In December, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to poet Shaindel Beers about her latest poetry collection, Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine PressIn December, I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to poet Shaindel Beers about her latest poetry collection, Secure Your Own Mask (White Pine Press, 2018). We discussed in-depth how personal her poems are, the role of the political and violence in her work, and even (after discovering we’re from geographically-similar places) the Midwest. (Our interview will appear in The Rumpus this February; I’ll be sure to come back with a link when it’s live!)
In the meantime, I wanted to share my thoughts on Secure Your Own Mask, because it was easily one of my favorite reads of 2018.
For me, poetry that values nature, that in some way echoes Plath, that deals in some of our harsher subjects, like abusive relationships, already interests me. But poetry that delves into the confusion and misgivings of reality and false memory, dreams and escapism?—well, let’s just say I’m all in.
Shaindel Beers’ poems are gorgeous, highly memorable, and shocking in places. Where it might be suggested that there are enough nature-focused poems to go around, Beers challenges this through her inclusion and admiration of nature. Several poems in particular stand out with their inclusion of animals, both realistically and metaphorically: “The Mechatronic Bird,” “The Secret Rabbit,” and “After Mary Oliver,” to name a few (though there are more, and just as lovely). In these poems specifically, there is the presence of, both, the metaphysical or metaphorical animal, and the realistic one. For example, in “The Secret Rabbit,” there is the analogy of running over a rabbit in the car and what that act might suggest for the overall story, only for the persona of the poem to later confess that they had run over a rabbit in real life, and what the implications were. In both renditions of the rabbit—the one from the story (metaphor) and the one from the larger body of the poem (reality)—we witness a physical, living and breathing, rabbit, but its role shifts in what it portrays, and this shift is a recurring movement for several animals across the collection. This serves as a reminder of the importance of nature in our writing, not only for nature itself but for its implications, and what it can thematically teach us about other areas of our lives.
Not to mention the role many current events and concerns take as a backdrop to some of Beers’ poems. Highly prevalent to this collection is the role of domestic violence, and the “surprise” of where violence is witnessed: often behind closed doors with someone we trusted, as opposed to out in nature among wild animals where the possibilities may seem more open. From the first poem forward, we follow interactions with an abusive partner, often partnered with nature imagery, politics, and escapist poems. My favorite pairing, however, are poems that incorporate memories of Beers’ son growing up, and how he represents an evolving male figure. These poems become some of the most beautiful and touching of the collection for me, surely because I am a mom, too, but also for the hope they instill in what we can teach our children, and how our world could be better.
Finally, there is the role of the real in the collection—well, the real, dreams, memory, and escapism. One of my favorite poems appears at the beginning of the collection, describing an acrobat act at the circus. Beers shared in our interview together that she used to dream of running away to the circus, and I believe it: the surreal and whimsical quality of the images in this poem alone, let alone others that reference the circus, bring to the collection an authenticity of longing for something better that is certainly implied elsewhere, but becomes more real in these specific poems.
I cannot recommend this collection enough. It’s lovely, raw in places, imagistic and surreal—many of my favorite qualities of contemporary poetry. I hope that you will give it a read, and take your time with it, and enjoy.
A note on how I read this book: I know every person approaches, digests, and appreciates poetry in their own way and by their own right, but I implore you: give yourself a chance to revel in the poems that are of an average-length in the book (1-3 pages), and give yourself time to slowly creep through and sit inside the long ones. Don’t rush yourself. And even more importantly, think about what the persona of the poem feels and why, and think about how reading the poem in that light makes you feel. These poems are significant beyond their lovely writing, because they place in front of us subjects that are prevalent to us right now (such as the #metoo movement) and encourage us to consider our understanding and stance on such subjects.
Finally, before I go, here is one last favorite poem from the collection: Shaindel’s favorite, and also one of mine. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy:
The (Im)Precision of Language
How far the ring-necked dove is from wringing a dove’s neck. The way a stand of trees can hide a deer
stand, concealing the hunter who will shoot the deer. The deer, who will fall in the fall in the fallow field.
Once, someone who was dear to me threatened me with a deer rifle. Cleaned it random times, out of season when
he was upset. Said, I don’t want to be divorced. We can make this work, while working the polishing cloth along the metal
barrel of the gun. My blood barreled through my body when I would see his truck in the drive. I was never not scared to come home, to fall
asleep, to say the least little thing wrong. Language became a tricky game where saying nothing meant everything, where saying everything
meant nothing left to fear. I sang my sorrow song to anyone who would listen, recognized the panic of birdsong, the desperation of the killdeer
feigning its broken wing. Anything to lure the predator from its nest. Its broken wing was strength of a different kind. I figured showing my weakness
might help me. Someone might understand the bird of my heart always crashing against the cage of my ribs, the moth of hidden fear fluttering
to escape from my throat. Once, in my Shakespeare class I learned that brace meant a pair, a brace of kinsmen, of harlots, of greyhounds,
a brace of warlike brothers. In another time I stood at the front of the classroom in a chest brace because my husband had collapsed
the cartilage between my ribs. I couldn’t reach the string on the movie screen and had to ask for help. I said, I’m wearing a brace, so I can’t stretch. I thought of the grimace stretching across the nurse’s face when I said, I know, this sounds like domestic violence. It was an accident, just goofing around. I wrapped the Velcro belt around my ribs each morning as he ribbed me that I should have given up, What was I trying
to prove by staying in a submission hold until he cracked my ribs? How could I be so stupid? So stubborn? I didn’t know he
was grooming me for greater violence, the rock thrown at me in the car, the wedding ring pressed so tight
by his hand holding mine that I bled. Which brings us back to the dove, the difference between ringing
and wringing and where language leaves us when someone controls every word we say, when we have no one left to talk to....more
The sequel to K. Arsenault Rivera’s acclaimed fantasy debut, The Phoenix Empress is a superlative example of what fantasy is capable of.
The restrained, visually evocative world building of The Tiger’s Daughter is continued here. Many of the animals witnessed in this series are unique combinations of the animals we see in our own landscapes, enriching Rivera’s fictional world and keeping the reader grounded. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the book is Rivera’s prose, and her willingness to question the reliability of one of her narrators. Shefali has been seeing ghosts since the first book, and not only does this give the reader the opportunity to enjoy Rivera’s grisly renderings of the afterlife, but it also complicates the marriage at the heart of the series.
Readers left Shizuka and Shefali essentially walking in opposite directions at the end of the previous book—Shizuka as newly-crowned empress, and her warrior lover Shefali facing physical and psychological trials typically only seen in science fiction and horror. Much of The Phoenix Empress explores the struggles of their growing relationship under the specter of PTSD and the stressors of their unique positions. Shizuka and Shefali’s transformed marriage is a fascinating through line, and Rivera is to be commended for building a relationship that needs work, instead of one that was perfected as soon as vows were exchanged. Separated for several years, Shizuka and Shefali must relearn their partnership and deal with the outside expectations of a very public marriage.
The Phoenix Empress is a tremendous achievement, and highly recommended....more
This book is great for Gone Girl and Girl on the Train fans, for sure---but I feel like it also does more, and better, work. The female characters inThis book is great for Gone Girl and Girl on the Train fans, for sure---but I feel like it also does more, and better, work. The female characters in this are distinct and much better explored, I feel, and the turn at the end of the book happens where it should---the end, not the middle---and the book's success does not depend entirely on that twist happening and being believable. I think the ending is a tad rushed after that twist, the dialogue not as carefully laid out as earlier in the book, but otherwise, it is an enjoyable story with an enjoyable turn. Also a very interesting commentary on what minimalism can be, if the subject interests you! I'm definitely looking forward to the film, as well as the book's sequel, and I recommend to the suspense-thriller enthusiast. ...more
The thing that I love about erasure poetry is how interactive it can (and should!) be with the original work it is pulling from. I think, for some wriThe thing that I love about erasure poetry is how interactive it can (and should!) be with the original work it is pulling from. I think, for some writers who attempt this form, the goal is to reinvent the words that are on the page, than to accept them and attempt to draw something new out of the woodwork. But I find this to be problematic: if the writer chooses to engage with another writer’s work, and distance their resulting works from it, what are they truly accomplishing? How have they challenged themselves? What are they implying about the original work?
On the flip-side, when the writer takes what the other writer has done, celebrates it, and points out some of the facets we may have missed in the previous work, by performing this erasure, then I believe those writers are onto something. And I believe this is where David Dodd Lee comes in, with the two collections of erasure poetry he has compiled of John Ashbery’s extensive work. Just as Ashbery himself notes in the blurb for this second collection, that the poems “were actually written by the poems themselves, which had definite ideas about what they wanted and didn’t want” (2017). This suggests to me that David Dodd Lee not only remained true to what he believed John Ashbery had originated on the page, but he created new poems that were reflective of what he believed the original poems wanted to be.
Whatever John Ashbery’s original intentions with his work—that question could easily take up a series of blog posts in and of itself!—the poems that Lee generates in their place are energetic, intense, and surprising. True to the persona of a Lee poem, they are nature-centric, imagistic, and politically-focused. Much like John Ashbery’s poems, these new erasures examine relationships, specific memories and images, and where we fall within nature ecopoetically, as well as where we live within the political landscape.
To explore these ideas in more detail, I have selected one of my favorite poems from the collection, titled “Summer,” and based on John Ashbery’s poem, “The Double Dream of Spring.”
There is that sound like forgetting somebody time hardly seen the twigs of a tree the trees of a life We, among all others
And suddenly, to be dying a little mindless construction of pine needles and winter of cold stars and summer
I step to a narrow ledge. My face resembles the one reflected in the water.
Isn’t this lovely? This is truly one of my favorite poems from the collection, for its imagery, use of white space, and what it reflects in, both, Lee’s and Ashbery’s work (again, my favorite form of erasure—when it can reflect both of the writers involved). I admire the work that goes into erasing poetry, and I’m definitely of the mind that the work should still embody that work from which it has borrowed, and I think that’s achieved here rather wonderfully. First, the opening phrase, contained in the first three lines of this poem, are highly reminiscent to me of my all-time-favorite Ashbery poem, “At North Farm,” which opens with, “Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you.” This line has stayed with me for years, from the first time I ever gave that poem a read. There’s something about the combined certainty of both of these phrases, in Ashbery and Lee’s work, as well as almost the removal of agency from the persona at hand: we can’t help that someone is approaching, much like we can’t help the process of forgetting. Both of these things seem inevitable, and hardly memorable or noteworthy most of the time, but there is both trouble and comfort to be found in that inevitability.
Second, I’m very interested in how this poem works visually, and what both white space and short lines bring to John Ashbery’s work. Admittedly, I’ve always read his work very slowly, and I read more pauses into his lines than is technically warranted by how the poems are laid out on the page. However, I think there’s something that can be said for that—their density and complexity, their need for breath. While it could be argued that Ashbery’s poems could be laid out differently to better encapsulate their imagery and movement, which I think is on the list of what Lee has achieved here in his retelling, I think it’s important, too, to recognize that density is as welcome in a compart form as in the sparse ranges that so many of us now seek out in our most contemporary reading cycles. I think on some level this is addressed through Lee’s embodiment of these poems, in his repurposing of the longer lines into something more minimal, but still rich with imagery, question, and complexity.
Finally, from a thematic angle, both of these writers spend admirable amounts of time exploring and celebrating nature, and our place within it, while also addressing many of our vulnerabilities, both ecopoetically and politically. In this poem that I’ve shared above alone, there are questions about our dealings with memory, as well as our approach to death, and our recognition of ourselves at various stages in our lives. These are topics with heavy, underlying questions that both of these poets have tackled beautifully and even ruthlessly in their own work—so it only seems fitting that such questions would appear in the crossover of erasure. They are themes that can be troubling, yes, but are important and should be addressed nonetheless—and I believe how they are arrived at in these erasure poems is both organic and surprising, leaving us with twinges of their intensity and rereading for more.
Whether or not you’re new to the process of erasure poetry, or John Ashbery’s work, or David Dodd Lee’s work, I think this collection can be a wonderful starting place for the reader interested in investing in one or all. These poems are highly indicative of both writers’ breadth and quality, as well as the extensive process that goes into well-written erasures. If you aren’t so new to the process or these poets, you’ll bring with you hindsight that highlights some of the more secret elements of these poems, and what they illuminate about each poet. Basically, if you haven’t read this collection yet, there is a reason for you to do so—and then you’ll more than likely find, like me, that you immediately want to read it again, more slowly this time, because the ideas and images always seem to keep going, rather furiously, and the last thing you want to do is miss a breath....more
When you're pregnant and full of questions, concerns, etc., I think it's important to find those people and those resources you feel you can turn to,When you're pregnant and full of questions, concerns, etc., I think it's important to find those people and those resources you feel you can turn to, who will explain what you're asking clearly, openly, and without condescension.
I think this book for the most part does that, which I imagine is the reason it continues to be at the forefront of pregnancy-related resources, but it is far from perfect.
Many of the ideas / social conceptions are highly antiquated, and I think much of this book is written in a condescending manner, particularly regarding weight shame, body image, and the woman's role as a mother, at home, in the workplace, etc. Hopefully a later edition would reflect these updates and new upstanding ideas.
Also, there is the matter of more birthing options now, as well as an influx of c-sections, etc., though very little time is spent in the book on these methods, spending most of its time exploring the natural birth instead (which is important, but again, far from the only option).
These are some of the concerns I had along the way, as I didn't feel some of my questions were answered in the way I needed, or I didn't like how some ideas were socially framed, and so I turned to other books---but I will say this is a good starting place for getting some of the basics down....more