blackbirdonline journalSpring 2016  Vol. 15 No. 1
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Review | Count the Waves, by Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton, 2015

spacer Count the Waves, by Sandra Beasley

What do we mean when we describe a contemporary collection of poetry as a “theme book”? Certainly this question comes to mind when we encounter Sandra Beasley’s newest collection, Count the Waves. Typically, we say “theme book” to suggest, quickly and briefly, that a book of poetry is “about” something specific. It is best to put about in danger quotes because, although it’s true that the books do focus on a central subject or narrative, they are often concerned with more, using the central subject to think through and into other topics. The central “about” can be a snare that draws in a wide swath of materials and sees them in new ways through a specific prism.

Count the Waves falls into the “theme book” category, but it inhabits another subgenre, too, one that uses an organizing concept—often arcane, bizarre found texts or invented forms—to spark invention that can be formal, lyric, reflective, and narrative. Joshua Poteat’s Illustrating the Machine that Makes the World uses (as his subtitle title tells us) J.G. Heck’s 1851 Pictorial Archive of Nature and Science as a liftoff point for wild, lyric meditations on all manner of autobiographical and contemporary subjects. James Harms’s collection Quarters contains twenty-five poems, each twenty-five lines long. Noah Eli Gordon created a mechanical system for the poems in The Source, which involved checking out library books from the Denver Public Library in a specific order and quoting passages verbatim. Kevin Young’s Jelly Roll is unified formally and thematically by jazzy, bluesy lines and spirited diction, mimicking the music that comprises its subject.

A key motif in form-oriented theme books incorporates the language from the source text into the poems, often with the title: “Apparatus to show the amount of dew on trees and shrubs [plate 23, fig. 36)” (Poteat) or “Annunciation: Eve to Ave,” “Annunciation Overheard from the Kitchen,” and “Annunciation (from the grass beneath them)” (Mary Szybist’s Incarnadine). These books often have a lengthy endnote or an explanatory front note that allows the reader some understanding of what’s going on—the rules of the game, as it were.

Of course, some books establish themes in other ways than those I’ve named here, and certainly most theme books take from both methods—no need for clear demarcations between books that use an organizing arcane structure and those that primarily convey plot or subject. And we must establish that the use of the term “theme book” is never a pejorative in this essay.

Even as we understand what we mean by “theme books,” we must also consider this question: are they real? Are they new trends in poetry, or is the term “theme book” merely a lazy man’s description of a book in an offhand way? Surely all collections of poetry since poems were first collected have had clear, unifying principles or overriding, unifying metaphors. Did readers summarize Spring and All as “about X”? I don’t recall anyone describing Philip Levine’s What Work Is as a theme book—it was simply the new Levine. The same is true for The Wild Iris by Louise Gl├╝ck. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs fits into our “theme book” description perfectly, almost as an urtext—a unique and somewhat complicated unifying form and unifying characters/narrative/metaphors—but who has ever called The Dream Songs a theme book?

The common assumption about theme books is that they have proliferated lately because of the now-dominant contest system that controls the flow of book publication; the idea is that in a pile of one thousand manuscripts of poetry submissions, the ones with the most clearly articulated themes or structures are going to easily stand out over those that are “simply” lyric or “simply” narrative. This one is about photographs of the Great Depression; the others are simply about the subject of poetry.

~

Like many theme books that draw from arcane and esoteric research in order to generate, frame, or organize poems, Count the Waves must include an explanatory note. A vade mecum is a seventeenth-century Latin term for any reference guide or handbook (this information is not included in the explanatory note and had to be Googled). Beasley’s text uses A.C. Baldwin’s (American author, 1804–1887; his dates are also not in the book and require Googling) 1853 text The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or, Instantaneous Letter Writer, by Mail or Telegraph, for the Convenience of Person’s Traveling on Business or for Pleasure, and for Others, Whereby a Vast Amount of Time, Labor, and Trouble Is Saved as its jumping-off point. Of the forty-six poems in the book, twenty-four take as their titles lines from this 1850s letter-writing shorthand guide: “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #1015: ‘Please Come in the Boat of To-Day,’” “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #5450: ‘In a State of Intoxication,’” or “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #6459: ‘The Country Is Quite Mountainous.’”

“Why,” you may ask, “would anyone adopt such a strange and esoteric text as a frame for poems published in 2015?” That is a legitimate question, and surely part of the argument of any such theme book is a basic case for its very existence, that its central structuring principle is valuable.

So Beasley has a wild idea, but what does she do with it? The poems here are vivid and energetic, fun and playful, strange and mysterious. They connect to someone named A.C. Baldwin by engaging with the subject of travel, of being an outsider, of distance and longing. Beasley evokes the perspective of myth or fable, reporting fantastical things in a casual, unimpressed way. A representative poem is “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #6833: ‘The People Begin to Understand.’” From such a title, we might imagine a poem about a traveler beginning to understand others, or others beginning to understand the visitor. But instead:

The line joining two points on a curve defines a chord.

Curves may be concave or convex, a gathering or a
dispersion.

You don’t know until you know which side you stand on.

Once, a man paid to put the two of us in a hot air balloon.

We didn’t know the words to the song, but we were trying

to hum the chords anyway. We lifted above the earth.

Fields and farms raced below us. I wish he’d paid extra.

For extra, they drop the earth away as you stay where you are.

It’s funny in its lightness, though not entirely concrete. It traffics in concrete ideas and objects, is somewhat ambiguous (Beasley mostly refuses to identify referents of pronouns), and presents something “odd” in a flat way that makes the impossible seem very real and mundane. One thinks of the realistic dreamscapes of Charles Simic, where we experience an alternate reality, or see our reality in startling ways. See also “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #1181: ‘The Calamity Is Not Serious,’” which begins:

He catches the rain in his cooking pot.
There’s nothing to put in his cooking pot.
He places a stone in his cooking pot.
He dances by the fire as the water boils.

Here, Beasley goes in and out of myth, “out” by meta-referencing the folktale of Stone Soup and “in” by placing the “I” voice as a villager eating from the pot. The calamity referenced in the title isn’t mentioned in the poem, and how this relates to an 1850s travel guide remains unclear. But the poem is fun and further bolsters the collection’s mood of magical realism.

The twenty-two poems that do not explicitly use a line of Baldwin’s Vade Mecum in their title should be construed as their own travel guide reference, one composed by Beasley rather than A.C. Baldwin. That is, those poems that do not spring forth from the 1850s text function in the same way. Much of the traveling and distance in Count the Waves can be seen as love poems, with Beasley’s speakers addressing a “you” in ways that recall passion and longing. Given the book’s epigraph from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the tropes of “love poetry” could be construed as another form working alongside the Vade Mecum structure.

Yet another unifying structure—appropriate for a book such as this one—is the sestina, with its repetitions and enclosure that can feel, like A.C. Baldwin’s text, connected to something older and complicated. In the book’s penultimate poem, Beasley lays out a thesis in a kind of ars poetica, “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #8206: ‘What Is the Wholesale Price of The Traveler’s Vade Mecum?’” “I intend to converse with many,” says the speaker (who could be A.C. Baldwin or Beasley or both or neither):

If some think me babbling, imagine how a game of chess
appears to one who has only ever known a checkerboard.”

I own one suit for going south and another for going under.
I traveled before I was born, and will travel after I die.
They will come together, each clutching their copies,
and raid my library. Beside Your love is reciprocated,
they will find four tickmarks. Beside I am fond of loneliness,
they will find fifteen. A wrought-iron gate makes beautiful
not its bars, but the spaces between its bars. Without structure

there can be no mystery. Dear sirs, thank you for this service.

Here at the end of the book, the author feels compelled to defend the poems against claims of “babbling” nonsense, asserting that they’re involved in something more complex. The lines of a gate (or the lines of a poem) create negative space, and what’s missing is felt. Structure provides mystery.

The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #6716: ‘The Strictest Order Must Be Preserved’” is another clue to the riddle of the book, and like all clues in Count the Waves, it sends the reader off down another mysterious path:

In the Bureau of Forms, he serves as the Office
of Bacciferous Plants. He patents The Holly. He proofs
The Asparagus. By the time a blueberry Fla-Vor-Ice
has stained any tongue teal, he has seen the application
for Platonic flavor and stamped it DENIED.

The title of this poem nods to the project underpinning the book, and the Bacciferous Plants officer in the Bureau of Forms is another traveler, though here he sends back plants instead of letters. Obviously this poem doesn’t portray something “real,” although it has real things; we are meant to enjoy the strangeness of an alternate world and its fairy-tale-esque residents.

If we’re searching for clues, the first Vade Mecum poem of the book provides a telling scenario. “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #907: ‘The Exhibition Was Very Beautiful’” personifies an art installation as a traveler. Is the poet an exhibition, putting herself on display?

They hung the paintings to be viewed from both front and back.
Luna moths flapped their great green sail-wings.
Stingrays flapped their great gray sail-wings.
Those visiting the exhibition were encouraged to touch.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The mother of the exhibition calls constantly and the father, never.
The exhibition has taken to pouring a little scotch in the coffee.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

No matter how short a trip, the exhibition packs two pairs of shoes.
The exhibition never knows when it is going home again.

It’s true that so often in books such as this one, relationships between the research material and the present poems aren’t always clear to the reader. Is the unifying structure integral to the reader’s understanding, or is it only the text that inspired the poem, and ultimately unrelated to the content of the finished product? Would Beasley’s book suffer without the front-matter explanatory note (which itself lacks in important details)? Would the poems be incomprehensible if the titles did not reference the 1853 travel guide? Would meaning be lost? Often, the connection between A.C. Baldwin and Beasley’s poems seems tenuous and becomes a layer of the poem that has to be navigated, but perhaps isn’t navigable for the reader. The subtext is part of the poem’s puzzle, but it’s a puzzle where the reader does not have the box to see what the finished image will look like.

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Are theme books a real phenomenon? Does the reader need to understand how a surrounding source material fits into the present poems? These are probably fruitless questions to ask; perhaps there is nothing at stake in knowing the answers. Count the Waves feels emblematic of certain books being written right now, one that utilizes research to crack into lyricism, that engages mystery or puzzle as a central component of its structure. This type of book privileges imagination and wildness above all else—and ultimately creates its own delights and pleasures.  

Sandra Beasley is the author of three poetry collections: Count the Waves (W. W. Norton, 2015); I Was the Jukebox (W. W. Norton, 2010); and Theories of Falling (New Issues Poetry & Prose, 2008). Her poetry has appeared in magazines such as Ploughshares, Tin House, AGNI, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Believer, as well as The Best American Poetry 2010. She is the recipient of a 2015 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Washington, D. C., and is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at the University of Tampa.


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