Richard Beban's What the Heart Weighs
Richard Beban speaks directly to the mind and heart in his first book-length collection of lucid, entertaining poems. While sprinkled with allusions to mythology, art and European travel, most readers with a few general education credits will be able to follow him. He handles classic forms like the villanelle and pantoum with skill, but overall writes in the "relaxed, conversational idiom" that R.S. Gwynn finds characteristic of most contemporary American poets (A Field Guide to the Poetics of the '90s).
In seven intriguingly-named sections of consistently capable and penetrable pieces, Beban communicates his childhood experiences in the unfortunately typical dysfunctional family that shaped many a Baby Boomer, his appreciation for birds, and some other random observations about life and love: "The Way the Game Was Played," "Slave to Love," "deToqueville's Truck Stop," "What the Heart Weighs," "Sisyphus' Day Runner," "Talking to Birds," and "Liebestod."
The "prologue" introducing these sections is my favorite poem in the book: The Voyage. Beban's proposal that belonging to something greater is just "a beginning" is evocative. I was captivated by the image of Li Po's floating poems disintegrating yet retaining their own sense of purpose as the "once-words...set out for distant lands."
Beban leans heavily on irony in the first section, "The Way the Game Was Played." A few times the opening lines were so comedic I waited the length of the poem for another punch line. "My Parents Watch the July Fourth Parade" starts out:
Perhaps they were both dyslexic ;
never clear on the difference
between marital and martial.
The connection between patriotism and child abuse is never fully laid out, only hinted at ironically :
The stars & stripes forever
imprinted . . .Red
welts, white skin, blue bruises . . .
Beban's insights reach as far as parents are gods or artists shaping/misshaping their children. Absent is any direct rebellion, making me wonder, where are the 60's in this collection? Beban's narrator politely worries about the safety of his father's glasses while his brother literally flies their father as a kite in Kite, and finally succeeds in earning his father's approval through a painstakingly prepared meal for the tyrant now weakened by age and illness in "My Father & I Shopped." The parents as god/artist theme is carried out in Genealogy and the title poem of the fifth section, "What the Heart Weighs."
Beban's reflections on dysfunctional family life are the most interesting when they are the most subtle, as in the title poem of this section, "The Way the Game Was Played." The delicately nuanced description of the peculiar family tradition - playing football with a rolled up newspaper - speaks volumes about Dad's personality, the pressure to conform that is the sickening side of sports, and the family's reaction to a son's literary gifts:
Then Dad would roll another hard, tight
overlap the black tape, sealing the words inside
The second section, "Slave to Love," consists of better than average poems about adult love, but doesn't deliver the depth of insight or memorable voices that would knock my socks off. Likewise, the third section, "deToqueville's Truck Stop," offers fairly standard, if wry, observations. Beban really goes out on a limb, however, with "Customer Satisfaction," a passionate, though tongue-in-cheek, ode to the perfect shopping cart. This is one of the most entertaining poems in his collection.
This cart pulled free with such grace
that my lightest touch sailed it
into a light pirouette. I spun to catch this rubber-wheeled
Dame Margot, surprised my stocky form
could move like Nureyev.
What the Heart Weighs, the fourth section of the book, contains another gem. With the Frogs at the Kladeos River in Ancient Olympia conveys the point of view of amphibians with unique dignity. It's especially delightful to read aloud, as I had the opportunity to experience when I performed this piece to a warm response at a reading dedicated to environmental concerns.
If you sit like them long enough,
quiet, muscled haunches thick
with grace, they may reward you
with a song. . . .
. . . they will sing in chorused voices high
& lyre sweet of amphibian dreams,
of moving in two worlds at once,
of the musky poetry of flies . . .
The fifth section, "Sisyphus' Day Runner," continues the wry observation trend of "deToqueville's Truck Stop." One proposition that grabbed me was that Dr. Jekyll, in "The Psychiatrist, Narcissus, Writes Up His Findings on Jekyll & Hyde," was "addicted . . . to the taste of remorse." The quiet poem, "Silence," seemed suited to be set to music.
The next section, "Talking to Birds," is an almost chapbook-sized tribute to birds, with a couple poems thrown in that merely allude to birds. I would have liked to have learned more obscure facts or new perspectives on birds in these pieces, and I could have done without the bird/angel comparisons. It was hard for me to sit through the nearly unexamined cruelty to animals in "Great-Grandmother in Her Sunday Plumed Hat" - whose "head is an avian adventure" - and "The Artist's Way" - Matisse's hapless dove is a "wild beast held in his focused, loving grip," but that's just me.
Beban wins me back when he declares in "Summer Rain Sonnet for the Average Housefly" that a fly's life is "tasty & worth a song of its own." "Reflections on a December Sunday" does a pleasing job of weaving together a fly escaping a cat's torments and passengers on an airplane through the motif of a wandering wind, though I'm not sure if there is a point to that juxtaposition.
The final section in the book, "Liebestod," contains pieces on just that--love and death. Ranging from the cliché-laden "She Asks Us Both to Imagine the Relationship Won't Last" to the gratuitous spontaneous human combustion piece, "I Burn for You," to the daring "Opossum" - "my love is an opossum," to the moving title poem, this section unevenly wraps up this accessible collection that's blessedly coherent while short on surprises.
C.E. Chaffin said about Billy Collins that "his work lacks lyrical power, opinionation, and quotability" (Towards a New Direction in Poetry). I would like to see Beban get wild and bring out voices we haven't heard before to add impact to his work which otherwise satisfies with musicality, restrained imagery and clarity.
(What the Heart Weighs: Poems by Richard Beban. Red Hen Press, Los Angeles. 2004. $14.95)
Chaffin, C.E. Towards a New Direction in Poetry. Tryst, Issue IX, June 2004.
Gwynn, R.S. A Field Guide to the Poetics of the '90s. Expansive Poetry & Music Online & Somers Rocks Press Archives, reprinted 1996.