Review: The Beautiful Tendons: Uncollected Queer Poems 1969 – 2007The Beautiful Tendons
Published by White Crane Press
Reviewed by Jonathan Statham
Loins be my oracle
Let the brown gleam be a bird
in a nest let
the mushroom feed us
I stand before God
[from ‘For Priapus’]
Beam’s poetry, most emphatically, is not a poetry of gay culture but of the communion between the gay man and nature, both his own nature and that more general Nature: “the Queer Spirit”, Beam affirms in his introduction, “sees All-in-All in every act of love”. More than that, his poetry dramatises a communion between a naturalised gay man and a spiritualised nature. Through the use of a poetic line that echoes both Whitman and Carlos Williams via Rumi, Beam combines the physical and the contemplative: sexuality and spirituality are fused in the perspective of the naturalist, in the observance of nature. In particular, naturalism allows Beam to achieve a use of sexual euphemism that avoids the bathos of clinical or colloquial vocabularies (the ‘brown gleam’ above, for example).
The overall effect is that of an idyll. Removed from daily urban life, untarnished by contemporary culture and clothing, Beam rediscovers the male body in the presence of itself. For this is what Beam renders brilliantly in his verse: the body at ease with itself. Magically, this ease is arrived at by an imperfection or, rather, an incompleteness of the verse, a fragmentation that registers as a quality of openness to the reader. Never the hard crystalline flawlessness of early imagist verse, we rather find here the leisurely listlessness of the body in repose. Appositely Beam keeps syntax to a minimum – the sense of a poem gathering via a paratactic constellation of words rather than through grammatical formalities (indeed, ‘Blue Winter Language’ was written “primarily with a magnetic poetry kit”). This technique, or seeming avoidance of technique, works to draw the reader into the sensuality of the image which is not described so much as evoked.
Nonetheless, I feel compelled to wonder, what is the vocation of this poetry? There is a cost to naturalising (homo)sexuality and it is not only an inability to speak of human culture. Given that this volume spans thirty-eight years of work, it is surprisingly univocal: certainly there are differences in form but the overall style remains the same. It is as if Beam does not challenge himself: there is no straining after new accomplishments, new poetries. Instead, there is a sinking back into the lull of nature’s poetry, warm, sunny, naked – but then for Beam that is what poetry is; as he says in his essay: “Acceptance. Surrender.” For myself, I note a spiritual dissonance here and I want to part company with Beam despite the tenderness and the muscularity that he provides: his is a poetry that cannot change the world but must accept what it finds there. This neutralising of the creative passion is perhaps the true cost of a naturalising poetic (a good contrast might be Adrienne Rich). Whether it is a price the reader is willing to pay is something each of us must decide for ourselves when we read the work of Jeffrey Beam – that he allows us to do so remains the gift of his verse.
Jonathan Statham lives and writes in Oxford.