Book Reviews

Inside the Space It’s Given

by Karen Kevorkian | Contributing Writer

Variations on Dawn and Dusk
Dan Beachy-Quick
Omnidawn Publishing, 2019

The spare, untitled poems of Dan Beachy-Quick’s Variations on Dawn and Dusk offer an extended ekphrastic meditation on the book’s cover: an image of Robert Irwin’s windows of light infinitely reflected in a dark room. Images of light and dark resonate, suggesting the longing for vision and the shadows that mind and language impose. The book is further cued by an epigraph from George Oppen’s “Of Being Numerous,” which distills what it is to glimpse the transcendent in a city: “So small a picture, / A spot of light on the curb, it cannot demean us.” This is what Oppen calls “the pure joy / of the mineral fact // Tho it is impenetrable.” The substance of such a moment is tantalizingly unclear to Beachy-Quick, as he explores the dual meanings of the word vision—the act of seeing, but also the moment of revelation. The urgent possibility exists that something hides beyond human understanding.

The ability to articulate this hidden quality is at the heart of what it means to be an artist. To not be able to do so is an old dilemma, famously articulated by Dante at the beginning of the Inferno, where (in Robert Pinsky’s translation) “midway on our life’s journey, I found myself / In dark woods, the right road lost.” Beachy-Quick’s expertly compressed imagery alludes to the artist’s old problem: antlers are “tangled in the thicket / mind”; these are the antlers that “thinking caused to branch out my ruinous / temples from which the gods hang their pages / all blank.” The loss of meaning is a crisis for anyone, particularly bitter for a poet whose craft depends on language. But paradoxically, nothing is more suited to address this crisis of faith or confidence in meanings’ black holes than the language of poetry, which, because of its allusive nature suggests the numinous, as well as an ease with the indeterminate and irreducible.

Beachy-Quick’s work echoes Oppen, transforming the epiphany of a moment into deep awareness of what is beyond the poet’s comprehension and ability to articulate it:

what thought is worth another thought
step inside what doesn’t exist
square of light on the concrete floor
to be within what has no in
like light like light which is no thought
not even the words ghosts speak speak
the language I want to learn   faith
unit   wall-less walls   hut-less hut    

Also, threading through the poems is the trope of a square of light enclosed by dark. It arrests attention, invites, seems a portal, yet does not materially exist, and cannot be captured because it cannot be named, at least by the poet. Always tethered by syntax into making rhetorical meaning, the unquantifiable quality of vision lies beyond the potential of words. How to “open a door that isn’t a door” (22)? To connect perception with vision, it’s suggested, is beyond devotional effort. This trope in an earlier poem points to the futile effort of the “anchorite   in a square / of light   devotion pale / white   helpless sun falls down / on concrete floor   see it / . . .  walls you live inside” (9). The square of light is limited and contained, as is the poverty of human effort to transcend the material world.

Identity’s incomplete nature also contributes to the dark enclosing the square of light and impeding its vision:

                                    to put
with bare hands not the blue sky
in a box   but the sun   you
know there is no you   some dark
thou   who dark through a screen sees

These lines echo 1 Corinthians 13:12, the act of seeing “through a glass darkly,” of compromised perception in the effort to see God. As the act of perception is never completed, so is the perceiver incomplete, only a dark “you,” not of limpid mind. Instead of enlightenment, human minds only envision a crepuscular half-light, where “darkness surrounds a square / math made of light and loss.” The nature of thought itself is unreliable: “I think I see but I / see I do not see.”

Of course thought must be expressed in words, although by naming we give concrete meaning. This is the trick of language; syntactic structure demands actors, actions, objects, and connections. Human discourse is embedded in constructed meaning. Thus, the poet seems to say, at some point the act of perception becomes a kind of make-work—the craft of language is just that, craft. Metaphor, for example, in juxtaposing one thing against another without interpretation, seems to avoid errors of contrived meaning. However, a likeness so established is like a dream— “some true some false all dream / hand like the sunlit leaf.” The splayed fingers and broad flat surface of a flattened hand may resemble the palmate lobes of a leaf, but that’s the only way they correspond. The poems seem to say here that, in naming, language objectifies and simplifies. To be able to see by removing the hand might manifest the real dream.

Beachy-Quick’s poems, appropriate to an unease with the limits of language, are elliptically pithy. Compressed syntax eschews the use of articles, most pronouns, and connectors, as if stripping language of rhetorical convention will clarify perception, maybe even overcome the dispersal of identity that accompanies imprecision of thought:

my head aches with thinking what is blank
what is is I know what is not is not
jagged edge of cloud mind can’t heal
the other perfections   eye exists
because sun exists   and so do I
so do I even if unaware
if caught in snare of pleasures simple
some flower   what isn’t opening
mistakes more truly mine inside me

Lively word play, indeterminate phrasal conclusion, and ambiguity—for example, is “mistakes” a noun or verb?—underscore the tentative relationship of language to vision.

Yet there’s no question about the strength of language within these poems. The sustained attention the poems require in order to experience the multilayered resonance of the images is eased by the music of the lines:

say away but you mean again
away away again again
there was once a mulberry tree
in a garden not far from love’s
own home and shadow’s agony
song   desire requires memory
return to original light’s
one syllable sayable why  

Repetitions make their own music and the mulberry tree provides a provocative physical beacon to abstractions of love, agony, desire, and memory. Shadow and light are freighted with implication, enlisting the reader in considering a personal answer to the question why. Poetry is its own substantial reward, which could be vision enough. The poems suggest as much: “I remember the sun is deaf / I remember the sun is mute / I remember the sun is blind /. . . honesty asks a / leaf for shade. . . .” The reference to the hand-leaf metaphor from one of the opening poems suggests an acceptance of limitation is not really limitation: “. . . everything fits / inside the space it’s given / even my own hand-made thought / even my own hand-made mind / builds the tool that takes the tool / apart. . . .” What is given, finally, is the thing humans are so good at, as the poems in this book evidence, the making. These poems are about as close to music as you get on the page. Evanescent and beguiling, each poem’s ever-shifting surface, laced with tropes that echo and repeat, by their very poetics articulate the feeling that most have experienced—that what it is to be human is dazzlingly, tantalizingly near, and only through more acute attention to the texture of existence will we finally comprehend it. 

Karen Kevorkian’s third poetry collection is Quivira. She is a lecturer in the English department at UCLA.