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  August 2006
volume 4 number 3
  home   (archived)
  center stage
Tess. Lotta
Blue-Eyed Cunt: Inga Muscio and Writing Autobiography Left of the Genre
Larry Colker
Can Anyone Out There Hear Me?
Marie Lecrivain
Paul Moreno's Permission For Strangers
Jack G. Bowman
Sabrina Lightstone's Open
Aire Celeste Norell
Richard Beban's Young Girl Eating a Bird
Matthias Hagedorn
On Striding through Spheres of Language: The Writings of Francisca Ricinski
Marie Lecrivain
Jim Marquez's East L.A. Collage
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Aire Celeste Norell August 2006


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)

copyright 2006 Aire Celeste Norell


Aire Celeste Norell

author's bio

    Aire Celeste Norell's work has appeared in The Blue House, Matrix (Germany), and San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly. She has been anthologized in Literary Angles: The Second Year of poeticdiversity (2005, Sybaritic Press) and The Other Side of Sorrow: Poets Speak Out about Conflict, War, and Peace (2006, Poetry Society of New Hampshire).
    In 2004 she put together her first poetry chapbook, The Ugly Duckling & Other American Tragedies. In the same year, she edited and published an anthology (on tree-free paper using soy ink) of environmental poetry, Cracked Pavement & Plastic Trees: Our Gifts To Future Generations.
    Aire has been a featured performer at a number of poetry readings and other venues across L.A. and Orange County. She is also guilty of compulsively organizing poetry/music/dance events for good causes. Her day job is tutoring "low income, at risk" youth.

    For information about her upcoming scheduled appearances, as well as to read more of her work, please visit her website.

Aire Celeste