Review of A Brief History of Time, by Shaindel Beers
What’s not to love about Shaindel Beers’ first collection of poetry, A Brief History of Time? It is confessional, political, classical, formal, imagistic, language-driven, realistic, fantastic, sensational, conventional, innovative, consistent, personal and diverse. Almost anything you want from poetry –unless you want facile, sentimental drivel — you can find here. This book could be used as a companion piece to a fairly large dictionary of poetics, illustrating a great number of the concepts and terms spoken of in the practice of poetry. There are 4 sestinas, 2 sonnets, a villanelle, and a ghazal; there are wide-ranging examples of a seamless stream of consciousness technique and crystal clear and straightforward conventional narratives; there are metaphors and motifs, references and allusions; and through it all there is vivid imagery and a facility with sound and language that lets the stories, thoughts, and perceptions unfold fluidly down the page. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, Beers’ virtuosity is not limited to the technical aspects of poetry but extends into her selection and expression of subject matter as well, offering significant insights and opportunities for understanding in areas of both personal health, psychology, and relationships and broader issues of social justice.
Focusing just on the versatility Beers displays in these poems might be misunderstood to suggest that the book lacks cohesion. In fact, however, the poems revolve quite provocatively around a central idea suggested in the book’s ambitious title. Taken together, they form a sort of narrative of a young woman’s personal and social development towards self-actualization in late 20th century America as she becomes increasingly aware of the inconsistencies between what has been promised and what is actual and as she explores the possibilities for reconciling these differences. The story is not linear because any story that strives for realism will resist linearity. The story is “brief” because it arises from and focuses on a life that is still incomplete. Nevertheless, the story is wide-ranging because Beers recognizes that any segment of any human life seen honestly and accurately will constitute a microcosm of all human life, of “history.”
It is the unblinking realism, the haunting familiarity, of these poems that is most appealing about them. Auden said the poem “must say something significant about a reality common to us all,” such that its “readers recognize its validity for themselves.” Otherwise, we might ask, what would be the point. Beers writes about things that matter and things we recognize, and time and again she gets it just right, so right, in fact, that the reader finishes nearly every poem feeling as if they’ve just read a record of their own thoughts and experiences.
Perhaps the most impressive poem in the collection is the first one, the title poem, which in some ways serves as a model for the entire book. This free verse stream of consciousness journey from mixing coffee through Virginia Woolf, dinosaurs, annuities, “People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People,” The Last of the Mohicans, and a 1983 Cutlass Supreme to an image of the moon as a baseball reveals a personality that wants it all to make sense, understands it never will, but finds purpose in the effort. She muses (more poetically than this excerpt can achieve), “There seems to be a message here, but I don’t know what it is . . . . nonetheless, I keep on trying . . . . My regular duties . . . . pouring Gatorade, wiping away sweat and shards of bicuspids and incisors . . . . just another type of insanity . . . . doing the same thing the same way and expect[ing] different results. I did it to help people . . . . by writing these untruths.”
As these lines, this poem, and indeed this entire book suggests, the separation between what is of concern personally and what is of concern socially is much narrower than we usually, for the sake of convenience, conceive. It should not be surprising, then, to discover that the poems I find most powerful are those that appear more personally probing but in the process produce lines that bear larger social implications as well, such as these from “Flashback:”
When you are four, you don’t realize
that a road can go on forever, take you from forest
to wheat field to desert, that there are worlds you
have never known. Worlds where the dull sound
of your mother’s body hitting a wall, a door, the baby’s
changing table are as alien as saying I love you.
It is through the consideration of such personal poems that we begin to recognize our own potential for the greater social responsibility expressed in lines like these from “Rewind:”
If we could invent
the automatic rewind, bodies would expel
bullets that would rest eternally in chambers,
130,000 people would materialize
as the Enola Gay swallowed the bomb,
landmines would give legs and fingers
back to broken children.
Right now, teeming cancer cells
would be rebuilding blood and bone.
Perhaps the most worthy ambition of poetry is to help us achieve greater empathy and understanding, to help us recognize the universal through the familiar. Shaindel Beers accepts this challenge of the poet. The speaker of one of her poems chastises herself for lacking the courage to stand up for “things that matter, the stuff of life and death.” A Brief History of Time may very well be the penance for that lack of courage as these poems face unflinchingly that task of promoting our ability for compassion and action.