‘The Inside of an Apple’ by Joshua Beckman

  • COLDFRONT RATING: four
  • PUBLISHED BY: Wave Books, 2013
  • REVIEW BY: Peter Longofono

 

“my life to proceed”

 

Here’s Joshua Beckman continuing the inimitable, just-this-side-of-bitter song with which he’s made his name, and by God if the verve isn’t still there. Bite-sized, two or three lines at a time, the majority of the book dwells comfortably within his existing oeuvre, reading almost as a collection of remarks on the composition thereof, or a companion piece to humanize the author in passing. Best get the usual hallmarks out of the way:

– Four substantial sections (seasons?)

– Mostly untitled, though with a charming propensity to underline a phrase (title?) anywhere he pleases

– Just enough punctuation to keep things at an even clip

The latter two impart a lilting, blended flavor between pieces. He lifts the needle so often that we quickly shed any anxiety over which song comes next, let alone which record, and yet the action of this stream-of-whatever remains unfailingly keen:

how it
resembles a piece of wood
eaten down by a body of water
while still alive in moony sphere
like a cutout circle of paper circles
in human time the sky
it’s animals really
their pumping hearts it makes their bodies
full with blood and their skin
with all those feeling nerves
I felt that too…

Because he takes the time early on to accustom us to the jotted, rapid-turnover method (“oh, it’s a game—I want to play”), he affords himself the opportunity to alternate between earthbound folk wisdom and breezy koan with alacrity. Thus, as if by almanac:

if you rot you’re a log
if you run you’re a river

followed closely by:

sometimes no light
sometimes light like the moon
sometimes light like a crack comes through itself
sorry to be one of those two things
but not sorry to be that one.

The halting, one-thought-at-a-time approach does wonders for the pacing, so much so that we feel inclined to double-check a given poem’s simple components against its destination. Such peace is imbued in the turning and overturning, we’re taken aback when his poet’s-poet haymakers connect–this at the cost of emotional handles, though one suspects he wouldn’t have it any other way, especially in his discombobulated turns. Presented with “I’m naked too / and sick // a kind of / blood song / falls out of me,” we’re left with the impression of precision, bereavement, even bewilderment, but to analyze further would risk snuffing the effect. An unfocusing urge shoos us away—just in time, we feel.

With this in mind, it seems Beckman’s newest rewards the strained, convincible eye. His work lives in a spectacularly hypnagogic mode, hardly ever straying from the bemused turf he’s worked to cultivate over the length of his career. It comes off, at times, bedridden, elsewhere, exclaiming over a trinket placed just so, the sound of hail against his hat. It’s a tougher balance than it seems to pull off aged rumination using mostly ageless words in the one- to two-syllable range. More often than not, the resultant tincture deftly balances self-reproach, visual acuity, and lovable clowning, which mixture appeals by virtue of sheer readability:

      Green and yellow
are two colors
found in my field,
I looked around
and thought proudly.

How rueful do we take him? How serious? The questions just gets harder as we read on. We have to remember that, as a translator, he’s taken steps beyond native English prosody. His articulated thought often employs abruptly foreign gestures, scenes entire, whose flash can propel a volta or ending to remote vistas, as in this Tranströmerian moment:

Here I have convoluted two natural things:

A family of antelope
turned to look at me

and a froze lake
beside which I have waited,
my life to proceed.

That’s the kernel, the approach, of The Inside of an Apple: a minimalist in transit, on a strict ration of words per line, each poem feeling as if it took its own length not just to devise its closing phrase, but to earn it. It’s not so much aimlessness as fidelity to aimlessness. To use Beckman’s own words, his “hope is that it happens differently each time,” a precept exemplified again and again in these pages.

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