Count the Waves
By Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton, 2015
Enter Count the Waves: engaging, sharp, and playful. Beasley’s third collection is composed of poems that merge continents and centuries, folk tales, myths and historic narratives from which sometimes anachronistic speakers explore intimacy and longing, probing each situation or place until its dark underbelly emerges. These are smart, probing poems, necessitating, at times, the reader act as researcher, with the majority of the collection inspired by and titled with odd phrases coded in the Traveler’s Vade Mecum, a book for 19th century travelers that offers numbered phrases so that correspondents can send a quick, succinct messages. Beyond the many titles as allusions, the thematic and tonal threads are more limited; each new speaker—and the range of narrators and formal mechanisms at work are vast—differs in tone and form. Some read as stark and sincere; others are witty, full of puns and logic-play.
At their best, Beasley’s poems engage the reader in honest, funny, and startling explorations that contend that intimacy and vulnerability are, at times, unsexy, violent, willing. In the book’s first poem, “Inner Flamingo,” the physical landscapes—lovers’ bodies on a mattress “huddled at the bed’s edge” or “onioned in the skin of another”—testify as an account: unrefined, unrepentant. “The Emperor’s Valentine,” the sixth poem and first sestina, dampens the book’s initial traction: the emotional potency is obscured by competing foci, perhaps due to its form, perhaps due to too many actors—an “I”, a “you”, monkeys, turtles, and an emperor. The sestina returns with greater success in poems like “King”, “The Editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica Regrets Everything”, “Let Me Count the Waves”, and especially in “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine”.
Powerful monologues—almost anti valentines—these later sestinas are tragic and ominous. While images are recycled or reappear across poems: husks, ships, lovers asleep, these sestinas explore the multiplicity of an image and word. What might have otherwise been restrictive and clunky is focused, exploratory, with the emotional crescendoes that mark one of the great joys and concerns of poetry.
I trained against touch once upon a time,
not knowing a rigid pharynx would match
a rigid heart. I’m ready to react,
to bleed. As any alchemist can see,
to fill a throat with raw steel is no match
for love. Don’t clap for these inhuman acts.
Cut me in two. Time, time, the oldest saw.
(the last seven lines of “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine”)
In “Valentine for the Grave Digger,” Beasley probes paradoxical intersections of experience and emotion through the use of obscure nomenclature and colloquial language that is rife with humor and gravity:
Don’t rhapsodize the sod’s sigh, the liftoff,
the two-step of digging and herding dirt.
Ask her if she’s heard of the monster truck;
when in doubt, chicks dig a sweet monster truck.
Pervasive throughout the collection is the effort to expose the insecurities of a speaker for whom to love is difficult, worrisome, demanding vulnerability and great sacrifice. Despite the warning in “Let Me Count the Waves” against looking for poetry in poems, it cannot be helped. The speaker in “The Circus” attests to the stakes of this collection: “to see every nature / beneath decoration”. Whether exploring love or place or death, these are poems concerned with poetry in its every facet.