Kate Colby’s Beauport is both a book-length poem and a collection of poems; it is a semi-narrative, part-memoir, part-lyric essay, part-historical exploration, part-imagined conversation work which wraps history with history. “History is spreading,” Colby states, toward the beginning of the collection. But whose history? Beauport is about layering histories: the story of Henry Davis Sleeper, the American antiquarian and decorator, whose house is named Beauport, the harbor along with an exploration of Colby’s own connections to Massachusetts and Gloucester, and the history of Beauport, the house itself.
These are poems of quiet beauty, wielding power through lovely simplicity. They wander through ideas and memories, they explore what is lost and what is learned in the process of becoming a person. Colby is concerned with this question of memory and loss, and the ensuing idea of “to miss” something or someone. “Can you miss something / you’ve only known / for a moment?” Colby asks at the beginning of the section entitled “Home to Thanksgiving (1867),” following it up with, “How about never?” Two pages later, she responds obliquely, confessing:
I miss everything
all the time, even
what’s in front of me:
paper, pencil, I miss
you, reading material.
In a way, to miss something is to possess it once again.
As Beauport is set against the backdrop of a port and water, Colby’s imagery, language and sentence structure lend the strong sense of being by the ocean. The rhythm of the prose recall waves pulling off, then returning to shore: “The neighbors had a daughter around my brother’s age, and he and I spent a lot of time over there. The parents were artists and proud, I imagine, of their non-vernacular house.” The poetry, organized into stanzas through indentations, become visual reiterations of waves:
I long ago lost
all my love tokens
hurling them at the turnstile
urban forager in a
wide open field
You have been deceived
looks just like me
The fluidity of overlapping genres is constructed to support the overlapping narratives being told in Beauport, which becomes not simply a binary history of Colby/Sleeper, but also of those who reside within their two circles: Colby’s family, Sleeper’s architect, both childhood experiences. Similarly, words, images, and ideas continue to resurface even as the collection “moves” from one section to the other.
As a text to be read as a whole and not in parts, Beauport possesses no table of contents. Though there are “titled” sections, the collection begins with simply a section marker, “§,” employed throughout, implying that we are coming into the story after it has started. As for the section titles, we discover their attribution to “Currier & Ives lithographs of Victorian-era leisure class” in a blurb on the back of the book by poet Julian T. Brolaski, who also mentions the poems are “anti-ekphrastic.” The poems do not seem particularly concerned in bringing to a reader the recreation of a piece of art, nor was it so important to Colby for us to know that the titles were borrowed from Currier & Ives lithographs that she included it in acknowledgments. But while Colby’s poems may not describe the lithograph’s image, they do work off the language and words of the title. This interplay between what is known and what is intuitively relayed runs throughout Beauport, as does the folding of prose into poetry and poetry into prose.
It’s true that history is not absolute, nor is it necessarily linear or something we can possess at all. Throughout the collection, Colby attempts to convince us and perhaps herself that, “It’s just a story – there is nothing in it.” But the very act of choosing language and telling a story is a hope for conversation, and Beauport is indeed a conversation—between the readers, Colby and Sleeper, even if the Sleeper is only an invention of Colby’s. “[W]hat can’t be resurrected can be reinvented,” Colby writes, in a collection in which she is both the resurrecter and the reinventor, rendering Sleeper—as well as her own past—into being. Early on, she describes her own fallibilities in trying to access the past:
I am nesting in others’ events or under my own wing. Pushing the dust around, receiving. Here’s the thing: I tend to throw drop-cloths over my own actualities, then make a mess of everything else. I hoard information and putter around in it, a rat in a nest of shredded newspaper.
This could ring true for all of us as we reiterate and negotiate histories, personal and shared.