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'Boneshaker' by Jan Beatty

In-your-face poems designed to tear down assumptions

Sunday, April 07, 2002

By Mary Gannon



By Jan Beatty

University of Pittsburgh Press


If god were here, she’d shove down / like a two-stroke in a rainstorm, she’d let it fly,” says the insurgent speaker of Jan Beatty’s new poetry collection.

As the creator of her own poetic world, that’s exactly what Beatty’s doing -- letting it fly.

Her second poetry collection from the University of Pittsburgh Press is rife with the high-stakes and rhythmic velocity of an urgent message. Even the way the poems look on the page demands that the reader listen up.

These new poems are infused with a hit-the-road, rock ’n’ roll spirit -- with leather and motorcycles, guest appearances by Robert Plant and Keith Richards, even lyrics by Meat Loaf.

But on a deeper level, this rebelliousness becomes the ethos with which Beatty challenges American mores. She accomplishes this partly by creating a world in which our cultural assumptions don’t hold up.

In her poetic terrain, God is a woman, mother is a machine, birth is death, madness is clarity, rough sex is holy, and religion is cruelty. Nothing is to be trusted. Not even -- ironically enough -- language.

Beatty opens the collection with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein, a poet whose mission was to strip language to its essence as a way to recover meaning and authenticity:

“What is the current that makes machinery, that makes it crackle, what is the current that presents a long line and a necessary waist. What is this current. What is the wind, what is it?”

Beatty is interested in getting at truth, too, and she often does it by capturing the music and intonation inherent in plain-spoken conversation, the undercurrent that conveys what words alone can’t.

Her poems aren’t cerebral equations written to engage the reader’s intellect. Instead, they appeal to the heart and the ear. They are incantations whose subtleties -- such as internal rhymes and rhythmic music -- are best realized when read aloud.

With the opening poem, “Machine Shop of Love,” Beatty sets the tone of the book:

... for two

Weeks I waited until I proposed

Let me think, you said

but no --

The body,

It has its own light

own scent

own can’t turn-your-back-on-it-glue

I’ll wait, I said, and did --

For the touch

Of your hair, the tender of hands

I love the way you play your guitar



the rock &

burn of it

the playing the

yes, you said --

The voices that populate Beatty’s poems come from all walks of life: grocery store checkout clerks, waitresses, elderly women buying bread, the incarcerated, the homeless, the dying.

She seems more drawn to the raw experience of the disenfranchised, whose ante in life has been upped.

Such characters have their say on their own terms, without Beatty appropriating their experience. Her poems point over and over again to the redemptive quality of empathy.

Unlike “Mad River,” a tidy book in which the poems’ structures deliver no surprises, Beatty’s new collection contains a range of poetic forms.

Some are prose poems, in which the line is inconsequential. Others are all about the line: slashes and periods create caesuras that slow down the rhythm and draw attention to the relationship among words.

Although appealing reckless at times, these poetic strategies work best when they seem fully integrated with the subject.

In the title poem, we track the near-annihilation of the female speaker from a spirited girl to a young woman full of self-hatred.

The speaker’s journey toward disintegration is reflected in the final lines, which begin to break apart. The poem ends:

you are


open mouth


The final word floats on the page, solitary, unanchored, boundless. The fear of disappearing or being cut loose in the world -- through loss of the mother, the father and even one’s grip on reality is a theme that recurs throughout.

If there are moments of weakness, it is when the insistence on existence, the rebellious force that fuels Beatty’s writing, comes off as merely judgmental.

In “Certain Things,” the speaker of the poem sizes up her friend, who doesn’t know how to “pee outside,” as “a woman who hadn’t yet felt her own soul.”

The poem ends:

There’s certain things you’ve got to know:

how to use jumper cables, drive a stick,

never fight with a drunk; you got to speak

from your heart, walk with an attitude, know

the words to “Gimme Shelter”; change a tire on

a dark, rainy highway, say when you’re wrong,

and slam down a shot; you’ve just got to ...

... dance hard, want hard, throw down,

wear you jeans low and tight, you’ve got to

send long hot kisses until further notice, in short --

you’ve got to deliver -- and you’ve got to pee outside.

Such poems at first possess a crowd-pleaser quality for their tough-cookie directness, but finally they don’t take flight. Instead, the endings seem more like low blows than insights.

And the reader is left with the unpalatable taste of having been told what’s-what by a know-it-all.

But it is the search for one’s bearing in the world accompanied by the impulse to strike out against all that is wrong in it that makes this collection so exhilarating.

It’s a book that instructs very clearly: Don’t believe everything you hear. Believe what you feel. And, above all else, make sure you can feel.

Mary Gannon is the deputy editor of Poets & Writers magazine.

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