‘Shake’ by Joshua Beckman
“A Karate Chop of Love”
Anger’s not a crime. Neither are shoes. Pot maybe. But I suppose with any, it’s a question of balance and self-control. There’s a lot about shoes in Joshua Beckman’s new book, and there’s definitely pot. There’s also a bit more anger than we’ve seen from him before. But the undercurrent of frustration, especially in the book’s opening section, is the most compelling thing here; and the way he masters it in the end shows yet another step forward for this increasingly important poet, and results in one of the better poetry titles so far this year.
I don’t mean to imply this is an overtly “angry” book. It’s not. Beckman’s traditionally adept at converting the personal to the existential in a deceptively plain-spoken way, and at encoding just what needs to be encoded to avoid self-satisfying autobiography. But from the opening section, “Shake”—the first of the book’s three sections, each a series of untitled poems—there’s a shift in tone from his previous three books.
The title section is thick with a sense of loss. There’s also the occasional hint of bitterness, as in the second poem when he references “the unbecoming ways/of everyone.” And in nearly every poem, a sense of powerlessness against some larger forces: “I too, at one time, felt the elation of being a small drunken cog/in a giant destructive empire” is followed shortly by “No one can explain even a little what’s going down.”
Of the potential resolutions to powerlessness, perhaps the most evocative is Beckman’s suggestion that “We may invent.” The fact that creation, especially art, can provide sustenance is something easy to ignore in contemporary America, as is “personal decay.” Embracing these things becomes an accomplishment of something against the nothing, a nothing that “no one can explain,” and that becomes more complex when one is overwhelmed with a horrifying political climate and an aging body. There is also the fever of lost love, as in these visions, which close the second poem:
your red pants, your cradled purse,
the next man who will leave
his lover for you.
The first section is only weak when the narrator becomes inexplicably sunny. Its eighth poem has some good stuff, but the opening lines “Beautiful rounded earth/we accept so your fluorescence” and the final line “That people, all at once, can be kind and thoughtful” left me flat. More attractive was the section’s ending, in which the narrator muses on the possibility of getting high with high school kids who’d think him “fucked up.” The narrator would like to warn them of a police presence in the neighborhood:
they would say we know, fuck them,
and we would know what they meant,
that they meant no harm.
The book’s middle section, “Let the People Die,” serves as a necessary bridge between the first and third. In the series, (a sonnet sequence, save for one poem that indulges in a fifteenth line), Beckman’s talent for incorporating repetition is central. He decides to be blunt about politics and religion, which is striking—“All this horrible conquering in the name of Christianity,”—but the poem that got me is the fourteenth in the series, which opens “I like your handsome drugs” and contains the laugh-out-loud lines “The man screamed out, ‘The/karate chop of love,’ before tackling that woman.” The karate chop of love comes up three more times in the sonnet, and serves as a servable metaphor for the book itself.
But a lot of the book’s frustration is controlled—and ultimately, purged—in the final and best section of the book, “New Haven.” I doubt if anyone’s written so well with the southern Connecticut city in mind since Wallace Stevens and his ordinary evening. There’s some melancholy (“the flat world of borrowed things”), some reflection on relationships (“A weak woman/will never make you happy”) and some good-humored cynicism:
wrapped in a blissful dream
the moonlight shines down
but I don’t really know that
I just read it in a book.
Loss and frustration pervade this section too, but they are well-honed and approached with intelligence and, more importantly, balance. Occasional rhyming is a little less interesting, but the poems are consistently awe-inspiring and build up to more than welcome catharsis. We’re not used to hearing lines like “Listen, you little faggot” from Beckman, but as Gerald Stern once pointed out, Beckman’s is ultimately a poetry of affection. “All will reach an age and die at that age,” Beckman writes, and by the end, you may realize he’s right—this birthday party would be fucked without the karate chop of love.