Richard Beban's Young Girl Eating a Bird
Write what you know – the standard advice for writers. The challenge is to make it universal. In his latest effort, a huge (132 poems) compendium of his work titled after the Magritte painting, Beban managed to reach me a few times, but didn't knock my socks off on every page. When he hit the mark it was most often with a deft moment of humor or ironic commentary.
I'm not going to give away any of his best lines, so you must buy the book to get the full effect. But just to tease you, I will nominate him for “Best Use of the Phrase 'Writer's Block'” in his excellent piece, “Supposition in Black & White,” which delivers many moments of amusement, even if you aren't familiar with the poetry jargon he employs.
I appreciated his daring admission of shallowness in “What Really Counts,” set at a poetry reading but applicable to rivalry among colleagues in other settings. The laugh at the end must be very satisfying when Beban performs it live.
My favorite – worth the price of admission – is “Your Place in the Grand Scheme.” Beban has a way of crystallizing for us homo sapiens the perspective of overlooked creatures – in his earlier book, What the Heart Weighs (Red Hen Press: 2004), it was frogs (“With the Frogs at the Kladeos River in Ancient Olympia”) while in this work, insects. The piece, charmingly rhymed, begins:
The insects are watching, assuming
that you'll be the main course one day.
Compound eyes confidently presuming—
if not him, then his grandson can play.
He loses me in a few sections that feature otherwise well-done work. A number of pieces from Part II, Why I Haven't Kept in Touch, evocatively describe the effects of major depressive disorder – “days so dark that sleep is the sole answer” – as in the aptly-named poem, “DSM 296.32.” Sections V, Poems from the Ignored, and VI, What Comes Next, include many well-written and even occasionally inventive pieces that don't really grab me, like tributes to his wife (maybe I'll get it once I'm happily married off for the third time, if such shall ever come to pass) and coming-of-age poems.
Coming of age has been a different prospect for me, not just as a female, but post-Madonna. In quaint contrast to the MTV and MySpace generations, movie theaters play a pivotal role in Beban's youthful sexual development, as in his piece “Attack of the Fifty-Foot Woman”:
Of course she wouldn't have wardrobe
big enough to fit her. Why else clutch
my hard-earned paper route quarter
& stand in line at the Grand
Theater . . .
And in “Saturday Matinee Surprise”:
. . . I am not
Spartacus. I am 13 & she
high in the balcony has swabbed
my mouth electric with surprise.
As the offspring of a pair of militantly feminist baby boomers who are very much alive and kicking, and whom I've mostly forgiven for their naïvely dysfunctional parenting faux pas, I can't really relate much to Beban's family dynamics and his parents' eventual passing, analyzed in the sections Two: Blood Relations and Four: Final Jeopardy. Perhaps I will find solace in them later on, once my parental units have moved on to that great ashram in the sky.
Which highlights how it's not just the writer, but also the reader, who must be able to find the universal in poetry. I happen to find it easier to accomplish when a poem draws such a sharply detailed portrait of some person who differs from me that I am compelled to recognize her or his humanity, but I still haven't encountered any such vivid portrayals in Beban's work so far.
He gets me close, though, with his poignantly ironic piece, “Mother's Caul”:
My caul was stripped from me at birth,
yet I saw these whole eighty years,
through my bloody scrim the midwife
told my mother would bring me luck. If luck
was mother's collapse, my rearing the younger
kids, father's hands sculpting destiny
on my body at fifteen, I was lucky.
It goes on until you want to slit your wrists in vicarious despair or euthanize this “lucky” dying narrator. The juxtaposition alongside other pieces about his mother makes me wonder if this story is about his family or from imagination. We don't find out. But that's why it's poetry and not Jerry Springer.
Beban's politics and religious philosophy dovetail with mine, so I'm happy to report that he's a better political poet than most. Many of his pieces in part III, Being Dealt the Fool, still share the unfortunately common tendency toward generalities, as in “Canaries,” which comments on the state of the world and our uncertain future by comparing and contrasting the next generation – “innocence drowned” – with captive canaries and captive falcons.
Nevertheless, because they're by Richard Beban, damned good poet, you can rest assured that these political poems are quality workmanship and will not fall apart the day after Christmas. Take his incisive piece, “The War Next Door,” which slips under the radar by employing an amusing conceit:
Last night I found a war on my doorstep,
lovingly wrapped in yesterday's paper.
Pinned to its basket, a small scrawled note . . .
. . . So I passed it on . . . This morning my neighbor
found the war on her doorstep. Pinned to its basket,
a small scrawled note.
The penultimate among these pieces is the smashing It Is No Secret (What God Can Do). This yearning for spirituality in the face of the devastation wrought by organized religions, this prayer to “the gods of my questioning heart,” could well become an anthem for Unitarian Universalists and other variations of agnostics everywhere:
. . . careful to pick
my own way between the notes of all the anthems.
I compose my own psalms . . .
Young Girl Eating a Bird is a worthwhile book of poetry from a very good writer. If you are up-to-speed on contemporary Western art and poetry, politically liberal/progressive, a baby boomer, or if you've experienced severe depression, you will relate to much of the work in this book. If you're devoutly religious, you should definitely read this book – it just might cure you. And if you aren't any of the above – you just might like it anyway.
One last disclaimer: There's just so much poetry in Beban's current offering, that it's easy to find something not to like. No one's going to hit you in the gut every time, even at his high skill level. We may hope to be blessed, in a few decades, with a “best of Richard Beban” collection, which will be a very fine book indeed.
(Young Girl Eating a Bird: Poems by Richard Beban. Red Hen Press, Los Angeles. 2006. $18.95)