“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.

“Greedy-eye, don’t look to me,” she writes in the last stanza of “Chupacabra,” a persona poem of the Latin American cryptid. Even though we understand the dramatic situation — the beast is speaking to the farmers who are, to avenge the death of their animals, gathering a search party to hunt for the beast — our understanding is blurred, complicated because the imperative seems so pertinent an instruction to us. We could easily be the “Greedy-eye” and the “I” of the poem could easily be the poet, the cryptid rumored to roam the wilds of the poem.

But let’s not overread Beeder’s intentions. All poets (I hope) are aware that the poem is never the thing it claims to be — an “Anatomy Lesson,” a list of the play’s dramatis personae, a photograph, or a letter — and while it may enact features of those things, it will always be a poem in much the same way that Copland’s “El Salón México” affects aspects of Mexican folk songs though it can never be a folk song because of its orchestration, its audience, and the composers intention of immolation. We know Proteus as the mythic shape-shifter and yet, throughout his forms, he was still Proteus, a sea god. Beeder’s voice even as it shapeshifts is still a poet. “Eyewitness” begins with “Dear Sister,” identifying itself with a letter; it ends, however, in something that works literally as an ending to a letter and as an address to the poet or reader:

We have buried strangers in the orchard,
Facedown, crushed by logs or a stampede;
Some with hands in prayer, suppliant
& Broken, river-swollen. Write.

— p. 30

The word “Write” vibrates a sympathetic string with Bishop’s “(Write it!)” insertion in “One Art,” and inherently insists ars poetica, the craft.

It’s no surprise then, given Beeder’s maneuverings between a poem’s dimensions of the literal and metaphorical, that language becomes both image and subject. Three letter poems in the collection — “X,” “H,” and “>(D)” — form a kind of a redacted abecediary for adults. Equal parts morphology, etymology, and personification, the troika becomes an investigation into how language carries and subverts meaning, as in “X”:

the mystery cloaked in marked insistence
the crux in lieu of name or kiss
cousin to k & s in saxon ox & exodus
x for ten for porn porn porn for our shared chromosome
what’s not said in pretense or respect

— p. 23

and even more intensely, when “H” is personified:

I’ll never again be a mute thing
blank domino or empty pen;

that cipher linguists snub, a breath
divorced from cords, from tongue

& lips […]

submissive to vowel — oh, ah
not for any dawn or dark hem lifted

not for your hush hush in a brief house
nor for the air shaking between us

— p. 47

The associative leaps in Beeder’s poems often rely on conduits in sensory experience: sight (and memory) and, most often, sound.If I were to interview Beeder about her writing process, I would ask her if she allows narrative or sonics to carry her through the poem. My guess would be that the music and cadence of words offers her entrance into each subsequent image. Just look at how the language propels “After Aristophanes: O Bird of fellow feather come”:

to secret fields of wet ripe-seeded grass,
to clay-dank furrows or better, a ruin

where plundered graves make dirty pools
& finches meet like small emphatic words

— p. 44

and “Tetanus”:

Here are the spores & here

the porous nerves that make a net for crossing.
The cord cut with a dirty shard. The mourning
The tiny dialogues that bind our fate, all muscles
Taut across the long adrenal squall.

— p. 33

Whether or not Beeder sets out with the notion that a poem will be full of assonance and another based on trochaic hexameter, we cannot know, but the propulsive syntax, the lush and varied language, vows the subject’s immediacy to the reader.

Like gods and lovers, a reader responds best to dotage. “I liked the poem about your mother dying” allows the reader’s voice into the poem: “You should write more poems about depression” (p. 17) Although Beeder both resists what the proto-reader has said to her, she also obsesses and reckons with “what a reader wants in an imagined eclogue:

Where are the stones and bones and blood? Here are petroglyphs
pecked out of cliffs. Here is the wild boy of Aveyron

who never learned to speak in any dialect but thicket.
But where are the tears? Where is the rubble and ash?

(Is it a turnip of grief or a turnip of desire?) Or else enough
with the lists just tell us a story

— pp. 17-18

Have some of us had these same thoughts about Beeder’s work? Have we resisted the catalogs, desired for more personal poems about loss and depression? This is not Beeder’s verse, however. If we are looking for confessional, straightforward narrative: look to another title. That’s not to say that Beeder muddles meaning with sonics. If we are not careful readers we can get caught in the current of the syntax, read the words for their sounds, but we must slow ourselves, pay more attention. The what is happening in the poems is always amongst the how.

In one of my favorite poems in the collection, “The Charges Are Stalking & Arson,” the firestarter, the maker, begins very much in the tangible or, at the very least, the audible:

The sizzlepop. The bang bang bang. The air
a stage where cherry bombs & I play spark

to vacant lots; it’s nothing new, this tune
of Zippo click, of fuse, the blue-tip plume

on resin, weeds & shed, historic barns
exploding first in swallows.

But then the poem shifts. “Don’t shush me,” the speaker says, as if someone else lingers just offstage, then he adds, “Powder speaks: dirt is mute.” From there, the poem burns through its wick toward the explosive material:

o love, my love’s a cuff-stuck match, my suit
the fabric’s curl to petaled ash — take me,

take ruin, a realm of ether, atom-bright, a pause
before the flint’s quick kiss; take me — who else

can hear how shot glass sings the grass’s name;
how bale, dry & quiet, speaks its love to flame?

— p. 19

Not only is the image startling — the bale speaking its love to flame — but the delivery of the image, sustained ever so slightly longer with “dry & quiet,” allows us to pause on the scene as the final action consumes itself.

Again and again, throughout Now Make an Altar, the reader feels an insistence to plummet into the next poem — each voice and each setting, a new valley rivered with significance — and there, pausing for a moment at the edge of the poem, before we take another step out onto air, we are asked to make an altar to our own presence, to dress it with effigy: fruit, flowers, photographs, letters, a ritual burning, an imperative: Follow me down. I have cleared the way for you.

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