Review of Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, New Issues Press, 2008. By Sarah Vap
Reading Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling gives me the exact same uncomfortable and unsettling and exciting and tender feeling there, in the pit of my stomach, that I have when I think of the shit that went down with me and my first best friend. From our fairly trouble-free childhoods all the way to the prank phone calls to the police station while we played the cheap electric organ “death music” in the background; the subsequent visit to my house by the police. The letters written to Tampax for clearer instructions and more samples. The honesty games, the boys, the humiliations, the experiments, the risks, the failures and awkwardnesses of who we were (who I was).
And then the growing up and apart from each other. How now, when we see each other, we’re embarrassed. I feel like that when I read these poems.
This book can be read with so many different foci and attentions, but for me, what an accomplishment, this terrible unsettling discomfort. Beasley has hit on truths and feelings of a modern coming-of-age that I have always tried to avoid-- I’m not a graceful person-- but am smitten with Beasley that she’s brave enough and good enough to have figured out how to say what it’s like. And just exactly, it seems. It makes me think she was much better at being ten than I was.
And I don’t know how old she is, but as I read on in her book it’s clear she’s also better at being her twenties. And is or will be better at her thirties. But thank God she ends her book by burning childhood up as Nero burned Rome:
Sooner or later, the thing you value most will beg to be burned.
Trust me, says the phoenix, I’m immortal. Watch your childhood
home-- how the wires fray, how the baseboards splinter to tinder.
Your nights are split open by the steam and the writhing of hoses.
And a few lines later: “Even Joan of Arc, age ten, tanned her arms as she tended/ the sheep. I’m immortal. Tomorrow she will rise to a full boil.” The book as a whole ends a few lines later with “lips licked with flame, mouth readying to sing.” There is ritual in this book: a searching for ritual, a creation of ritual. There is something in this collection that is purgative of the glories and the shames of growing up female right now: in the end, there’s the fire. And after the fire: the singing.
Because childhood is immortal, isn’t it, though the body grows?
We don’t have rituals in our culture for this anymore (going out to lunch with your mom when you get your first period?), we’ve probably more generally lost our connection to the sacredness of life-transitions, so what do we have? Falling, as the title allows? Or, early in the book, Beasley offers that perhaps we have a kind of victory? In “Of Daughters” she searches through the older coming of age myth, Persephone and Demeter. “I should have warned how truth, in this house, is a parasite./ A fever with teeth. Instead I counted the horses, four, // and the fiery chariot they drew” she writes. And the result of consulting that “dutiful myth”?
How your sorrows burrowed in above the bone and bloomed,
juice matriculating into white, rounded flesh. And we called it
coming-of-age. How we bought satin to hold them up, cotton
to dress them down. How we swept deodorant under your arms
to stop the skin from weeping. How we called it victory.
To Beasley, the myth is ineffectual. But so are the stale, prescriptive modern rituals of the body. The victory is sparse or not at all. The “coming-of-age” that is available with first using deodorant and wearing bras is coddling and tempered, no longer sacred and mythological (meaning, enchanted), (meaning, ancient, powerful, exalted). Meaning: truthful.
In the next poem, “Holiday”, another older story is sought and rendered ineffectual-- or at least very sad. Of the Advent calendar, the tree, the family Christmas celebration:
Tonight we’ll wrap gifts until dawn, alone
in our many rooms. The house quiet except for
my father’s cough; except for twenty-five chocolates
rattling behind twenty-five unopened windows;
except for my sister stringing up angels, in one hand
their tiny napes of neck and in the other hand, a hook.
Danger, the heartbeat of ritual, is present in each of her poems. The negative of each positive image is stated or hinted at. But new maps are sought, new pathways are considered to get from one place (childhood?) to another (womanhood?). New rituals, it seems, are needed. So Beasley searches family for possible wisdom, for examples.
Looking for the truth of the father more resolutely even than her own mother did, she writes: “I went to the window./ I held my father up to that ruthless sun and looked, and looked.” Next she considers an image her mother offers, a “map of hunger” made on a piece of paper by sprinkling a sugar water path for the caterpillars to chew away. But alas, it is no more than an “experiment.”
Next, in “Of Mothers,” she considers another possible image of femininity offered to a girl “maybe six” who she does not know: a string of paper dolls whose “fat, triangular skirts, clipping wedges// for hands that will hold”. But though the girl, like all girls, will grow, the child’s mother perverts the concept of growth, and considers only, and heartbreakingly, that the girl might grow fat. Beasley rejects this image on the little girl’s behalf: “Say you love me,// then cut a thousand times.”
In “The Story of My Family” she struggles still for the myth, the true story that will aid, that will be relevant in this world at this time.
Sow the field with you
and you sprout in hours, white tips
thrusting through the meal soil--
one book says a bean pushes its husk
away, hauling the used body to the surface;
one book says the army is born whole,
fingers scratching toward any light.
But neither story is actually chosen. And what follows this search through the older myths and through the family is her gruesome and wrenching long poem “Allergy Girl,” in which the world itself is dangerous, and is chronicled in terms of extreme allergic reactions to it. In the longer narrative of the book, it makes sense: how can you not be allergic to a world whose stories, ways, myths to move your entire life-- are failing?
But of course, in this collection of poems, the girl grows, rituals or no. Of course, the sexuality that is implicit in coming-of-age, happens. Of course, there are the fallings that the book considers, and there are the landings. And at landing? In the end? It seems to me, according to Beasley, that in the end it is desire that wins. It is her own desire that leads her from one place to the next, and beautifully, complicatedly, sometimes sadly-- but wholly.
Without the pathway made by ancient story, without the pathway made by family story, without the sacred stories to lead or offer example, it is her own desires that move her, that create the paths and options, and that prove to be completely true. I love that this is where I have landed in Theories of Falling: at this new ritual she has offered me of trusting desire dark, desire light.