I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo for the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, is Sandra Beasley’s witty and furious second collection (her first, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize).
One of this book’s great strengths is its variety of speakers. Sometimes the “I” is Osiris, the dismembered Egyptian god; sometimes the speaker is sand or a world war or orchis (the flower); and sometimes the poem’s voice croons, “You were you, I was the jukebox” (“You Were You”). Because there is no clearly discernible sustained personal narrative at play here, the individual poems combine to create a thematic narrative – that of an “I” (many “I”s) trying to establish an acceptable mode of living in this jagged quilt of a world. Rather than the personal “I’ of the poet opening up into a universal experience, Beasley gives us the universal as filtered through her own clear and unsentimental eye.
Beasley has a dry wit (“You hit on me. You hit on everyone” (“Love Poem for College”), and it is at its best in poems like “To the Lions” where the humor demands a knife’s edge. “Time to gather your most / fuckable queens,” she tells the lions, “Stop this kitty kitty nonsense” (and) “show us why your tongue / is covered in hooks.” Beasley’s willingness to acknowledge the dangerous rage at the heart of the domestic makes poems like “The Natives Are Restless” and “The Parade,” with their “Hello, Dali” depictions of an absurdist American suburban landscape, particularly strong. This is a fierce, funny, and moving collection.