Whenever I review a poetry journal, I look for one or two poems that stitch all the poems to each other and, ultimately, to the fabric of my conscience. I trust the editors, whenever possible, to produce a publication that ties itself together with a common theme, a certain style, or a period in literary history, to name a few of the devices at an editorial team’s disposal. If I leave myself open to all the ways that such a “stitching” can happen, I am almost always pleased—as I am with the Fall 2012 Beloit Poetry Journal, which is a gem of a journal. The poem “Above the Lake,” by Stephen O’Connor, manages to pull the journal together.
But before I tell you about O’Connor’s wonderful 13-line poem, it’s worth noting that the Beloit Poetry Journal, published by the Beloit Poetry Journal Foundation in Farmington, ME, has been publishing poetry since 1950, and, in that span of 62 years, this little journal has published early pieces by an impressive line-up of important poets, such as Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton, W.S. Merwin, and Charles Bukowski. Poems first published in the journal are regularly included in anthologies, such as Best American Poetry.
Whether O’Connor’s poem will be anthologized is not for me to say, but with winter looming on the near horizon, “Above the Lake” brings to mind the image of a single set of purposeful footprints crossing the frozen creeks and ponds of a small snow covered valley. O’Connor tells us that in the season that is upon us, “the world is composed / of absence” and that the world is “this snow, / these woods, this bleak sky.” Indeed, his poem reminds us that solitude can often turn to isolation, and from there “I mean human longing, / I mean loneliness accreting as quiet / on quiet, as white on bluish white.” And so, the poem concludes with the world still white, still quiet. The difference is layer upon layer of white, layers of quiet, layers of absence and solitude. Winter is a long season.
Two poems by Lucy Anderton focus their emotions with a sharpness that cuts like concertina. It may seem that Anderton’s poetry is filled with anger and could not possibly be linked to O’Connor’s, but in “Toward the single point of slipping,” Anderton finds safety in solitude “Up the mountain” where she hides from her father. The poem opens with the image of a lamb “strung apart” on barbed wire in slashing rain. At first, Anderton tells us she saw it, before correcting herself, “No. / I see her.” Anderton, though, cannot “cut open / and run.” The images evoke Matthew Shephard, but Anderton is clearly writing about herself and women in general who have suffered abuse, or have at least endured the blunt edge of a patriarchal society. In Anderton’s poetry, the image of the lamb is not a celebration of the sacrifice of a divine and heroic Christ, a masculine Christ. What Anderton is referring to is a killing, plain and simple, of the feminine, or more broadly, the marginalized other, while “watchers” are complicit by their inaction:
And always the watchers
who do nothing.
to be done.
The last eight pages of Beloit Poetry Journal are taken up with a section called “Books in Brief.” Here, Editor Lee Sharkey reviews new books by Martha Collins, Kevin Coval, and Jake Adam York, all of which tackle the issue of race from the perspective of being, as Sharkey puts it, “white.” Sharkey, whose own work has been compared to Carolyn Forché’s poetry of witness, begins her review by saying she has “been moved, and also chastened, over the past few years to see white poets confronting race in their writing.” This is not new ground, but it remains extremely difficult to navigate effectively, even treacherous rhetorically. For example, in the introduction to her essay, Sharkey repeats the assertion of Tess Taylor that the politics of poets are conducted “on the level of sentences.” I disagree and I am glad Sharkey did not pursue this point any further, but I wonder why she brought it up at all.
Small in size and international in its scope, the Beloit Poetry Journal continues to feature some of the brightest voices from the choirs of the written word. In addition to O’Connor, Anderton and Sharkey, this issue includes poetry by Hadara Bar-Nadav, Jeremy Bass, Michael Bazzett, Brendan Constantine, Jaydn DeWald, Caitlin Dwyer, Richard Foerster, Hannah K. Galvin, K. A. Hays, Liz Kay, Philip Metres, Roger Mitchell, Matthew Nienow, Ephraim Scott Sommers, Randi Ward, and Greg Wrenn. Who among them will grace the pages of Best American Poetry?