When Polish-born Joseph Conrad was asked why he wrote in English, he said “Because Flaubert was already writing in French.” That’s the risk you’ll take reading Amy Beeder’s And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey: that you’ll want to find another language to write in because there’s no way you can possibly compete with her. Beeder’s work is so splendid and precise that I want to fold my iPad in half with a hammer. I’m a chimp gazing at stars; Beeder is Stephen Hawking.
The book is thirty-six poems divided into three sections. Why? Any halfway sane reader—which is as good a definition of a poetry reader as there is—any reader halfway sane will blow through those divisions like a truck through snowflakes. The sections are headed with lines excerpted from poems within that chapter, and function like freebies from a drug dealer to loosen your purse-strings. The second section gives us “our harvest is lattice and husk—” The third: “Ladies in the Augsburg gardens, thieving pollen—” The “Notes” page at the back references the influences on two poems. And that’s appropriate, as the topics in this far-ranging volume are as original as you will find anywhere.
Several poems appear to be excerpted from a longer series called A Practical Guide to Hand Analysis. Other subjects include Classical references from the minor gods to the major; a “Report of the Chief Astronomer”; chicken gizzards; the source of Lithium; a deceased parent’s last tax return. This book of poems feels like skipping through an encyclopedia. Not just any book of knowledge: one that combines history, human spirituality (not the soppy kind), and language authoritarian enough to carry it off. The scriptural resonance of the volume’s title is not a fluke.
It’s difficult to identify Beeder’s impetus. She has Dreiser’s “covetous eye,” and that is only the beginning. Anything at all is fair play. This poet can take a seemingly mundane topic and spin it out into a voluptuous conceit. But poetic commissioning? Hard to say. However, consider “Isle of the Narrator,” which treats the responsibilities of the poet. Here’s the first half:
It’s true these boots were taken from a dead man,
but he’d already drown’d: I didn’t want his purse.
It’s true I’ve carried infant bones within a kettle
but for purposes of study only, brother
trust me: you & I are royal twins, operatically estranged—
observe our matching birthmarks, side & thigh!
In the duality of narrator and reader (or hearer, or constructor/receiver of the narrative) the narrator of this poem has taken what can be used. And as for making new life out of narrative heredity, the baby is already dead as well: this is an old art, one the narrator studies, but whose existence is anointed, royal. Writer and reader, related as they are, also are fatedly gendered. The male, “operatically estranged,” doesn’t necessarily accept the relatedness. As for the female, here’s the second half:
come ashore: nights here are Dionysian: crowns
of thicket, silly incense & umbilic torches,
horns & holy rattles attend the garlanded bull.
Though convictions and my eyeteeth dim in daylight
our severance is too high a price to pay for truth.
And anyway you didn’t voyage here for truth
No, there is not a period after “truth.” The poem is open-ended, only a beginning. The female side is celebrated, and the operative core of this examination of the teller and the tell-ee inheres in “our severance is too high a price to pay for truth.” Even the rhymes are commentary: note silly and holy. How does this mean? There is not one without the other; call it interdependence (not destructive co-dependence), but a generative mingling. From the need of one to be told, plus the need of the poet to tell, comes the narrative—with or without “truth.” And the echo on “severance,” which describes the possible sundering of giver and receiver, further suggests a dissolution of the relationship, but one in which a payment is made to carry the both over until the next time. Then the final declaration: “you didn’t voyage here for truth.” Notice the verb, voyage. It takes travel, from one mind to the other, from one coast of safety to another, a coast of rescue, and therein is the shared, operatic, responsibility: to build together, from the past, to birth from “umbilic torches” a place, an Isle, upon which the Narrator dwells, and there, enacts poiesis. Narrator and receiver are intertwined, too. It’s the place where only the narrator dwells, and the hearer must undertake the voyage, the effort to join the sourcer there. The act of travel sanctions the exotic.
The luxuriously literal “Confess” blends accessible philosophy and human courting of theodicy. It jumps right in from the title: “& you may yet be forgiven any sinful behaviors, even ruination or cream-/stealing. As He said//…” Notice the interplay between a general term like ruination, and the utter specificity of cream-stealing. Beeder’s narrator in this poem has such authority that it carries off the juxapositioning of such poles repeatedly: “God only knows the reasons for researching sal volatile [smelling salts], or for haunting the depot in such imprudent disregard for your reputation.” Note the extremes of difference among sal volatile, haunting a depot, and reputation. Yet these are all in one sentence, serving the greater purpose of this poem, which is to illustrate the human ability to hold on to truths that are painful, and tell them when necessary, in a way that gilds erring beyond the ability of any deities to cop to their very perfections. The poem ends with
Those who had a red stamp on their mouths: tell me, what does this signify
if not the lifeblood of
whichever bankrupt kingdom holds your trifling allegiance? Confess: We
cannot force the gods to
Note again the lack of terminal punctuation and the irretrievable deletion. Force the gods to what? To confess? To sin? What comes across is certainty about human behavior that is more perfect than perfection itself.
That there is more here goes without saying. The two poems from which I have quoted are among the less accessible poems. Having a taste of things is better than having the entire meal from so small a plate. Amy Beeder’s work in this book, whether in fourteeners, couplets, or prose poetry, comes across with her mastery of language and her modulation of tones and voice. Rarely does reading a poetry book present such a blend of erudition, music, and out-and-out delight.
And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, by Amy Beeder. North Adams, Massachusetts: Tupelo Press, December 2020. 61 pages. $18.95, paper.
David Epstein holds a PhD in English and American Literature. Currently teaching Creative Writing at the University of Hartford, he can often be found in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Epstein is on the board of the Greater Hartford Friends and Enemies of Wallace Stevens. He has three children, and lives in West Hartford, Connecticut. He has reviewed for Harvard Review and Shofar; his poems have appeared in such venues as Bellingham Review, Marsh Hawk Review, RatsAss Review, and more.