A rake in the garden. The garden…
by Joshua Beckman

 

Most lyric poems, as other contributions to Voltage shrewdly and ably attest, derive rhetorical shape and structure from one of two core architectonic strategies:  “turning” or “leaping.”  Of course, this is by no means a perfect taxonomy—certain poems, such as Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Torso of an Archaic Apollo” or James Wright’s “Lying on a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” would seem, in their last lines, at least, to straddle the boundary.  These terms are often used interchangeably or are bundled together under a perhaps more general heading (the “pivot,” e.g.), but in actuality they derive from disparate mechanics; classically speaking, “turning” is an outgrowth of hypotactic organization and procedure, while “leaping,” its close cousin, is a byproduct of parataxis.  The “turn” as such typically lives on the far side of some conjunctive hinge, and thus in a sense fulfills or rhetorically modifies the substance of that which precedes it.  The “leap,” on the other hand, bears little or no inherent logical or rhetorical connectivity to that which surrounds it; it simply lives beside.  In certain instances, however, poems or parts of poems will blend together hypotactic and paratactic forms, rendering their total rhetorical framework—and even, at times, any definitive evidence of “turning “ or “leaping”—hard to identify and even harder to parse.  This is very much the case with an especially unconventional poem from Joshua Beckman’s alluring second volume, Shake.  It is a work marked by an almost iconoclastic approach to rhetorical procedure, and it forgoes even the minor identificatory formality of a title, offering nothing by way of framing beyond what one can borrow from its first line: “A rake in the garden.  The garden.”

Indeed, beyond “mere” lineation, Beckman’s poem would seem intent to eschew nearly all of the strategies common to even the most liberal manifestations of poetic orthodoxy, not least those strategies associated with the rhetorical architectures from which trajectory, pivot, and resolution in lyric poetry so frequently derive.  One of the particular challenges presented by Beckman’s poem lies in its astonishingly limited linguistic economy.  Arranged in highly amphibrachic though generally metrically irregular trimeter lines, the poem’s seventeen sentences (many of which are fragments) contain only 19 discrete words—articles and conjunctions included.  For obvious reasons, so closed a lexical field leaves the critic in search of a firm narrative or argumentative basis for identifying a definitive “turn” largely or even entirely foiled.  The verbal units of Beckman’s poem, few as they are, are re-ordered and repeated throughout, in effect compounding the text’s apparent linguistic and rhetorical minimalism while foregrounding its accentual consistency:

A rake in the garden.  The garden
is rotting.  The house and the yard

Even if one were to “turn” from the semantic field, in other words, with the hope of finding within the poem a slyly enacted metrical “turn,” such a one would be doubly thwarted;  Beckman’s text is either far too accentually regular to be considered metrically various, or far too syllabically various to be construed as metrically regular.  There are many thrilling rhythmic variations, no doubt, but none, unfortunately, can be persuasively hypothesized as a “pivot.”

Beckman’s is a poem whose primary rhetorical program might thus be conceived as a kind of paratactic recurrence in locally hypotactic forms, a repetitive ticking forward of parts largely though not exclusively refurbished from prior constructions.  It is also somewhat circular, and while circularity is not, in itself, hard to chart, incremental circularity such as Beckman’s can present to the “turn”-minded critic certain problems beyond even those already discussed.  Consider, for example, the second hand on a clock.  Is its rotation paratactic or hypotactic?  The matter is not easily resolved.  If we acknowledge the second hand’s geary relation to the coordinated interior machinery of which, in any clicking timepiece, it is every bit a functioning part—or, perhaps more plainly, if we conceive of it as any part of a teleological thrust—then each tick is cast as something of a subordinate clause within, we might say, a twelve-hour-long sentence.  In that context, the second hand’s rotation is plainly hypotactic;  each increment is to some extent modified by that which precedes or succeeds it, as each is working in dependent coordination with its “neighbors.”  But if we leave the intended purpose of such engineering to the side—as a “mechanical fallacy,” some Beardsleyian might suggest—then each tick appears to live in parallel or paratactic relation to its companions; there is no basis save sheer chronology for establishing hierarchy.  Each tick is a self-contained item in an ostensibly infinite list.  Does the second hand turn?  Yes.  Is it always turning?  Yes.  Then does it ever figuratively “turn”?

In its close procedural resemblance to rotational motion of the second hand, Beckman’s poem seems to defy any expectation of substantive rhetorical progress;  its “leaps” are of the vertical variety, landing on more or less the same ground from which they launched, and, if the poem may be said to “turn” at all, it does so by way of “re/turns,” or by ticking or “turning” constantly—and perhaps “turns,” then, metatextually, inasmuch as it averts the ubiquitous “turn.”

The possibility that Beckman’s poem enacts such a “turn” against turning is surely an enticing one, but to end our discussion there would be slightly defeatist, or even, in this particular case, somewhat unfair.  While it is true that most of the poem’s limited vocabulary is introduced within the first several lines—13 of its eventual 19 words, a full 68 percent, appear in lines one through four—the poem proceeds not only by means of new (or newer) concatenations, but also by way of a quietly thrilling accumulation of lexical parts.  When at the beginning of the fourth line, for example, we are shown “the pond” for the first time, and then, immediately thereafter, offered “The pond and the swimming,” the repetition enacts a dual notice of “the pond” as a curious but delectable novelty just as it establishes a new equilibrium out of which “the swimming,” another new arrival, is quickly born.  That lines five and six (“The house and the yard, the garden / and pond”) at once reprise verbatim and extend the fragment from line two (“The house and the yard”) is almost a version of Beckman’s poem in microcosm:  it establishes, recalibrates, duplicates, incorporates, and then duplicates again.  In this manner, “A rake in the garden.  The garden” drives us to the very height of local excitement before softly rocking us to rest in familiar arms, only to drive us forward again.  Through this semantic rhythm of reconfiguration and recurrence—a sort of imagistic or rhetorical “meter,” perhaps—the poem works outward as a spiral, a textual nautilus shell, more so than it circles as a simply ticking clock.

Regardless of the specific terms through which a given critic may choose to metaphorize the poem’s progress, however, the precise location of its “turn” remains an elusive matter.  And yet “A rake in the garden.  The garden” may offer some clues beyond those to be sought in the context of “purer” rhetoric.  Beckman’s is, after all, a poem of fourteen lines—a sonnet, broadly defined—and the sonnet, we know, is the lyric form most commonly associated with or defined by its structural enactment of a “turn,” conventionally located between the eighth and ninth lines.  While the poem’s idiosyncrasies may to some extent conceal its self-conscious engagement with the sonnet tradition, “A rake in the garden.  The garden,” we may be surprised to find, fully complies with this most foundational expectation of “sonnetiquette”;  there is a clear grammatical division between octave and sestet, marked in this case by the presence of terminal punctuation at the end of line eight.  While such punctuation alone does not, of course, a volta make, the division here is notably accompanied by the introduction of several new lexical parts.  At the onset of the sestet, as it were, from line nine through the beginning of line ten, we are offered four new terms, the last two of which signal an especially momentous (relatively speaking) development:  “Out past the neighbors a woman is / walking.”  Here, the poem quickens in lexical accumulation to its greatest pace since its still-establishing second line, adding at this juncture a further—and final—21 percent of the poem’s lexis.  This fact in and of itself would constitute a major rhetorical event in a poem of such remarkable economy, but these new terms also provide a powerfully new perspective on the dramatic situation with which the poem is concerned.

Line six, it is true, establishes an important and even revelatory distinction between inside and “Outside,” thereby situating the speaker within an interior space and thus at some remove from the “rake,” “garden,” “rotting,” “house,” “yard,” “pond,” and “swimming” that the poem so systematically names.  This interior/exterior divide is crucial to the poem’s development of both narrative and tension, as our recognition of the speaker’s isolation from that which he or she enumerates provides perhaps the first basis for imbuing the inventory with poignancy.  But lines nine and ten at once compound and enrich the division between interior and exterior, opening the scope of perception—“turning” it, even—while emphasizing the speaker’s captive passivity;  foreground is shifted to background as we see suddenly “Out past” the aforementioned “neighbors” to “a woman [who] is / walking.”  This “woman… walking,” in sharply demarcating contrast to the rather passive observational posture by which the speaker has heretofore been defined, constitutes the poem’s most aggressively active agent—and arguably the poem’s only active agent.  Even “the swimming,” which we encounter first in line four, is static in view of its gerund form (no one is explicitly “swimming”).  Moreover, the delayed introduction of the “woman” carries with it an air of exhilarating disclosure, and perhaps, too, a subtle suggestion that she may until now have been intentionally or even strenuously withheld from the textual field.  In either case, however, her altogether abrupt entrance on the scene entails the poem’s single most dramatic “turn”—rhetorically, dramatically, and lexically.

It may well be an overstatement to suggest that “A rake in the garden.  The garden” breaks open along the octave/sestet boundary, but there is no doubt that the hypnotically placid surface of the poem ruptures in some way.  This sense is only underscored by the poem’s immediate return to prior procedure; its equipoise is quickly reestablished through a seamless recapitulation of both old and new terms:

[….]  Out past the neighbors
a rake in the yard.  The pond and
the swimming.  The woman is walking.
The rake in the garden.  The rake
in the yard.  Out past the neighbors.

Thus when the “woman” of line nine returns, she has been subsumed as one among many recycled and recurring units within the poem’s quietly spiraling catalogue.

In 1972, paleontologists Stephan Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge posited a theory of evolutionary trajectory rooted in what they described as “punctuated equilibria”;  in opposition to the steady, incremental model that had dominated biological conceptions of evolutionary change, Gould and Eldredge theorized that evolutionary movement was instead characterized by brief windows of rapid speciation—the eponymous “punctuations”—between long periods of relative equilibrium or stasis.  In its unique fusion of paratactic and hypotactic forms, “A rake in the garden.  The garden” is perhaps the closest one can come to a literary micro-equivalent of the biological phenomenon that Gould and Eldregde describe.  Richly inventive and unconventional though it may be, Beckman’s poem also provides one burst of further testimony to the ubiquitous propulsive presence of the “volta” within lyrical procedure.  Indeed, “A rake in the garden.  The garden” would suggest that even the subtlest formal and rhetorical developments can “turn.”

 

1 On the latter point especially, see Kevin Ward’s “From the Pens of ‘Leaping’ Poets:  Parataxis as a ‘Leap’ between Robert Bly and Wallace Stevens.”

2 Despite certain claims to the contrary, even the standard Shakespearean sonnet “turns” to some extent between the second and third quatrains, even if a further “turn” is to be found at the arrival of the couplet.  Considering the textual divisions that Beckman’s use of punctuation supplies—i.e., the perforations between the fourth and fifth, eighth and ninth, and twelfth and thirteenth lines—his poem may well be of the Shakespearean kind, however idiosyncratically it abides its taxonomy.

 

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Malachi Black is the author of the poetry collection Storm Toward Morning, forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in Fall 2014.  Black’s poems appear or are forthcoming in journals including Poetry,Ploughshares, Boston ReviewAGNINarrativeThe Southern Review, and Southwest Review, among others, as well as in several recent and forthcoming anthologies, including Before the Door of God:  An Anthology of Devotional Poetry (Yale UP); The Poet’s Quest for God (UK); and Discoveries:  New Writing from The Iowa Review.  The recipient of a 2009 Ruth Lilly Fellowship (awarded by the Poetry Foundation in conjunction with Poetry magazine), Black has since been granted fellowships and awards from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the MacDowell Colony, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, UT-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, the University of Utah, and Yaddo.  Black was the featured subject of an Emerging Poet profile by Mark Jarman in the Academy of American Poets’ American Poet magazine, and his work has several times been set to music and otherwise featured in exhibitions both in the U.S. and abroad.  Currently the Creative Writing Fellow in Poetry at Emory University, Black will be Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of San Diego beginning Fall 2014.

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