Circle’s Apprentice
by Dan Beachy-Quick

Reviewed by Justin Sider


Published by Tupelo Press, 2011   |   pages

“I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America,” wrote Charles Olson at the beginning of Call Me Ishmael, his mythopoetic account of Melville’s Moby Dick.  And Wallace Stevens, in “The American Sublime,” argued that in this country the sublime comes down to “the empty spirit / in vacant space.”  In their accounts of American “space,” both poets were situating themselves within the native tradition of Romanticism associated with Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville and Hawthorne.  Their interpretations of the American nineteenth-century have fed a small but vital poetic tradition, in which we might include, among others, Ed Dorn, Jack Spicer, Susan Howe, and Peter Gizzi.

Dan Beachy-Quick is the most recent entrant into this tradition, with a body of poetic and critical writing that returns persistently to nineteenth-century touchstones as it puzzles over space and text, self and representation.  In his second book, Spell (Ahsahta Press, 2004), a series of fractured monologues spoken by characters from Moby Dick serves as an exploration of the self in/as text.  A Whaler’s Dictionary (Milkweed Editions, 2008) takes up Ishmael’s abandoned “Cetological Dictionary” as a framework for meditating not only on Melville but on the practice of writing more generally.  Circle’s Apprentice, his newest volume, continues this journey, and it takes for its master the transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The title comes from Emerson’s essay, “Circles,” which begins, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.”  Emerson’s eye is an image for the visionary self—in Nature he imagines himself as an “invisible eyeball”—and the horizon is not only a boundary line but also the expansion of selfhood.

But if Emerson provides Beachy-Quick with a metaphysics, it is American modernism that gives the book its formal and rhetorical peculiarities.  The shape and tone of the poetry allude to T.S. Eliot’s fragments, Olson’s projective verse, and Howe’s elliptical lyricism.  Lines from poetic mentors (Wallace Stevens in particular) drift in and out.  Ezra Pound’s Pisan Cantos anchor the meditations of “Fragile Elegy,” one of the most compelling poems in the book, and we might find in this relationship a helpful gloss on Beachy-Quick’s poetics.  In May of 1945, two years after being indicted for treason back in America, Ezra Pound was arrested in Rapallo, Italy by partisans, then transferred to Genoa and handed over to American forces.  After several weeks sleeping on the bare floor of a chicken-wire cage in the Disciplinary Training Center (DTC) outside of Pisa, he suffered a breakdown and was moved to a tent with a cot and a typewriter, on which he composed his Pisan Cantos.  The cantos are, more than any of his poems, instinct with his surroundings: a eucalyptus pip carried in a pocket, the patois of African-American soldiers, the landscape of Pisa.  Canto 75 reprints Jannequin’s Renaissance motet, “The Song of the Birds,” as a material analogue for the fleeting bird-song around him, and later, in Canto 82, he turns this song into a textual image:

f    f
write the birds on their treble scale

In “Fragile Elegy,” Beachy-Quick unpacks Pound’s complex of text, image and song to create an elegant memorial to the great modernist:

where in my cold reaches I think

of him who in prison sang a scent

of leaf in his hand to remember

who saw through the smoke-hole

Sirius in the infirmary tent

who might do best to acquire forgetting

to add silence in who cannot

remove himself from brute time

fringes beauty with harm and he

saw on three wires the sparrows sit —

the sparrows who in the searchlights nest —

and composed the canto to varying

perches and so composed his song

and so a wire now in my eye hums

the image in blue wires and inter

lines the words on the blank

For Beachy-Quick, whose poems dream of “asterisks / Replacing stars,” Pound’s poetic practice offers a way to explore the life in writing, and Emerson’s circles are transposed to the relationship between self and text, where vision’s horizon is the far margin of composition.  Elsewhere Beachy-Quick writes, “God falls down / Into grammar and says I am but the words are spoken / From a bush of fire.”  An infinite being “falls” into a finite linguistic construction, but the result is the decidedly expansive “lyric” image of the burning bush, a translation, if you will, of the initial paradox.  His poems are full of these exchanges, in and out of the body of language.

One of the most affecting sections of the volume is the first, a group of poems the author calls “Lullabies.”  One of these also served as a dedication to his daughter in A Whaler’s Dictionary, and I quote it here in full:

Little whale, little ghost,
the world grows quiet
when you speak it most —
When you see it most —
it grows blank as ocean —
grows blank at noon ——
No boat but a coffin,—
and horizon for a coast. —

The lines harbor a delicate meter that always manages to avoid complete regularity (a feat also accomplished in the other lullabies), and they give us a hint of the poet’s controlled rhythmic sense, not always as apparent in the more vatic and fragmented portions of Circle’s Apprentice.  Speaking or seeing the world makes the world disappear, and we find ourselves adrift on an ocean, encircled only by horizon.  It is Stevens’s “empty spirit / in vacant space” reimagined as a rhyme for singing one’s daughter to sleep, one of the gentlest poems in a book that seems most to desire gentleness as one its achievements.

In the final poem of the book, the last in a series called “Tomb Figurine,” the poet writes: “More soon on the nature of impossible constructions. / The man on the moon. The sea-rose. The living-room.”  Here at the end of the volume, Beachy-Quick opens up yet another horizon: the limits of linguistic possibility, re-extended with each new poem.  By invoking the “living-room” as an impossible construction, the book concludes in a domestic space made newly strange as metaphor.  It is both departure and return.  And the tomb figurine of the title is—like the “impossible constructions”—an emblem of the fundamentally elegiac understanding of composition that animates Beachy-Quick’s best work.  The poet, always disappearing, leaves behind these poems, and we as readers gather them to us, “encaustic tokens to remember what’s lost.”

Justin Sider is a PhD candidate in English at Yale University. His poetry has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Bat City Review, and Indiana Review, and his reviews have appeared in Colorado Review and Meridian. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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