What knocks me out about the Beloit Poetry Journal’s fall 2007 issue is the cover. On the front, there is a black-and-white portrait of a woman. Her dress is leopard print but modest. She holds her left arm across her chest, revealing henna calligraphy that runs from her forearm up and across her fingers. She is not beautiful in the way of Gwyneth Paltrow, but she is beautiful – a woman Picasso might have painted. Her eyes are wide and dark, her lips thick, her hair short and curly. Her necklace is a swirling flame. Most striking is a great dignity, the shoulders straight, the chin raised high. I was spellbound by these details, yet it took me several viewings to see that in between tiles that form the background – stars of David – are other tiles shaped like crosses. On the back is the same woman, same pose, same background. Here she wears a veil that covers everything but her face and left arm with its calligraphy. I suppose these photos may represent the meeting or juxtaposition of the three Holy Land faiths, but there’s no need for simple conclusions. The woman is breathtaking. She is how you would want a poem to be.
I wanted to carry this feeling of awe into the poems, and I tried. It may be that the compression of mostly modernist, heavy-toned, religiously themed poems in one small magazine makes it hard for any one to announce itself as compelling or uniquely meaningful. Given that it’s representative of the issue, it seems arbitrary to single out Clare Rossini’s “These Passing Venial Wonders,” set at a convenience store overwrought with “cornucopic shelves, the stern boxed mixes / (Cakes in waiting, helpers of meat).” There is also Brian Teare’s “As That Which Is Above Everything Else,” which laments “detachment’s inability to sustain itself / without consequence. Or: // how Latinate my abstractions!” How Latinate, indeed. Perhaps I felt, that entering through the magazine’s enchanting façade, I’d found myself in a Gothic Cathedral, gloomy and guilty with its paintings of bleeding saints. I knelt and worked harder at redemption. I began to see the light – or was convincing myself.
I’d been unfamiliar with all the featured poets, so I came to them – I hope – unbiased. An exception to the sparser poems is Albert Goldbarth’s five-page mock-lecture which tells writing students to “keep a dream journal,” repeating the mantra in-between long stream-of-conscious passages. According to a reviewer at Slate (I Googled when I guessed I should appreciate this one more than I did), Goldbarth is perhaps the only poet who can “get away with four words when one would suffice.” He has won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry twice, which means I guessed rightly that my initial reaction was wrong. It’s just that I have stumbled upon poets unknown to me that made me feel they sensed I was out there somewhere, waiting to be transported by their words. And I felt blessed.