[69pp, $14.95, Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, California, USA]

SHAKE by Joshua Beckman

[79pp, $12, Wave Books, New York, USA]



Poems in Spanish is haunted by a ghostly presence throughout, whether it be of the poet's dead father or a kind of landscape of the mind, which is also, one feels, an external landscape of the senses. One reason perhaps that the poems work is the tension between the two landscapes, between the shadows in the cave and the objects they represent from the world outside. As the title of the book suggests, the poems are reminiscent of Latin American surrealism. They also remind me strongly of the so-called poets of the 'Deep Image', especially Mark Strand. Like Mark Strand, the material combines archetypal images with more homely ones, marrying the Americas of the south and north.


The language of Poems in Spanish is rich and vivid, yet remaining at the same time concise and clear. The poems can be read in one sitting, but they invite and compel us to return again. Hoover is tackling time-honoured themes of poetry - longing, love, loss, regret - but there is an impish humour at work as if to remind us of the absurdity of it all, an absurdity that is to be celebrated as well as mourned. This sense of absurdity is partly communicated by the presentation of a simple, but interesting image, followed by an unexpected line which punctures the expectations Hoover has set up for us. For example, 'A beautiful woman is passing' (who is she, what does she look like, where is she going?) is followed by 'and, if you insist, a man. / Words of skin and bone.' Or 'My dead father keeps watch over me' (we imagine here a presence rather than a man in a specific place and time) is followed by 'from an upstairs window'.


Although there is a dreamlike atmosphere in the poems, Hoover delights in making stories out of simple objects. In 'The Stone' he creates a narrative which tells us about the way he (and many of us) relate to ourselves, to those near to us, and to the wider world. But our attention is never taken away from the stone itself: 'I find a stone at the beach / that oddly resembles a man / cut as it was cut.' The poem holds much of Hoover's sly humour:


     I show it my own profile,

     and it returns the favour.

     Its expression rarely changes.


     This dark and handsome stone

     now sits on my mantelpiece [É]


     It stares for days at a lottery ticket

     I forgot to take to the store.


     It gazes at the ceiling,

     and wonders about the world.


     It's making plans for money, power,

     and something a bit like sex.


The mix of humour and tenderness returns again in the poem 'Don't Kill Yourself', which I felt as a reader was addressed to someone real (even if it wasn't):


     Don't kill yourself, Paul.

     The world is only angry for a moment

     and then it loves you again

     Even its perfect indifference

     is love and no love in equal doses.


     Don't contemplate some ending

     strapped to the hood of a car.

     Don't swallow too many donuts.


     Stop weeping like an ostrich

     and stalking the boundary fences.

     Stop batting your eyelashes


Death, the sense of things crumbling away is a constant element, but it is never shoved overtly in our faces. I found 'The Road' especially poignant, with its merging of the philosophical and the personal:


     Nothing is for certain,

     even the uncertain.


     And my mother is always passing,

     with her taste of other tastes -

     of paper, bees, and sharpness.

     Something in her is so solid,

     so easy to hold in the mind.

     But I can feel it breaking.


The book does have its weaknesses. The main one for me is that it feels at times too self-consciously lyrical and poetic. Images of 'dark' and 'shadow', for example, or the use of water colours such as 'blue lakes' and 'green fields', recur too often, almost as if there were only one acceptable language of poetry, as if to show, in case anyone doubt it, that Hoover is writing BEAUTIFUL POEMS. It can all get a little cosy, and by the end of the book, I found myself wishing that Hoover would tell me something ugly instead, something less dreamlike.


Hoover is a highly competent, intensely lyrical poet, but perhaps he is treading too much the territory already mapped out by others. Hoover himself says that 'Poetry values the unknown'. Perhaps he could push out more into this unknown.



There are a few lines and pieces from Joshua Beckman's Shake that I like very much, reminiscent of the best New York poetry:


     ÉBirds were falling

     from the sky and this pornographer

     I know was running around talking

     about an angle I don't feel comfortable



     the smell of sunscreen makes me want to have already fucked this afternoon


     and I think about the wonderful drawing

     a town makes without knowing


Yet overall, I find this collection from a poet who is listed in the Academy of American Poets, more than a little disappointing. I have come back to the work on different occasions to make sure that it wasn't just me being tired or unreceptive. Sometimes, if I'm not in the right mood, even favourite poets, such as Rosmarie Waldrop or John Ashbery, can seem to be nothing but vapid nonsense.


Why 'disappointing'? I suppose the poems in this book feel too throwaway, too structureless (even if there is a section in the middle of rhymed and unrhymed sonnets), too whimsical, too self-indulgent, too much like notes for poems without the brilliance of, say, the seemingly casual note-taking of Frank O'Hara. Poems don't always need titles, but I think titles might have helped me for a start to get anchored here, since there was little in the poems themselves I could get hold of.  Too many vague images are thrown in which I never picture, for example, 'the / thought again, the thought of / the sea, the unbecoming ways / of everyone.' I never see this 'sea' or the 'unbecoming ways'. I just know that the narrator is thinking about these, but, quite honestly, why should I care?


Hovering in the background is a lover who has abandoned the poet, but I have the impression throughout that he's really quite enjoying the sense of being on his own and writing poems about it, feeling like Leonard Cohen. The endings of the poems leave me strangely indifferent:


     Imagine how mean people

     can be in dreams, and how

     kind sleeping seems later


     the next man who will leave

     his lover for you


     All will reach an age and then die at that age


     I know how they treated you

     and I can do nothing about it


     ÉA weak woman

     will never make you happy.


I felt at times that I was reading a poem by an undergraduate student, who shows a lot of potential but still needs to realise that poetry needs work, that his own sufferings are not of themselves of interest to the outside world, and that his insights are not as profound and original as he thinks they are.


At times, there is a self-congratulatory, almost jocular tone which irritates me more than anything else:


     Did I ever tell you how, when I was young,

     I was the biggest doer,

     all fathom and future,

     pretending to understand?

     Well, that's who you're sleeping with darling,

     that's who stares into your eyes waiting again tonight


And yet Beckman can start a poem marvellously:


     In the days of famous want

     the people acted cruel and sweet

     the music was boring and insightful

     and if one found oneself in a well

     the others would pull you from that well.

     That is how it was. The countryside

     unintelligible in its evaporation

     and the people, their faces, full

     and with nothing to do.


But moments like this are rare.


The poems in Shake are supposed, I think, to win us over with their humour. Maybe it's just me who doesn't get it. In which case, Beckman is simply unlucky having me as a reviewer.


            © Ian Seed, 2006