Theories of Falling by Sandra Beasley
(New Issues Press, 2008)
In a recent Hayden’s Ferry Review spotlight, Sandra Beasley writes, “poets struggle with wanting the authenticity of the first person while also wanting the freedom of hyperbole and narrative construction”, and that her first book “assembled an identity through the prism of experience”. She accomplishes these goals, creating a multi-faceted persona that appears in poems on family and romantic relationships in the first half of the book and in broader poems in the second half. Theories of Falling can almost be read as a loose bildungsroman in verse.
In the opening poem, “Cherry Tomatoes”, the speaker notes “the way, when I finally // went sailing, my stomach // was rocked from the inside out.” If sailing can be extended as a metaphor for growing up and leaving home, the line is fitting for much of the book. Turbulence and discomforting images reappear throughout. In “Holiday”, we find “my sister stringing up angels, in one hand // their tiny napes of neck and in the other hand, a hook.” In other poems fire, fists, methadone, floods, and a general sense of standing on the brink emerge to create a sensibility marked by vulnerability and bravado—a familiar stance, effective in its promise of the autobiographical, echoing aspects of Anne Sexton’s voice in its physicality, yet still maintaining a certain distance.
As much as we come to “know” the persona here, there’s a sense that language is sometimes used as a mask. This may be akin to the “adolescent persona” mentioned by Stephen Burt (as quoted in Ron Slate’s review) but it is nevertheless compelling in poems like “The Parade”:
I throw a parade of thirty reasons you shouldn’t love me.
Shut up, you say, I know what I love.
What can you know? I know
only that there is no constancy to this body—
I am gaseous, vapor, water and solid. I swell. I shrink.
I bloat. My heels are hardening as we speak.
I run off an ounce of sweat, then gorge on bread and oil.
I claim my nails are short yet manage to claw you.
I call my hair long, but geometry dictates that strands must be
growing every possible length in between.
Shut up, you say. Come to bed.
Do you know that when I lay down, the loosening muscles
cause me to grow an inch taller?
Love, please listen to me, I am trying to help you.
Love, you are wasting these elephants and this ticker tape.
“The Parade” is built on contradictions. The speaker, like Whitman, contains multitudes but the lover refuses to accept her insecurities / excuses for why she should not be loved. It would have been intriguing to read all thirty of the reasons, but enough is given here to illustrate the tension between the desire for intimacy and the desire to be left alone, a thoroughly human plight, and not solely the providence of adolescence.
One of the markers of Beasley’s many talents is her ability to achieve a genuine pathos through the careful sequencing of poems. Taken individually, the poems may at first seem like consistently hip, edgy missives, but together they transcend that and accumulate to the closing lines of the book in “The Door”:
Here is the church, here
is the steeple: a child
opens the door of her hands.
Inside, those people
never let her down.
“Those people” can be read as a wish—an ideal different from the reality of the speaker’s parents in the opening poem, “Cherry Tomatoes”, who in another poem, “Allergy Girl”, might have taken “the wrecking ball to each other” were it not for the speaker’s presence. The suggestion that the child has been let down is strikingly honest. There is no sense of blame. The speaker here is not an adult reflecting on the past hoping to find explanations for the present. The choice to use a child and not an “I” is a very apt one, offering, as it does, a simplicity in sharp contrast with the energetic hyperbole in other poems, as though here, at last, the mask is removed and the ticker tape parade ends. The result is a memorable debut, thoughtful in its structure and haunting in its claims.
Karen Rigby is the author of the chapbooks Savage Machinery (Finishing Line Press, 2008) and Festival Bone (Adastra Press, 2004).