Poets do not often read at Carnegie Hall. Nor do they often release double-CD sets. But after his New York appearance in April, Jeffery Beam's current project, What We Have Lost, offers a broad-ranging multimedia retrospective of his work to date.
Those who are uneasy with spoken-word CDs should know that What We Have Lost is much more than a traditional spoken-word recording. Collaborating with Web and multimedia designer Huong Ngo, Beam has created a digital archive that plays on computers and traditional CD players.
Its centerpiece involves eight of his previous small press publications. The widely recognized Visions of Dame Kind (1995) and An Elizabethan Bestiary: Retold (1999) accompany three collections of unpublished poems. Reproductions of cover art, photographs and individual broadsides (like the numbered "Green Finch Keenings") are included, with an archive of reviews, interviews, and articles. Because the audio files are separate from the text, those exploring the CD on computer can hear Beam read any of his reproduced poems while ranging through other texts and images. Such juxtapositions produce moments of connection and sense beyond a poem's original frame.
Always, the printed poem is a slim thing. Its sense is caught in a vanishing glimpse, or is broken, if it's heard aloud, as attention shifts around the public author.
But I found myself touched in a different way by this new, digital medium. It makes issues of atmosphere and place, normally more ephemeral in poetry, concrete and tangible.
As I read, listened and explored, the computer screen's light doubled the wider light of the sky out my window. It was an intimate, interactive reverie, with Jeffery's careful voice parsing as my eyes drifted from word to thought. Sifting through the archives of interviews and drawings, I felt as if I were in someone's house, perusing through old photos and pieces of the past: an intersection between my own private spaces and Jeffery's.
With that said, the weight of this collection lies in the claim Beam makes to a place in American letters. Each volume or collection of poems is preceded by a new introduction. These, coupled with interviews, articles and extensive epigraphs, outline the links between Beam and the artists and movements he is kin to.
Beam notes his earliest poetry reflects a college love affair with symbolist and surrealist poets. In his mature work, inspired by William Carlos Williams and the later Objectivist poets, he has almost fully turned to a sparer, haiku-like line.
Nevertheless, Beam's imagery draws from outside the American landscape. From the first, his sensibilities reach back to Renaissance church imagery, and a natural world closer to that of Blake and radical 17th-century English Protestant mysticism, the political and aesthetic precursor to the great Romantics. Here there is no Beat landscape, no Sandburgian Chicago, no Snyderesque Buddhist Rockies. There is only the field made elven-strange, in "Findings" from Visions of Dame Kind:
I took the apple
from where it fell
& went down
under the grass
under the pasture's last
where the mole's
inner sanctum lies
where the apple seed
is a bead of sweat
in the cool earth.
I found there:
the sun & the
It's the curious union of American objectivist aesthetics, whose democratic intent seeks to free the poem's subject from the weight of the author's hand, with a more distant landscape still populated by God and light and spirit.
It's not so remarkable that such an instinct should be found in America, but that, bent to these interests, Beam should be as publicly successful as he is. After all, this is nowhere near American Idol. It's also far from the Southern confessional, and the academic, postmodern difficulty--those twin mainstreams of American poetry.
Wisely, Beam never attempted to make himself sellable. He chose instead a smaller scale, working with regional, small presses, building connections with regional artists to produce an array of projects. These have culminated in the Bestiary project (with artist Ippy Patterson) and composer Lee Hoiby's song-cycle, "Life of the Bees." Like Blake before him, the economy and scale at which Beam chooses to work has political implications. The choices he made run counter to the deadening norm, yet they've enabled him to pronounce an aesthetic that carefully and deliberately affirms what is often lost in our culture's overuse of irony.
His simply carved lines belie the difficulty of working in so minimal a medium, of returning repeatedly to the subject for its shape. He has mastered the difficult work of stopping at the awkward or seemingly naïve celebration and leaving it bare, without another layer of words, so that no other surfaces lie between reader and poem.
Beam's position on the margins is doubled. As a queer poet, he has a desire that the mainstream world is discomforted by and he lives in a world where his value is openly contested. His published and unpublished queer poetry, collected here as "Beautiful Tendons," are set off from other projects. Even so, here as elsewhere, Beam attempts to redeem an abject nature by recovering its light:
Who is the erotic one
The lean monklike body
The quiet moisture
collecting on the window
If there is a fault overall with Beam's aesthetic choices, it is that he sometimes moves so quickly after this redemption. Even the most recent poems that depict our brokenness do so gently, moving quickly to affirmation. But this may be the work he feels is needed: a wooing that draws us from the mire of alienation. Perhaps this is why, in a poem titled "The Suicide," he imagines the title character repeating:
Nature, if I am not yet
entirely lost to you:
sullen towards Death:
Like Rilke and other late-modernist poets, Beam abandons the Romantic or symbolist desire to bring down the beautiful. Instead he seeks that supposedly lost light in small things--the quail, cat or dandelion. Our redemption appears, not as an image in his poems, but in the spaces between lines where the word, left alone, shines. It is left alone, we realize, in order to reach after that moment of redemption possible in all grief.
We sense Beam knew this from the first. In one of his earliest poems from The Golden Legend (1981) he writes:
Who says Grief is pale
She dresses with rainbow fire
and wears shoes of leaves and pardon
She flies up
and a blue flame showers from her face
Poets occupy a strange position in our fast, modern life, engaged in the least commercial of arts, bearing the slightest of professional profiles. The poem, though incidental and light, requires something hard of us: that we listen and listen again, closely. Yet in poetry there is such a history of intelligent inquiry into (and passionate defense of) a painful, ecstatic relation to world, that we are astounded whenever we are in real need to find words that exactly speak to us, and touch us. Jeffery Beam's new CDs convey this in ways past counting.