The Care of Poetry
Mulberry by Dan Beachy-Quick. Tupelo Press, 2006. 62 pp. $16.95
Dan Beachy-Quick points out in the “Notes” to Mulberry that “[throughout the poem] lines touch upon Blake, Dickinson, Herbert, Hopkins, Oppen, Stevens, & Simone Weil” (61). Hence, amidst the often riddling foliage of Mulberry‘s verse shadows of literary history and intellectual history pass fleetingly like wildlife or, better, like forest spirits—glimpsed quickly or distantly or not at all, only felt. Of these figures, Wallace Stevens is especially palpable, a structural rather than stylistic presence amidst the spellbinding leaves of Mulberry. In this third collection, Beachy-Quick strikingly remodels the poet’s traditional visionary relationship to the natural world, seeking new content and expressive possibility for poetic exploration of history and nature, of feeling and imagination, of socialization and passion—how each of these inform individual experience and finally make each of us aware of others and accountable to them. Mulberry is a significant instance of a contemporary poet confronting nature, but doing so as a realm of connective moral and emotional awareness rather than ennobled savagery.
In Stevens’s 1934 poem, “The Idea of Order in Key West,” the poet famously closes addressing a silent companion, Ramon Fernandez:
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order the words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. (51-55)
For Stevens, poetry dignifies a mode of failure—the poet struggles to sing “beyond the genius of sea” (1), the place where nature meets with human-ness. This struggle is, however, doomed—each poem is provisional, and while humans may recognize our link with nature, to measure it in perception and discourse entails outstripping it. Yet without poetry’s provisional illuminations, humanity sees the natural world only economically rather than also ecologically, an order of “the fishing boats at anchor there” (46) that have already “mastered the night and portioned out the sea” (48). Toward the end of his enigmatic lyric sequence Mulberry, Dan Beachy-Quick reverses Stevens while gesturing toward Robert Browning and Gerard Manley Hopkins:
nightmare tangent to reeds
why wind in me
sings my lung the lake
surface in unblessed rage
not for order scavenging
lullaby the gullswings
darken at tips into crows
my rage and one reed
sings Childe and I reply My Lord
it sang awemore awemore (14.24-33)
Beachy-Quick’s strikingly fractured syntax alludes to Stevens’s rolling consonance while dramatizing the visionary solipsism of Romanticism. This poet still legislates the world’s appearance: gulls may shift into crows; the very landscape becomes anthropomorphic at a turn of phrase, yet the Romantic poet’s solipsistic and visionary encounter with the natural world gets more than a pointillist makeover. Mulberry’s fragmentation and allusion, two staples of modernist rather than Romantic technique, already suggest that Beachy-Quick is ultimately out to rework rather than revisit Romantic temperament and subject matter.
The jagged pyrotechnics of Mulberry flare into a more deliberate design, and Beachy-Quick shifts from an intense solipsism to an equally intense attitude of care. There is an intimation of this in the urging reed’s “awemore,” in the passage quoted. This urging is also the poet’s interior urge and can be likened to an imperative of appreciation—the vital need to recognize otherness as an opening out rather than a bounding of the self. In recognizing this need, Beachy-Quick turns to his wife rather than a Ramon Fernandez, allowing the voice of Mulberry to shift from a singular “I” to a quizzically intimate “we:”
through dark unfathomed the dead
star’s light still lights on leaf a
finite edge we
loathe the bounded and nowhere
witness a cosmos in fetters
the woods lit by the lantern
blown out our eyes
by bright stars no longer
thinking love is bright
our woods and us (18.90-99)
Eyes, fire, the moon, stars and love in the passage each serve as sources of brightness, and suggest an elaborate interconnectedness: the glance between husband and wife is as intimate and delicate as the shadows cast by the moon at night, as profound as the galactic depths of the nightsky. The semantic ambiguities that proliferate in this passage are characteristic of Mulberry, but are essential to holding the intricacy of the passage together. The stark originality of Beachy-Quick’s shimmering vision echoes throughout this passage. What Stevens saw as provisional and ultimately tragic, Beachy-Quick figures as tenaciously present and comic in the ancient sense explored by Albert Murray in the context of prose. Mulberry is a difficult sequence of considerable ambition, an ambition compounded by the fact that any poet that takes to the woods these days risks dullness. Mulberry is certainly never dull. It rewards attention, and indeed as one explores its rich thickets one marvels that there is still so much left to say.
Reviewed by by Milton L. Welch
Beachy-Quick, Dan. Mulberry. Dorset: Tupelo Press, 2006.
Murray, Albert. The Hero and the Blues. 1973. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Wallace Stevens. “The Idea of Order in Key West.” Palm at the End of the Mind. Ed.
Holly Stevens. 1971. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.