Bruce Beasley’s Soul Parts

This weekend I had the pleasure of introducing Bruce Beasley as he read from his new book, All Soul Parts Returned, at Village Books here in Bellingham, WA, on the blue wet coast of America. I’ve learned uncountably much from Bruce over the years. Not least he exemplifies to me how to speak to folks as who you just is. He’s one of the most authentic readers I’ve ever encountered – venues! book him! – and though I don’t come anywhere near that, it’s partly thanks to him I have an inner sensor for when I’m in actual contact with, at one and the same time, my core and those I’m talking to – cuz that’s the trick of it – and when I’ve lost that spirit tripod and am on bullshit autopilot. Well here’s give or take what I said.


It is an honour and a delight to introduce Bruce Beasley, who’s going to read tonight from his book just published by BOA Editions, All Soul Parts Returned.

One thrill of Bruce’s work is how he holds a word or phrase up and turns it a little this way, a little that, to see what light glints off it. “Ordinary of the Mass.” “Torn-to-pieces-hood.” “I have taken leave of several of my senses.” Then he breaks the whole apart to see what light the pieces might have in them.

I’m going to see if I can say something about his book by doing that with his title. And so here we go. All Soul Parts Returned.

Part the first. All soul. All is soul, all spirit – very nice, very idealist. Or all is sole, S-O-L-E, all is alone – so lonely. Or maybe all is alone because all is one, that’s the etymology – “alone,” all one. (If you think I’ve left the book behind you should buy it and read it because I really haven’t.) Now what about All Souls’ Day, because that’s called to mind too, day after the day after Halloween, when the spooky bits are over, and the Saints have had their day – now is when the ordinary faithful departed are honoured and remembered.

In one poem, through the sort of linguistic shattering and regathering I’m talking about, Bruce carries a forgotten Scots couplet

The speaned lambs mene their mithers
As they wimple ower the bent

through mediations and mastications and yet somehow arrow-straight to

The speaned man
menes his mither
as he wimples
ower the bent.

“The grown man mourns his mother as he falls in folds over the field.” That’s not the only way to read the verse, of course, that turn and return. These poems multiply. Multi-ply, many folds.

Part the second. Soul parts. Well doesn’t it just. It just keeps on going off somewhere. Except, off from whom? Wait, aren’t I the one, the soul, from whom the soul would go? (That’s kind of the question of the book.) Or, the soul parts, as in splits, into parts – but how can I be fractured from myself? (That’s sort of the question of the book.) Also, sole, S-O-L-E again. Are we talking sole and uppers, and we’re in a shoe repair workshop? “All sole parts returned.” Buy this book, toll-free, 1-800-SANDALS.

Finally, parts returned. Turned then turned again, re-turned? Are the parts spun round and round? “Turn,” when a poet says it, has to mean verse, has to mean poetry. A turn is a line break, a poem is to turn and re-turn. Are our soul parts being turned round, line after line, till they’re dizzy like kids at a piñata? From “Me Meaneth”:

We could trace it if we wanted to: the dictionary’s
words line up like children in a rush,
blindfolded, to bash

a piñata. We could track
T. S. Cairncross himself,
and his lost poem, and his lambs,

the words that merge
into his last name –

Cairn, cross. This tracing has no beginning and it never ends, marking the markers, death, loss, our observances.

I might seem just to be making up some dumb shit here. But this is the sort of crazed linguistic refraction Bruce’s poetry invites you to. Language in his world is a guide who keeps on ducking behind a screen then jumping back out at you wearing a clown suit and juggling deckchairs jellyfish and metaphysics. Then, just when you’ve got used to that, it steps out wearing a mask of oblivion.

Because the work is, meanwhile, also, terrifying. Nothing escapes question here. Not language, not the self, not whether life here on earth deserves it. (That would be Schopenhauer’s contribution. That philosopher is Bruce’s Satan in the forty-day desert.)

Nothing escapes question except maybe ordinary affection. Before and through and after all the play, affection is ordinal, a compass bearing. Affection for language, affection for wife, and son, and this astonishing biosphere, and a loving appalling God who may or may not – .

It’s an affection as true as the spiritual travail it allows is at times harrowing.

The factual stuff. All Soul Parts Returned is Bruce’s eighth book of poetry, following Theophobia, also published by BOA, in 2012. Other recent books include The Corpse Flower: New and Selected Poems (University of Washington Press, 2007) and Lord Brain (University of Georgia Press, 2005). He has won three Pushcart Prizes and has seen his work anthologized in Lyric Postmodernisms, The Pushcart Book of Poetry, and other collections. His work has appeared in Yale Review, Kenyon Review, Southern Review, New American Writing, Field, and many many other journals.  He’s a Professor of English at Western where he teaches courses in poetry writing, slam poetry, dreamwork, and the ontology of monsters.

Bruce has been a teacher, mentor, guide and friend to me, more than half my life now. I can’t tell you what an honour it is to introduce him to you (although I did just try).

Please join me in welcoming Bruce Beasley.


The image up top is by J. B. Murray, (bio here) untitled. One of his astonishing images graces the cover of All Soul Parts. Here’s another that dovetails with my poetry workshop’s current recent pass through asemic writing –

JBM+154

Valentine’s Shirt in Heaven

Zazen last night at Red Cedar for the first time in some weeks. My mind was a drifty sleepy jello, nothing new there. I moved from following my breath to following sounds. No alertness for me there so I switched to taking refuge

I take refuge in the Buddha
I take refuge in the Dharma
I take refuge in the Sangha

one on each exhalation. Just the utterance for itself, not trying to connect with what it means, I don’t know what they mean, honestly I don’t. I mean, I could try to explicate it, but phhhht. Nothing special happened and I left before service, tired after a long day and under the weather.

What we want’s so simple. To be loved. It’s so little and so much.

This morning, two poems by Jean Valentine, facing pages, saw me face to face.

OPEN

I lay down under language
it left me and I slept

—You, the Comforter, came into the room
I moved my head—

my blood, my mouth
all buttoned away—

Makers of houses, books, clothes-
makers, goodbye—

and

A LEAF, A SHADOW-HAND

A leaf, a shadow-hand
blows over my head
from outside time
now & then
this time of year, September

—this happens—
—it’s well known—
a soul locked away inside
not knowing anyone,
walking around, but inside;

I was like this once,
and you, whose shadow-hand
(kindness) just now blew over my head, again,
you said, “Don’t ever think you’re a monster.”

That Comforter, that kindness, I know them, & not just in memory.

& not only, please let it be, their recipient.


Image above, from a work still incipient, Dura Mater. Click to go bigly:

Image 1 col

Sumas Mountain ochre, olive oil, egg yolk, water on paper.

Close reading worksheet: Wyatt

The close reading guidelines I posted last week got more attention than I’d of expected. So thought to post, also, a worksheet I slapped together to help students build the skills they need to do all the damn fool things I say they might should.

This one’s on four of the six poems we’ve read by Sir Thomas Wyatt. Two sonnets, one sonnet on steroids, and one song that ne’er was, it thinketh me, no song never, and his lute be damned.

You might find the sheet haphazard and’d not be wrong. But a bunch of the Q’s on it, I framed after we’d talked about the poems some, so we had some lines we were thinking of them along, and I wanted to continue those.

We talked through about 1/2 of it today, and while they didn’t find it near so fun as wondering whether he did or didn’t do X with Anne Boleyn, they did brave and well. Noticing, e.g., how the fricative alliteration in “Fainting I follow” (in “Whoso list to hunt”) makes for a heavy breathing mimicking the breathless faltering hunter’s. And the echo, in “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind,” of the bag of winds given by Aeolus to Odysseus – a connection I admit I’d not have made, but I do think may be there, via Ovid if not from Homer straight.


Wyatt Worksheet

Apportion tasks as you see fit – but do collaborate, so as to come to the most complete answer to each of these questions. Take thorough notes, so you can report back to the class as a whole.

“Whoso list to hunt”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme (ab etc.) and locate the turn. What changes, rhetorically, at the turn? In other words, what is the speaker up to, before the turn, and how is what he’s up to different, after?
  • There are spots where alliteration becomes prominent. Find them. What’s the effect of the alliteration?
  • There are two lines that are metrically regular iambic pentameter except for a trochaic substitution in the first foot. Find them. What’s the effect of the substitution?
  • Feel your way into this metaphor: “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.” What does it say, reflect, embody, about the speaker’s endeavour?

“My galley”

  • Describe the rhyme scheme of the sonnet. How is the rhyming practice here different from that of “Whoso list”? How does it support or complement the poem’s content?
  • We said in class that the extended metaphor in this sonnet qualifies as a conceit, in which unrequited love is equated with a sea voyage. Identify every point of connection you can find between the two terms of the metaphor: literal (ground) and figurative (figure). E.g., “A rain of tears,” rain = the lover’s tears; “The stars,” stars = the beloved’s eyes.
  • Paraphrase lines 7–8: rephrase them in modern English with no loss of detail.
  • What do you make of the paradox that the speaker’s “enemy” is also his “lord”? Does it matter that these two descriptors are on two different lines?

“They Flee from me”

  • It’s never specified in the first stanza who or what “they” are. We can surmise, of course: they’re deer (figure), they’re lovers (ground). Why might Wyatt leave it implicit though – both deer and lovers unnamed?
  • “Busily seeking with a continual change” seems to apply well to young ladies of the court, not so well to deer. Is this a flaw in the poem, a metaphor fail? If not, why has the metaphor collapsed before the stanza and the sentence are done?
  • What do you take lines 18–19 to mean? What tone are they spoken in?

“My lute, awake!”

  • Scan stanza six. There are four trochaic substitutions in the stanza – find them. Is there anything that can be said about the effect they have?
  • Find the spots in the poem where the addressee, the thing or person spoken to, changes. Are these shifts important to the poem, rhetorically, structurally?
  • The poem imagines someone speaking (singing), someone spoken (sung) to. To what ostensible purpose? Is there some other obscured purpose we can discern? While we’re on the subject, does the poem imagine, in addition to its addressee(s), anyone overhearing?

That last one because these poems are as complex rhetorically, as aware of their ostensible audience, of possible intended unintended audiences; of their manifest purpose, of secret but broadly acknowledged purposes; and of purposes secret to all but the speaker, also of purposes the speaker has kept secret perhaps from himself – as any of the machinations were at that royal court, Henry 8’s, in which precincts these poems became so sharp and multiple, deadly and fine.


The image, in its whole glory, is Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello.

Hunt_in_the_forest_by_paolo_uccello

Click on, to see if you know where is an hind.

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Can’t tell you how moved I am by this book. Opens my head and heart and spirit and helps me to love the great bawling mess of meat and lust and loss and peace all at once I am. I hope it speaks to my students also. Assigned it because they are, as a body, far more engaged with and alert to questions of gender, identity, fluidity, than I, and I wanted a book that would meet and maybe challenge us all there.

We’ll see how it goes next week. I’m guessing it will. Here are the assignments I put together for my creative nonfiction students this morning.

Journal no. 1

On page 5 Nelson makes the first reference to her book’s title. “Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase ‘I love you,’ its meaning must be renewed by each use.” So we have an image of a voyaging entity that changes in all its parts and yet persists under a single name. And Nelson has named her book, not for the boat, but for those who voyage on it. What is she saying (proposing, hazarding, trying out) about love here? Is the image of the Argo, the Argonaut, applicable to anything else in or about the book?

Journal no. 2

The content of The Argonauts affirms fluidity over binaries and rigid categories – continuities. Gender is fluid. Eros itself is fluid, bonding lover to lover, parent to child, human to animal. Meanwhile the form of the book is full of discontinuities. Every time we move from one collage element to another, we leap across a gap. (Often even within a collage element, there are gaps to be leapt.) What do you make of this difference between the book’s content and its form? How might it serve Nelson’s purposes?

Writing no. 1

Begin a collage essay by writing two discrete (they need not be discreet) collage elements. Each can be about whatever you like, but they should be substantively different from each other, in content, technique, tone, theme, and/or diction. The differences between them should be alive – you, we, should feel a pulse of curiosity or excitement or WTF as we move from the one to the other. If you don’t feel that excitement, start over, because you’re not going to want to keep working with this material.  ¶ Other pointers. Remember the distinction between scene and exposition. When you’re doing scene, use your arsenal of fiction-writing techniques; rely on concrete significant details; embody your meanings in acts and events. When you’re doing exposition, avoid banal generalities, make your thinking interesting, fresh, alive, your own. Feel free to tear a page from Nelson and incorporate found materials – Deleuze, Irigaray, Plato, Lady Gaga.

An answer to a killing

Writ by my dear friend Barbara Nickel:

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. All it needs from you is that you take care not to trample it.  

That’s John Ames, Congregationalist minister, narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead.

I love John Ames as I’ve never loved a fictional character; I sat at his feet and listened to his gentle voice. Not one to push himself to the front of a crowd and trumpet his views, John Ames; approaching death, he wants his sermons burned. (“The deacons could arrange it. There are enough to make a good fire. I’m thinking here of hot dogs and marshmallows, something to celebrate the first snow.”) I wish his voice haunting the ear of the gunman in Quebec before he fired at the praying men. You take care not to trample. The silent and invisible life of prayer, care not to trample, the three-year-old with his father at prayer.

Care is not to trample. Her whole post here.

Trump and the Diamond Sutra (I)

Worst case seems to be our case. Men of great sudden power – worldly power, outer power, power a manifestly decrepit political process has bestowed on them – are telling the media they are enemy and should just shut up. Are reinstituting torture at secret sites overseas. Are abhorring abortion abroad to placate a domestic audience though that jacks up illegal unsafe abortions in the Third World, and deaths by. Are waving threats of no-more-money at cities havening immigrants doing work few else want to and their DACA children, some my own very students. Oh if I keep listing I’ll never be done. The Constitution, frail bulwark, cries to think what comes next.

I’m not a marcher. Don’t like slogans, crowds, group thought. Guess I could suspend that, and may, for the import of opposing. Cuz this is real real bad.

Want to know what inner power is. Have started reading the Diamond Sutra again, Red Pine’s translation, thought I touched something in these lines:

After crossing his legs and adjusting his body, he turned his awareness to what was before him.

At the start of the sutra. Don’t feel qualified to comment on them, but what I hear is, the Buddha is in a body. And wholly in it. He needs to attend to it and knows it. Maybe his knee hurts, so he adjusts. He was out in the city begging for his one meal, walking barefoot, he’s an old guy by now, maybe his knee or his insole hurts. He adjusts his body. Doesn’t blame anyone for his discomfort, just does what he can to lessen it, and moves along. No arrogance.

No blame. Turns his care to what needs looking after – what was before him. Is human, not a god, not omniscient, it takes a choice and a turn to locate his mind here, in mindfulness. But he can, and because he’s love, he does.

What answer does this offer to Trump, at the apparent dawn of proto-fascism in a capital empty of competent political opposition? I think maybe none.

Nor am I helping the petitioners, demonstrators, agitators, and such, whom I admire lots and am glad for greatly but find I am not one of, much.

The only answer I know to the sickness of outer power is cultivation of inner power. I have not heard a resonant response to the ill spreading among us anywhere except in buddhadharma. Which I don’t understand, and tells me nothing specific about how to act.

And, too, I reject quietism.

Thus astray, as I dive into the Diamond Sutra, I may post a few of my misprisions here. Will share by tweet in case lonely sleepless sad POTUS eavesdrops.


NEXT DAY. This post started to turn to crap. Had I had a beer too many? (Been through a breakup, second time round with the same o so lovely heartful hurted beloved, some beers is cheery to me.) Maybe I just lost the bead.

“Group thought,” that’s out, everything I’ve heard about the Women’s Marches, they were astonishing harmonious various, true response, right action.

“I have not heard …,” that out. Soon as I said it, started hearing fierce meaningful responses all over. L. in Portland sent this from HuffPo on ethnographic blogging, its quilting of irreducibly multiple voices, as resistance to the One Voice of the State. Adam Gopnik’s annoying fondness for the sleek epigram has transmuted under a new pressure to become a majestic voice of true opposition. He wrote this in the New Yorker, from which a taste:

Whenever there is an authoritarian coup rooted in an irrational ideology, well-meaning people insist that it can’t persist because the results are going to be so obviously bad for the people who believe in it, whether it’s the theocratic revolution in Iran or the first truly autocratic Administration in America. Tragically, terribly, this is never the way it works. There is no political cost for Trump in being seen to be incompetent, impulsive, shallow, inconsistent, and contemptuous of truth and reason. Those are his politics. This is how he achieved power. His base loves craziness, incompetence, and contempt for reason because sanity, competence, and the patient accumulation of evidence are things that allow educated people to pretend that they are superior. Resentment comes before reason.

And this in the Sun, which arrived today, its dawn offering

Let America Be America Again
Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America was never America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed –
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It was never America to me.)

Ironies multiply and compound. The whole poem here.

Could be said, these are buddhadharma, yo? A sutra‘s what stitches you up.

I just – I just – I don’t know how to turn acts of mind, poems and posts, to act acts. I want to knock a government down. What use, following my breath?

John Berger, 1927-2017

And now John Berger gone. Who’s had more power and sway over my grown mind than any other. A whole man, upstanding.

This from his essay on the Chauvet Cave:

We have no word for this darkness. It is not night and it is not ignorance. From time to time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything: so much everything that we can distinguish nothing. You know it, Marisa, better than I. It’s the interior from which everything came.

The meaning there is, nothing is lost. And yet what a loss.

His love for the world shone in the care of the balance of each syllable.

Not a word he wrote was not about, in, and of, intimacy.