Overboard by Beth Anderson. Burning Deck, $10.
Reviewed by Jake Kennedy
“The relational space is the thing that's alive with something from somewhere else” --Susan Howe
Since we're all mariners of some sort, Stacy Szymaszek is Boatswain, Seaman, Cook, Boy, Steward, Seawoman, Officer, Carpenter, Captain, Stowaway, Captive, Writer, Ethicist--on our behalf. I read Some Mariners as grafting a politics (attentive to the ebbs, flows, breakers, swells of history and power) of desire onto the tradition of marine formalisms. As this sometime nineteenth-century vessel disembarks, then, the “sequent of waves” are already elegiac and the mournful request is “grieve with me--Slavic Indic Arabic.” So that through these discoveries (“Darwins of sound”--brilliant, packed conjunction of abstraction, history and image) the lyrical trembles of “James caresses / a silver fish” gets irrevocably troubled. And James's caresses move pretty fluidly into motions of yearning and Szymaszek's gift for tracing the political over the lyrical over the erotic over the and-so-on is certain and commanding:
beneath the tarpaulin
you are a sea monster
I am your sea
And the next five words--“rubies plummet from outer space,” which conclude the poem--dangle (plummet) vertically down the page and, besides drawing concrete attention to the beguiling action of the luminous night sky, they also highlight the importance, for Szymaszek, of language as living (desire) material. And I like how ink is always being spilt or drunk in this collection, as if the book itself aspired to the palimpsestic qualities of an ancient mariner's log. Of course, what's traced most boldly here is the sea as a site of intercourse or ideal but delayed intercourse. All the spillages, the movings up and down, the longing, the rhythms, the dream shapes, are glyphs for the body in need. Aye, it's good.
And somewhere in here, as the sea rises and drops, there is a step beyond the ever-hooded into an ecology of reverie and wanting. Szymaszek's spaces, like Susan Howe's relational modes, create laminations of history in which one meets the multiple registers of ancient Chinese nature verse, Virginia Woolf's experimental elegiac novel-poems, 20th-century environmental theory, and a sea-burnt Wallace Stevens listening to the ocean's “imperishable / syllables.” The tattooed mariner body appears and appears and appears as a book or poet that is also a lover . . . to be a night watcher, for example. As if the crow's nest was invented by/for the bard. Is this what the poet is? In your nailed down chair, both artist figure and lover; so the world meets there, Szymaszek suggests, even as the world is losing itself--the sources are also about intransigence.
“we pass hands upon its surface and embrace
the creative object, throbbing waves fly over” --Barbara Guest
When I open Beth Anderson's Overboard, it makes the same kind of timber-creaks as Some Mariners but its lines are much longer, more planky than SS's. And if, as Anderson says, this “tale begins in a small desert town,” then this is still another kind of sea in which the register is much more second-person intimate--we get repeatedly addressed here:
Like flatware, we all have an address, a drawer, a noun
to which we like to be compared. Interruption reveals how distance shifts and falls in real
time and makes you a marker just like a subway sign. So determinedly there, in line.
These strike me as tricky marine tales to tell because they teeter on the overly-knowing, overly-authorial sound. And yet to me they dazzle because they arrive, as Lyn Hejinian's sentences so often do, with a tactile modesty regarding the fraught fascination with the writer's desire to both categorize and also to surmount that act of naming. If we are “made a marker” then Anderson is also doubling and redoubling her insights because we also learn that “we break ourselves into categories.” In this way it seems that even what appears as the identified or fixed also indicates a further, productive fracturing.
Anderson's “Hearsay Sonnets” are moveable sonnets, and the effect of reading them is sort of like crossing the country in someone's trailer-pulled yacht (“Severe stretches / will save the long tendons connecting each finger to a / skyline blip”), leaning off the stern and looking: “It smells like exhaust despite the nearby sea.” It's thrilling to ride these lines especially when Anderson matter-of-factly returns the cycling generalizations into a precise noting: “just that possible air.” Such a guided poetic experience reaches notes of philosophy that ting with clarity (reminding me of Barbara Guest's gift for making the invisible so see-able). So what the book gradually compiles is a concrete investigation of multiple elemental possibilities: how does the mind work as the sea? the air? the earth? fire?
For Anderson, I think, the mind keeps seeing itself approximated, mocked, mimicked, bested, lauded, enhanced by the physical environment particularly as these tangible “surroundings” intersect with the chimeras of the lived past. Even more originally, Anderson convinces a reader that each line--like each thought, wave, or material thing--has a legitimate connection to an array of strange personal nouns. In these lines below, from “Eureka,” we can feel the throb of recollection but also how dependent all private/domestic time (memory) is on language itself:
Tight string cuts off the memory
it was meant to brace. I'll use it to tie up cornice and trim
under preservation rubric, for instead of practicing
we protected. We'll be ready if society comes by later after
making use of stored-up interjections.
I love how Anderson's tactile images “tie” together the intangible connections between the drive to preserve--in its multiple forms: writing, jam-making, house-maintenance, memory--and our desire for protection and the potential loss of action this entails. That “We'll be ready if society comes by later” is thus imbued with a paradoxically sardonic and compassionate tone--the line seems to gently suggest the futility of our “stored-up interjections” yet also implies that these verbal acts are utterly necessary. So “preservation rubric” is an apt, wry description of a kind of poetry that refuses merely cynical metaphysical pronouncements and instead can see that “Even as the dam is washed by the river // it adds to the river's bed.”
And I want to know if there are any more ethical, exquisite lines than these from Anderson's long poem “Hazard” that closes the book: “In communities / uncommunal we keep missing the chance / to tie planetary dimensions to method”? If these lines are “so true!”--and I think they are--they also don't mess around with admiring themselves overly much either. I think the umph of the lines, then, arrives partly from their intrepid and finally utterly convincing use of the plural pronoun. That 'we' which can so easily look inflated and self-admiring, is--again!--charmingly, modestly employed. Anderson's “overboardness” is not a merely romantic or expressive obsession with the thematics of the sea so much as an adjectival hint that her core preoccupation is with lostness. What prevails in her vision is a glimpse of a limpid but ego-eradicated futurity, a place in which
what we wish is to think ourselves serious
but according to the age of its firmaments
this must be a sun-centered universe, ever
pulling inward from its own flawed orbit.