76º ~ ah, breathable air, a delight after the storms, clear skies, every living thing covered in green, green, green, on the flipside (because there is always a flipside), it's been a good year for all the creepy, crawly, flying things as well
Yesterday, I read Nicky Beer's The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon 2010) and I've been processing its waves of emotions ever since. This is another book that I meant to buy the year it came out; however, by the time I got to the CMUP table at AWP 2010, they were sold out. Three years later and I finally accomplished my mission, buying a copy on the first morning of the bookfair in Boston.
The Diminishing House is an elegy for the speaker's father combined with poems that explore the human body via a copy of Gray's Anatomy, according to the notes in the back. Interspersed are poems of awe and wonder at the natural world, especially insects, birds, snakes, and things oceanic. In my list of notes scribbled on the back of the last page I have noted this:
fossils / extinctions / artifacts / genetics / inheritance / language
These are the tropes that Beer uses to navigate a loss as massive as that of a father. The book is divided into five, untitled sections, and the opening poem of the third section, "Cardinal Virtue," poised at the midpoint, offers up a clear view of Beer's ideas on death. As the speaker watches a cardinal swoop down and land, she states:
Bird, your life would terrify me.
Bones full of air, belly full of hunger,
the underbrush dense with murders.
Death is a twist, a pinfeather lost,
a stumble over a slow pebble.
Later, the speaker imagines the bird's death at the claws of her cats and vividly describes the physical results of that attack. Then, she addresses the bird:
remember that we dreamed our radiant dead
would become more like you,
Incomprehensible thing, drenched in the color
of something we call joy,
I'll save the last few lines for any reader to savor first hand. This poem is one linked to elegy and the natural world. Alongside these poems, and others set more specifically during the death of the father, are the poems of human anatomy. Here are some titles to give you an idea.
"Note on the Xiphoid Process"
"Variations on the Philtrum"
"Lobe of the Auricle"
While these poems weren't necessarily at the top of my list for dog-earing and underlining, they play an important role in the book, offering respite from the elegies and the weight of death.
I'll end with a bit from what might be my favorite poem in the book, "Erosion," although it is a close tie with "Floating Rib." In both of these poems, Beer's expert use of sound shines. "Erosion" is a long poem for this collection, at three and a half pages, and its lines vary from Whitmanesque to Dickinsonian. Here are two examples.
From the first section:
A fossilized car's wreck with a tree spares the beach from total anonymity.
How the gastank must have bloomed into the night like a rakish handkerchief.
Wow. All those a's and hard k sounds offset by the sweetness of the s's in "fossilized" and the low o's in "bloomed." Then, in the second section, the speaker describes a windchime made of shells, shells
... born of beauty and warp,
bastards of moon and rock,
spit up as loose change,
Again, I'm stunned by the soundplay here, especially the consonance and assonance, my two favorite poetic elements. It wasn't hard to find examples of this attention to sound throughout the book, and I could have listed so many more, but I don't want to spoil the joy for other readers.
While The Diminishing House might appear to be a slim, trim volume of poetry on the outside, I've found the poems to be dense and lingering, in all the best ways.