“Greedy-eye, don’t look for me”: The Imperative, The Poet, and The Reader in Now Make an Altar by Amy Beeder

Now Make an Altar

Now Make an Altar
BY Amy Beeder
(Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2012)

Poets often flounder around the idea of a poem as a made object, a thing; the poem both exists as an object on paper and as ideas, a blueprint in what to imagine, “everything // you thought in your barbed heart beneath you” (p. 53). The question is, are words and ideas and stories things or are they symbols for things? Is writing the fire or is it the flint that creates the fire? Now Make an Altar, Amy Beeder’s second collection, inspires such questioning, and lures us by its imperative. “[y]ou’ll need no bore,” Beeder writes, “no / tinder cradle for the prison spark, no friction / stick, never any other flint but this — ” This, the poem, the meaning.

Beeder’s characters are all makers in their own right — arsonist, spectator, mythical creature, leper, nun, poet…. They are creators guided by techniques and etiquette based on superstition, philosophy, or ritual. The title of the first poem sets up a cause, the rule, which the poem answers as effect, execution. Absurd and quirkily surreal, the poem’s syntax begins in the title and continues into the body:

Because Our Waiters are Hopeless Romantics

the plates are broken after just one meal:
plates that mimic lily pads or horseshoe crabs,
swifts’ wings,
golden koi, whirlpools, blowholes in rictus:
all smashed against the table’s edge —

The poems asserts itself as a chimerical enactment of an idea: romanticism. If the title had been “Because the Painters Were Hopeless Romantics,” the poem might have turned toward cliched notions of romanticism. Because we are unfamiliar with the notion of hopelessly romantic waiters, Beeder can twist the narrative toward greater profundity, and us to captivation, in a similar way that Marco Polo exaggerates, distorts, and upends his “travels” to gain favor with the Kublai Kahn in Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

Beeder, however, doesn’t exactly subvert our expectations, for a subversion of the readers’ expectations is a way of diminishing their cruciality within the poem. Beeder instead begins to construct a space where our expectations aren’t particularized so that she may lavish objects and settings with descriptive attention, so that we may enter here as strangers, open to everything as if it were exotic and new. Beeder propels us toward the ecstatic, bewilderment:

… also our chef eschews pepper & salt
for violets & vespers
& squid ink & honey from wasps
Rare lichen grown in local snow
Authentic silt dark from the Nile or Tigris.

Surely you know that poultry, if cooked right,
will cure the most common psychic ills?
It’s something to do with the feathers.


… but you’re hungry.

— p. 9

We are. Like a real estate agent baking cookies during an open house, Beeder entices us with the sensual, the sensory, and once she has set the table, she turns and says, “Come in. Sit. Taste.”

Again the imperative, and what is an imperative if not a plea veiled in authority? A prayer? It is like a plea or prayer in that it is a rhetorical mechanism geared by want, by desire, need. We’ve been trained to distance ourselves from address in a poem, to view our presence poem as clandestine and the poem as intercepted correspondence. But with Beeder, there is always a blending of the specific “you,” if there is one, with the reader. In the same way a fan after the show insists that Mick was singing “Wild Horses” to her, Beeder’s delivery causes the reader to respond to the imperative on a personal level. The Poet is speaking directly to me about my a) struggles, b) desires, c) craft, or d) all of the above.

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