Curious Conduct by Jeanne Marie Beaumont. BOA Editions, $14.95.
Reviewed by Dorine Preston
The poems in Curious Conduct are varied in both content and form, but still read like the individual components of one unified larger project, so that the pieces proceed as concurrent explorations of adjoining territories. Several categories of poem are interspersed throughout the book, as though three or four decks of poems have been shuffled together; in this way, the arrangement of the collection provides the reader with a pleasant combination of constant change and constant familiarity, since the more pages one turns, the more one can say, “Oh, one of these again,” followed by, hopefully, “I like these.” Naturally, each reader will be better pleased by some categories of poems than others. I am disappointed by the poems in which Beaumont seems to have employed cleverness as an end in itself, and prefer pieces in which she has employed her verbal dexterity as a means to travel somewhere more interesting.
Too many of these poems rely on gimmicky sound effects and start-overs in an unsuccessful attempt to create a sense of writerly inquiry into the role of language in human psychology, how the words we use not only describe our world, but create it, or are a world in themselves. Beaumont explores this idea in real depth in poems like “Skill (A.M.),” where she reminds us, “I could fathom more if I knew more words.” In general, however, texts which interrogate themselves ought to ask themselves harder questions than these poems do; too many of these pieces merely perform the surface gestures of investigation, without any real drive to discovery. The opening poem of the collection, “Chapter One,” is unfortunately one such poem, as is “Ionesco Street,” with its “Good day. Good dog. / Good god! Good night.” and “An entrance required an exit. / Fix it! I said. O-- / pen wide, wide and say blah. / Blah, blah--ah.” These lines seem to be going through the motions, and most of these moves feel too familiar to offer the reader any real surprises.
Saddest of all are the poems which sail along successfully until the very end, a place where Beaumont has an unfortunate tendency to insert the word “soul” where it’s not wanted or to end the poem with a cheap stunt unworthy of the rest of the text. The first instance of this is “Her Parasol,” a wonderfully coy exploration of the repressed erotic which makes shrewd use of both visual arrangement and self-interruption--until the end, where “her soul / spinning and / spinning and” fails to close the reading experience with the satisfaction the reader has been led to expect.
“Circa 1812” makes a similarly unfortunate blunder. The poem takes us on a high-speed tour through both the mundanities and the historical highlights of the period, such as “Not far away, a nursemaid repeats her tale till the older Grimm brother gets it right” and “The young poet, meanwhile, in his attic room above the surgery / dreams of extracting a beautiful tooth . . .” and “Three fleas dance on the bed of a prince.” At its close, though, the poem falls down by giving in to the urge to explain itself to us: we are told, “I’m in my early life as a fly . . .” This lean on the easy laugh of the old saw seems unnecessary; the preceding text has unfolded with a sense of authority that we will be happy to follow wherever it leads, so this fly-on-a-wall explanation feels like an alarming misstep.
Fortunately, Curious Conduct is leavened by lovely oddities such as “Regime” and “The Plenty,” which employ fresh images and music like “The crumbs from his breakfast / bauble the front of his red velvet vest” (“Regime”) and “We two were streams conspiring the river” (“The Plenty”) to draw the reader into small alternate universes where she is happy to linger. In addition, many of Beaumont’s intriguing opening premises for these poems really do pay off, as in “Keep This Letter on Hand at all Times,” which posits a country where the traveler may bring back “a sheet / of the newest imperial postage stamps, the set / with four designs: deck of cards, top hat, two doves, / and a levitating woman,” and where the traveler is instructed, “. . . whenever you leave a room, / promise to name the cheese when you return. / You’ll never fail!” Such quirky gems are only the flashiest of the rewards this text has to offer. Some of Beaumont’s sparest, simplest pieces are also her most successful, as in “Afraid So” and “Rock Said,” both of which proceed with a quiet gravity and keep their jokes on the wry side.
Curious Conduct asks the reader to make some difficult decisions when it comes to the priorities of a poem. Is a little word-play enough? Are we satisfied with a few faint verbal fireworks, or do we demand a show with a purpose? Beaumont’s is a deft hand at both humor and pathos, and the best of these poems combine wit with substance. Good show.