Rebecca Lindenberg

Dan Beachy-Quick's Circle's Apprentice

Dan Beachy-Quick. Circle's Apprentice. (Tupelo Press/North Adams, MA/2011/$16/95)

In his fifth poetry collection, Circle’s Apprentice, Dan Beachy-Quick applies himself to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay, “Circles,” with the same combination of critical rigor, emotional responsiveness, and idiosyncratic misprision that he brought to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in his previous book of genre-bending essays, A Whaler’s Dictionary.  And as with most of his previous poetry collections, this book concerns itself with the problem of language as simultaneously that-which-evokes and that-which-eclipses the world it purports to address.  It is often the case that books (or perhaps more accurately poems) are a poet’s continuous, evolving response to a “something” they just can’t get to the bottom of – a place, in some cases; a person, in others.  Reading Dan Beachy-Quick, I am persuaded that the compulsion to make a language for experience and memory – and the anxieties attending that necessity – together comprise just such a “something”.  For though this book very much belongs to the poet’s growing oeuvre, it serves splendidly to enlarge not only a library shelf but also (especially) a realm of inquiry.

Emerson’s generous, meditative essay “Circles” (1841) is an elegant reflection on man’s relationship to man, to himself, to God, to the sphere of the lived-in world, and to time – particularly how the new in thought and art relates to what precedes it, and to the very concept of permanence or fixity.  For Emerson, these things all exist in a series of mutually-constitutive concentric or overlapping orbits, where the new includes (even requires) but also eclipses the old, where “every action admits of being outdone.”  And Dan Beachy-Quick, in Circle’s Apprentice, has honored and appropriated (if not precisely outdone) Emerson’s essay, and has widened the orbit of Emerson’s inquiry by bringing to it gestures of Derridean post-structuralism (illuminating linguistic paradoxes, collapsing binary oppositions) that rhyme sublimely with moves Emerson is already making when he writes, for instance, “The field cannot be well seen from within the field.”  This kind of aphoristic construction is something that Beachy-Quick, too, excels at.

But aphorism is only one of the many forms that Circle’s Apprentice deploys in its structural enactment of the concentricity and eternal-return the collection explores.  In fact, this book is itself structured almost as a series of concentric spheres – divided into seven sections, the book begins with a group of “Lullabies” and ends with a group of “Tomb Figurines,” meditatively (not narratively) traversing the life cycle of individuals, of cultures, stars, language, etc.  Within the book, there are series of poems (“Poem; or, The Artifacts” and “Catalog,” for example) that echo the circular form of the sonnet crown without obeying (or completing) it, and within individual poems, palindrome and paradox work alongside other gestures to create a sense of turn and return within the poem, sometimes within the line itself.  These poems are lyric poems – a word we come to through the notion of music (something this collection has in abundance) but which we often use now to describe a kind of associative logic that is neither rational nor narrative, but adheres to itself through sound, image, recurrance, and variation.  If we accept Wallace Stevens’ proposition that ““Poetry must resist the intelligence almost successfully,” which Beachy-Quick did in an interview with H.L. Hix for the Best American Poetry blog, we might imagine these poems’ forms adding a bit to their “almost”.  Beachy-Quick writes, “Form reconciles opposites while preserving essence,” and these poems not only structurally but also conceptually encircle themselves – not so much writing about their subject matter as writing around it.  At the center of this collection (as at the center of each poem) there is a kind of un-see-able and perhaps unsay-able “dark matter” drawing the poems into orbit around it.  This is, I think, how great poems work – not as a means of expression or surgically-precise description but, rather, as a means of perception.  Beachy-Quick writes, in “Fragile Elegy,” a very beautiful letter to the Ezra Pound of the Pisan Cantos, “No/ Nothing here is discovered, no/ Nothing is disclosed.”

But that does not mean that nothing takes place, and this is one of these poems’ great gifts.  The inquiring activity of these poems is both thoughtful and soulful, “This rigorous music some call thinking,” as the poet describes it in “& co”.  Emerson begins “Circles” positing “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” Dan Beachy-Quick’s poems wonder about this relationship between “the eye” and “the horizon which it forms,” even going further to query the relationship between “the eye” and (a subject of sometimes-contentious conversation in contemporary American poetry) the “I”.  The poet asks, in “Lines”: “Self-tensed self, who is this I that says I?”  The poet is keenly aware that any effort of self-awareness will always include the limitations of received ideas, language, narrative and will always depend to greater or larger degree on how the “I” uses the “eye” to perceive how that “I” looks reflected in the “eye” of another “I” – an unending and mutually-constitutive relationship the poem addresses in “Poem (Achilles’ Sheild)”:  “She could see herself in my face and told me to stop/ So she should see herself in her own eyes.”  This “I” is implicated in everything in these poems and in the world the poems map themselves onto, but in its contemplation of itself it finds itself both alone and alike all the other “I’s” it tries to include.  Even the title of “Chorus & Hero” recalls the final line of Frank O’Hara’s “The Day Lady Died” – “And everyone and I stopped breathing.”  Here, the “I” is both with and apart from those it need to know itself “Gathered in a cave where each one of us says I and I echoes.”  In the same poem, Beachy-Quick writes:

“Sometimes the hero walks out from his house with his hands held out
As if to ask us who cannot help but see
If these blood-covered hands are mine  are these hands mine”

Here we have, as elsewhere in the book, a subtle but powerful facility with language that understands its multiplicity, and lends these poems some of their gravitas.  For “us who cannot help but see” suggests not only a “we” that cannot look away from the hero with blood-covered hands but also a “we” that can only look on helplessly, even pitilessly.  And the “blood-covered” hero seems to want to know not whether the blood on his hands is his (which would raise the question – is he a victim or a victor) but he wants to know whether those are, in fact, his hands.  The hands, which metonymically  function to both sense the world and affect it (to feel and to touch, to reach out and to have a hand in) return again and again in this text.  In “Dream Portrait in Wartime,” Beachy-Quick describes the kind of circular and unending processes of poem and poet mutually constituting (and obscuring) each other, calling to mind the iconic M.C. Escher image of two hands drawing each other into being:

“Incapable of grasping the hand it assembled
Poised above its shadow
Sketched on the blank page at the end of the book
I wrote it myself.
I wrote it myself in the dream.
I wrote it with hand poised above its shadow”

We realize, too, that it is not only the world-and-poet or poet-and-poem who are mutually constructing each other, but also poem-and-reader.  Beachy-Quick writes, in “Fragile Elegy,” “There is no me minus/ you breathing above a page.”  We are required for these poems, even though our very presence (bringing with it our own experiences and memories informing our perception of the piece) eclipses the poet’s presence.  As a reviewer, I must understand that reading these poems and attempting to understand Dan Beachy-Quick’s project, I am erasing his “I” with my “eye,” for I see it through the lens of my own experience, understanding, sensibility, even education.  But the poet has a priori forgiven me for this inevitable problematic in “Minotaur’s Page,” where he describes his poem as a “dark fuse” that is waiting to be “lit” by the reader:

“I pressed my hand to the paper            a form
Of initiation before writing this line
Whose dark fuse waits to be lit”
…”Erasing itself as it burns”

And yet at the same time as they erase, readers are eclipsed by the presence of the poet, becoming intellectually and emotionally involved with him or her, just as this poet was eclipsed (as a reader) by the Pisan Cantos that “Fragile Elegy” alludes to (and therefore includes and eclipses) as he herein describes:  “I have this feeling in me I call sorrow/ and it’s not even mine.”

In the end, both reader and poem are changed by their encounter.  But even before that can happen, the poem must come to be and writing, too, includes a kind of interference.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (by which we come to understand that to observe something is to change it) might make a good analog here:

“and so breath will in a word
melt ice
by saying against ice
            (“Fragile Elegy”)

Or perhaps it is less helpful to think of utterance as erasure, more in-keeping with the figure of the circle or sphere (concentric, containing, overlapping) to imagine that writing eclipses the world it offers to describe:

“A perfect circle through which the solar
Eclipse occurred on the notebook page,
A circle encircled by flame.  A, B & C
Were the awkward variables always used
In the equation, forming into likeness
Unlike things…”
            (“Late Pastoral”)

But the fact that language makes a new “unlike” thing of that which it means to represent does not mean language is without its consolations.  As the poet writes in “Cave Beneath Volcano,” “Clouds mimicking substance, a language/ Blocking the light it sometimes lets through.”

There is a great deal more to say about these poems, so carefully crafted, taking not the line but the word itself as the unit of meaning (and erasure of meaning) – so pines, arms, and veils are always the thing and its activity; the I is never fixed or singular but is always particular; the presence of “violence in her hair” returns us to the “violets” in a syllabic bouquet and those in turn remind us that in “The Ziggurat” “azaleas and so on/ “A to Z.  Debris on the definite/ Article gathers, the a form of gravity”.  Every pronoun, every article, every “is” and “are” illumines this project, evidence of careful attention to every concentric level of this collection.

If I were to offer any criticism of these poems, it would be that the poet’s commitment to self-consciousness (“Must I, in this question I am asking, include myself/ Asking it?”) can come to feel a bit relentless, and risks seeming almost self-pitying at times, at other times it risks seeming deliberately elusive.  But nevertheless, the collection has the marvelous quality of being erudite without being opaque, and finds ways to be theoretical that never sacrifice the poems’ music or resonance.  Here is a book with which a reader can become vertiginously familiar, and enjoy the experience.