SUSAN SETTLEMYRE WILLIAMS
Two Poets to Watch
“Things fall apart,” Yeats warned early in the tumultuous twentieth century, “the centre cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / . . . and everywhere / the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In the realm of the personal, a similar instability and sense of violated innocence permeate these first collections by Leigh Anne Couch and Sandra Beasley. Even, perhaps especially, narratives of family and various sorts of love find expression in imagery of explosion, violence, disappearance, and toxicity.
In Couch’s Houses Fly Away, the stress of intense emotion, great loss, even (as in the title poem, “Attraction”) sexual tension and its sudden release, cause the permanent to melt, the landscape to surrender to tectonic shifts (“the ground lets go”), furniture and houses almost literally to become airborne. Couch quotes a line from Mark Strand, “I am a place where things come together then fly apart,” and makes it her own mantra for the centrifugal force driving this book.
Although often barely suggested, family conflict and death provide the first tremor of the earthquake in many of Couch’s poems. In “Daughter Dreaming Tornado,” “the child knows years don’t pile up / or waste away, they pull and strain.” Later, she “watches the house / fill with thunder and fire.” In “Absence,” Couch mourns:
In a poem partly about 9/11, partly about a father’s death, the poet claims she doesn’t “know a thing about trains” but converts locomotives into an apocalyptic vision. “I felt the air change, roll under / the tidal wave of tonnage”; even in the “Sunday westerns I watched with my father,” “there was a belly of fire and the mouth of hell / a man in overalls opened and closed.”
Elsewhere, in her grandfather’s “cornfield, the beautiful creases,” the speaker finds her “mother’s body filled with dirt”—whether a real or imagined burial is unclear, but also perhaps immaterial to the intimations of mortality (“the dead // on our backs”) throughout the book.
If the world is sliding out of gravity’s hold, how can the identity do otherwise? “I write water to be water,” Couch declares in a sort of ars poetica. In her universe, serious slippage gapes between, not just body and soul (one character is described as “uneasy / with the person in her body”), but between self and personality. In “Tideland,” one of several poems with images of flowing water, the speaker employs an odd locution: “She feels the land in its sway / the one being lived by me.” What is “the one being lived”—the land or the unidentified “she”? Couch’s deliberate blurring of syntax makes either option both possible and disconcerting. This sense of dislocation means that the speaker can share identities with those she has lost: “Part of me is dead and my father alive”
A woman in another poem is described in succession as “a walk at midnight when the train’s long gone” and “a smokestack lunging at three a.m. moonlight.” “Run your hand along the vessel / of her,” Couch encourages. “Go ahead, she’ll like it.” Here, as throughout Houses Fly Away, these shifts of identity and matter seem less like useful tropes for emotional upheaval than literal shape-shifting. Like mythic enchanters, the self and the world become something else the moment Couch tries to grasp them.
At times the extravagance of these transformations evokes seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry. The body is a porous container for the soul. “I don’t know the body / if it has to die or the mind / be denied,” Couch ponders, “for the soul to show up.” Elsewhere, after sex, “soft as dying in your sleep / the soul sneaks out before morning.”
But the soul apart from the body loses its boundaries. In “Absence,” the speaker strives unsuccessfully “to find one soul out of so many”; “Thousands of stars, the souls of / strangers, had crowded you out.” In “Elegy for Snow,” “one by unique unknowable one we scatter / and return to a drift of souls waiting for dissolution.”
Living, we—and everything else—are unstable isotopes. Dead, we dissolve into the “drift.” The sense of a minefield of a universe in which anything can shatter, collapse, or explode at any minute, builds throughout the book. The triggers can be as variable as grief or pleasure. By the end of the collection, we believe along with Couch that “houses fly away.”
If, in Couch’s world, the escape from gravity can sometimes be exhilarating, for Sandra Beasley in Theories of Falling, it’s more likely to be life-threatening. Consider titles like “My Los Alamos,” “The General,” or the superficially reassuring “Theories of Non-Violence” (which opens with a catalog of torture techniques, including playing a sinister little tape titled “Rabbit death scream.”) and “In Which No One Gets Hurt,” which toggles between a magician’s illusion of shooting “a tasseled girl” and a real or imagined hostage situation (“Give over the gun. Give over the girl”) and ends with the speaker’s sister asking a man, “You are single, right? Look: / Nothing up his sleeve. But a dove that will suffocate if he holds her.”
A poem exploring various metaphors for sex begins, “Bullet dodged, meant your thrust. Another: Load the gun.” Later in the poem, Beasley’s speaker notes, “Always, the body just an alias for something more urgent,” and recalls that, “Once you tried to call it making love and I said I don’t think / that counts, what we do.” Elsewhere, she describes the men she’s “loved best” as “mute and brambled.” These are clearly not run-of-the-mill love poems.
Like Couch, Beasley has a taste for religious metaphor, but in Theories of Falling, these are steeped in irony. “Drink,” for instance, turns ordinary imbibing into a communion ritual:
In “Heretic,” the speaker requests: “Offer me communion, little slips // of dynamite” and later, referring to a Bible, “caress[es] the red letters” and illuminations, then claims, “I tear these out // to add to my bed, little strips gnawed to a fine warmth.”
Beasley sometimes employs a currently stylish hyperbole. With many young poets, this technique amounts to cheery, if shallow, braggadocio: “Look at me, what a bombshell I am!” If Beasley were to call herself a bombshell, however, you should think landmine. She is not so much celebrating herself as facing that self almost with despair. In an account of infidelity, her speaker admits, “I took him in and trotted back to you, obedient, / holding this sin like a dead bird in my mouth, dropping it at your feet, / this gift. Now make the bitch of me . . . ” The poem ends with bitter resignation: “Even the tame dogs dream of biting clear to the bone.” Beasley’s tough-mindedness gives credibility and depth to her exaggerations.
If there is throughout Theories of Falling the sense of a toxic stain, it is nowhere so apparent as in the long sequence “Allergy Girl.” This suite begins, if not innocuously, at least in a frightening but familiar experience as young parents cope with their infant’s terrible allergies: “No breast / is safe, no cowgoatsoy milk.” “They cradle me in Benadryl.” Their mantra is “Don’t break the baby.” The list of allergens compounds through subsequent sections: cashews, “cream, / mushroom, miso, reconstituted noodles.” The growing child learns the tricks of survival: “burrowing past an egg-brushed crust to pinch bits / of Italian bread,” “peeling away / fried skin for three bites of chicken.” Awful, but not shocking.
The narrator’s adult experiences, however, pack plenty of voltage. She clearly has not outgrown those early allergies but her resentment of them has built—dangerously:
Even more frightening are the experiences with boyfriends and lovers who have accidentally come into contact with her allergens:
or another who, while walking the narrator to the library, “touched me / with feta on his fingers . . . / He rounded the corner. I called the ambulance.” As with much of Theories of Falling, the mundane morphs easily into the realm of nightmare.
With both Leigh Anne Couch and Sandra Beasley, we see the hallmark gestures of their generation of poets—disorientation, disconcerting metaphors, hyperbole—employed with considerable skill, but for more than a son et lumière show. Both of these poets know life is scary and manage to frighten the reader with their knowledge as well. Surely, they are thereby performing one of poetry’s important roles. As such, they are indeed poets to watch.
Sandra Beasley serves on the editorial staff of The American Scholar. Her work has been featured in Verse Daily, and was included in the 2005 Best New Poets anthology, as well as in Gargoyle, Cimarron Review, Reed, Meridian, Rhino, Poet Lore, 32 Poems, and other journals.
Leigh Anne Couch resides in Tennessee where she serves as managing editor for the Sewanee Review. Her work has appeared in the Western Humanities Review, Shenandoah, 32 Poems, Carolina Quarterly, Cincinnati Review, and other journals. She is also the author of a chapbook, Green and Helpless (Finishing Line Press, 2007), also reviewed here.