Oyster Boy Review 17  
  Fall 2003
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» Levee 67


Throwing Fire at the World

Cy Dillon

What We Have Lost: New & Selected Poems, 1977-2001.
Jeffery Beam.
Green Finch Press, 2002.
2 disks pages, $20.00 (Audio/Multimedia CD).

Poetry belonged to the voice for millennia before humans learned to record language with written symbols, but since long before Gutenberg the graphic beauty of words on a page has also had a hold on both audience and writer. Better poets have attended to both parts of presenting their art, and few poets have mastered both media as well as Jeffery Beam. His books, broadsides, and "kennings" have always been beautiful objects; his readings have always been events. Just this winter I heard a bookstore owner in a small North Carolina town describe Jeffery's performance in his shop with an attitude approaching reverence. (If you are skeptical, view one of the video clips of him reading contained on the disks.) So there is little wonder that with this history and with a librarian's experience with the power of electronic publishing that Beam's double CD collection is a treat for eye, ear, and mind.

In addition to drawing on his own taste and expertise, Beam assembled an exceptional team of collaborators to produce a multi-media buffet of photographs, drawings, graphic art, music and the spoken word. Some of the contents of the CD are even accessed online through embedded links, but most is available without that connection. The design and production by Huong Ngo is innovative and artistic, and the original music of Bo Newsome, produced by the Rubber Room in Durham County, NC, creates a sympathetic mood for the photographs and other artwork, such as David Terry's drawings. Hubert Deans' production of Beam's reading blends seamlessly with the music and artwork. The flexibility of the medium, enhanced by user-friendly menus, allows Beam to include interviews, reviews, and his own criticism without intruding on the texts and sound files of the poetry. This compendium creates the opportunity to understand Beam's work and philosophy of art in a depth far beyond that supported by a collection of poems alone. It is especially helpful to have the major unpublished material included. In fact, What We Have Lost becomes a definitive reference for the first two decades of a remarkably productive career. But by far the best feature of the production is the ease of listening to the reading or singing of the poetry.

Yes, I said singing, and I am not referring to Shauna Holiman's recording of Lee Hoiby's adaptation of Life of the Bee (reviewed elsewhere in this issue). Beam is known for the a cappella singing of poems, and the versions recorded here are excellent. His rendition of "The Song" from Fountain is the one I find most moving, with its depth of emotion, but many others are noteworthy. Nor are the spoken poems dull. Beam has excellent range in his reading; he can communicate his own emotions or portray that of a character like an accomplished actor. All this, of course, would mean little if the poems themselves were pedestrian.

Beam is above all a poet of the intuitive spirituality of the natural world, an Objectivist in the tradition of Pound and Williams who does not hesitate to eschew the fashionable in favor of the lasting. Beam's careful attention to diction and imagery sets his work apart from much of the lush, verbose sentimentality that characterizes far too much Southern poetry. As Beam recently told Mark Roberts in an interview in Nantahala Review, he strives for "elevated, yet common language" that will put his work "not in the mainstream—but in the mystical stream of poetry."

As a writer responding to the natural world, Beam's landscapes are always charged with the spiritual just below the surface, waiting for discovery. While I believe that Beam's most mature and consistent writing to date appears in Visions of Dame Kind and The Fountain, which are primarily lyrical responses to natural objects or setting, his treatment of homoeroticism also cultivates a feeling of discovery in a world charged with possibility. In Submergence, and the yet unprinted The Beautiful Tendons, the author openly intends to celebrate desire for men, but the hidden sensuality of male bodies appears in all his collections of poems. Submergences, composed when Beam was much younger and under the "deliriously heady influence, of Rimbaud, the Symbolists, Anais Nin" and other social radicals and surrealists, is especially intense and self-revealing. The narrator seems driven by a combination of wonder, fear, and shame that, as Beam matures, distills to wonder alone.

Don't take my word for it. Beam's writing has been well received in academic circles, the gay press, and popular newspapers, while his children's works and performances are an institution in Chapel Hill. But look and listen for yourself. A reader can spend many hours with What We Have Lost getting a full a picture of Jeffery Beam's work, experiencing the wonder this remarkable poet finds in the smallest and most humble objects. Witness "Wild Mustard" in Visions of Dame Kind:

Jesus said
I throw a fire at the world

Guard it
till it blazes.

Are you not curious about how it sounds when read by the poet?