives the poem is that “we do not bounce.” You think back to “You,” to the “the moment before the falling,” but in this poem you’re now “in a cage, bracing your knees…” and the only thing to do is “Jump, for God’s sake. Jump like your life depends on it.” The following poem, “The Parade,” echoes this urgency: “love, you are wasting these elephants and this ticker tape.” (You can hear Horace whispering “carpe diem” offstage.)

The final section of Theories of Falling, Silver Body, reminds me of a Janus mask. Some poems glance back at earlier issues within the book (like “The Puritans” pulling back to the school yard that shows up in the first section). But they also look forward, and upward, perhaps more than the other two sections. For example, the poems now think about planets and constellations (a breaking away from the tether of gravity which infects a good deal of the book). In this sense, the section heading suggests a broader scope for the term “body.” The body these poems conjure is more than just human container, but an oeuvre, a constellation of work.

If this section operates as a Janus mask, the lines in the poem “Theories of Nonviolence” unfold in the same way—each line building off each other, but shooting off into new territory, to look something like this:  <- ->

“Theories of Nonviolence” is complicated in its construction and concern, a rich experience for a poem of only sixteen lines. The first line, “A frightened rabbit kicks its hind legs so hard that it can break its own back” leads into “Someone said shelve this [the video of the rabbit].” And from that moment on, the poem tangles line by line with concerns of “the repeat loop” of violence and subsequent ordering of that violence (Reminding me a little of Szymborska’s sobering opening to “The End and the Beginning”: “After every war/ Someone has to tidy up.”) Violence wells up. What can we do with it? The poem, like the rabbit, wants to escape the loop of violence—the father thinks of war of “in terms of the sword and the scalpel” but the poem’s impulse is to transcend that. It does not want to linger on this image, or look (loop) back on the scalpel, but forward, to the way an old lover might “save that man.” The father equates “scalpel” with war, while the life-saving lover equates “a sharper knife” with survival. Of the two, Beasley chooses to close with “knife,” the tool the poem associates with rehabilitation. Indeed, the forward-facing side of the Janus mask seems to rule with the stronger gaze.

The closing poem, “August,” is in three movements, a gentle reminder of the experiences the three sections of Theories of Falling have created. “Sooner or later, the thing you value most will beg to be burned,” will be out of your control, will never be truly graspable. This is as true of the sunsets in the opening poem, “Cherry Tomatoes,” as it is for Poetry.

Theories of Falling is a sweeping collection with an impressive scope of style, voice and concern. Haven’t we all read a collection of poems and thought at some point, “OK, you can clearly write an amazing ‘this type’ of poem… but can you show me something else?” Those are the books you flip through randomly, read about half the poems and then never return to. When you start reading Theories of Falling, you’ll want to keep reading straight through, like I did waiting for my oil change. The risks and expanse of Beasley’s writing makes for a respectable and sustainable collection. Based on this first book, I have no idea what to expect from her in the future… and I think that’s one of the highest compliments any artist can receive.

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Caroline Klocksiem grew up in South Carolina and holds an MFA from Arizona State University. She is a poet, teacher, and co-poetry editor for 42opus. This is her first published review.