Reviewed by Kelly Amoth
Bruce Beasley's latest collection of poems is literally a journey straight into the inner folds of the poet's brain and soul. Lord Brain weaves the topics of psychology, neuroscience, theology, entomology, and his own history into an often intellectually dense stream of thought that never wavers from the goals of discovery and ultimate revelation.
Divided into three sections, the poems of Lord Brain are loosely tied to each other via his changing thought processes. Beasley presents a head note at the beginning of each chapter that reads like a poem and makes the connections between the varied subjects in the pages that follow. The opening poem, “Brain Slices,” flashes through all of Beasley's central topics in a style in which each narrative vignette is seemingly unconnected to the next. Amidst a somewhat clinical and detached tone that precisely explains the slicing of rats' brains and the subsequent tests on their memories, the revealing voice of the poet emerges. While the scientific tests are presented in a fascinatingly grotesque manner, the insertion of Beasley's father into the world of rats, Newton, Aristotle, and Augustine is truly arresting:
& somewhere the scans of my father's ruptured brain stem & pons
wait to be refound in the wonder-cabinet of the Macon Hospital's archives
(Gage is no longer Gage)
Your daddy ain't gon come back alive, & he ain't gon die
my grandmother said, his brain's all gone
but the rest of him's here, he's gon live on & on in Intensive Care
till my uncle flew there in the night, on his private jet, said Poor bastard,
& let the respirator signal throb
Avoiding a superficial discourse on the science of the brain, Beasley is attempting to solve the mystery of what the brain holds, not just the flesh itself.
In the title poem, which is named for the British neuroscientist, Sir Walter Russell Brain, the poem moves between supplications with Lord Brain and simply Lord, for the two titles are often interchangeable. Beasley confronts the two entities with the issue of language, for he seems troubled not only by how it works in the brain, but also how he is meant to deal with language himself (“Lord / Brain, lately I don't know how to speak / again”). Written with the reference of several language and speech disorders, including aphasia, apraxia, and agnosia, the poem serves as a presentation of thought from a mind taken with such defects. Comprised of organisms that are so undeveloped and simple compared to the complexity of the brain that has consumed his thoughts, he offers his final hope:
& I muttered, Lord, in the brain, Lord Brain, if soul there is,
if Lord there is, Lord, preserve
my soul, if soul
& I watched the lightning-bug larvae crawl all along that slugtrail toward their mucid prey.
Veering off into the world of astronomy in “Counterearth & Lux,” Beasley calls upon the mathematician Pythagoras to lead him through a love poem dedicated to his wife of twenty years. The basis of the poem works around the idea that in Pythagorean cosmology nine spheres, including the earth, sun, moon, stars and other planets, orbited around a central fire; to bring the number of spheres up to ten, which was considered the divine number, they invented a Counterearth that followed the earth and shielded it from the central fire. When all ten spheres were in motion, they created music so familiar to humans that we could not hear it.
Working around the idea of the Counterearth, Beasley creates an extended conceit to mirror his love for his wife. In the “Dyad” section of the poem, he reveals the music of his life, “For 20 years, Suzanne, // we've turned those blues together on a frequency only we // can hear, unearthly, a static we've honed & honed into, grind // of spheres through the ether.” The poem culminates in the section “Tetraktys,” with a mark of true emotion, “--If I speak of us in metaphor, Suzanne, // [. . . } // it's because you move always beside me, / inside me, inarticulable, other side of the simile's like.” Because he has established the context of the Counterearth, Beasley's earthly love carries a greater power and force.
Moving into the second section of the collection, Beasley begins to turn his focus towards the natural world and the processes of other brains. With the observation of a baby canary's hungry song for its father, Beasley creates the basis for the poem “Song Region,” which is dedicated to his son. The canary, he explains in the end notes, has three areas in the brain that he refers to as “Higher / Vocal Center, Area X, Robustus / Archistriatelis” where they grow fresh brain cells to learn new songs during mating season, but they then shed the cells into the blood at the end of the season and the song is forgotten. By the fifth section, he sees the same song-learning ability of the canary in himself and writes, “Spring's end, dwindled nerves, & my / song's gone again, sung up”; but the difference with Beasley's brain and those of the birds is that he does not forget his song, for it lives in his son. In the darkest moments of loss, he has hope, and reveals:
All's Jin, leant over the walkway's
in, singing under his breath almost
in time with their out-
swarming When I did
Hallelujah by & by
a slow molt & occult
regeneration into song.
Working within the confines of the natural world to discover how song works in the brain, Beasley appears to emerge by the end knowing that even if his brain is prone to forget the song of life, his son's is not.
One of the most constant forces at work within Beasley is the memory of his father. Drawing the analogy to a stroke patient's immobile limb, he feels his father exists in his memory as a phantom spirit he can never forget or revive. Haunted by the memories of his death, he writes:
Every dream the hippocampus
haul back the memories they've hoarded,
in a frenzied criss-
cross of neural nets
cortex abuzz with
the re-lived & never
lived garble of story
& shocked-still freeze-frames).
He uses the technical framework of the brain and how the scientific storing of memories to protect himself from the unforgettable images in his mind. As if sensing the conflict between the brain as an organ of flesh and as the seat of thought, emotion, and memory, Beasley writes of his father's memory, “Is he / mine, now, when he comes out of my mind?,” for there is the question of how the brain is working upon and changing his father. Beasley cannot answer the mystery of memory in the brain, though, and must be content with his father's existence as a living phantom in his soul.
While the range of ideas and density of knowledge in Lord Brain can overwhelm, Beasley provides a final section, “Phantom Limbs of the Poems,” because he wants to ensure “the reader's brain is spared from molten disintegration.” Like a person who is still troubled with the realistic feeling of a phantom limb, the section serves the same kind of purpose, for it is possible to read the book without the explanations but there is the nagging sense that they exist.
In his skillful blending of science and poetry, Beasley creates a landscape in which some of the mysteries of the mind and nature are solved through the lens of human emotion and thought. With these poems, he establishes that understanding the brain goes beyond neuroscience and lies also with the power of memory and the soul.