And So Wax Was Made & Also Honey, by Amy Beeder
Tupelo Press, 2020
Halfway through Amy Beeder’s third, full-length collection, And so Wax was Made and Also Honey, we encounter a persona poem in the voice of the 19th century author Gustave Flaubert, known for coining the phrase le mot juste, meaning “the exact (or right) word.” He defined this as the guiding principle of his writing. The inclusion of him in Beeder’s most recent collection is fitting, as Beeder, too, appears to take this as a guiding precept for her work. Each of the poems that span this 61-page collection have been crafted by a master wordsmith who excels at finding the perfect language with which to dazzle and awe her readers. Flaubert is an apt personage for other reasons, as well; much of And so is preoccupied with the 19th century and with history in a general sense, not only historical events themselves, but historical diction and historical belief—fables, myths, the occult and proto-scientific thought, both in the Americas and around the globe. Beyond any recurring personal themes, this emphasis on the historical, the mythical and the linguistically ornate is what unites the pieces in this collection.
And so is a museum of curios, an encyclopedia of oddities that draws us through the more obscure parts of history, touching on divination, palmistry, outré American lore and the various occupations of the Middle Ages. These curiosities function as doorways that Beeder passes through to explore the less accessible nooks and crannies of her inner life. In a series of poems that punctuate the book entitled “from A Practical Guide to Hand Analysis” Beeder begins each piece in the voice of a palmist. One poem, subtitled [urchin], opens thusly: “if crosses which appear here & there in the hand / tell of keen observations but also delusions,” from here the poem goes on to explore the notion of truth, “Observing is not the same / as knowing; words that were clear yesterday / may appear today as Hittite,” and “Problems begin when / after reasonable effort, you cannot identify / a specimen.” We see here how Beeder uses the conceit of palmistry as a jumping off point to explore the issue of illegibility and the speaker’s inability to decipher the nature of the simple marine creatures she is observing. Ultimately, she discovers something within herself that is “Blind. Bankrupt by the rudder.”
In “Sir Say Pray”, epigraphed Thomas Hardy, Beeder enters her imagination by way of historical literature. She dazzles with her sensuous language, “cream-skinned, gathering toad-spume on skirts / relentlessly cracking the snails underfoot.” She yokes together the contemporary and the historical by drawing a parallel between 19th century milkmaids and modern day “girl-souls” who “bow heads / to the luminous fields made of ether, // of blue & extravagant air,” “Speaking their argot & screen-practiced moue.” Beeder deftly pivots from “chapped hands on the full udder’s verge,” to visions of glowing blue computer screens and Instagram influencers churning out practiced, pouting selfies.
Some of the most powerful and memorable poems in this collection arise from Beeder’s interest in Greek myth and the ways that she subverts, plays with and reappropriates these myths to tell her own stories. In “Ovid on the Poor Economy of Overgrazing”, Beeder recounts the tale of Io after she has been transformed into a white heifer by Zeus, only in Beeder’s version she is not restored to her human form, rather, she is trapped in her cow form and must contend with “short & bitter grasses, / persistent weeds that come from overgrazing: // blue chicory, stink-cheat & ironweed. Thistle.” The poem ends with an absence of terminal punctuation, leaving the reader with a question that echoes darkly and endlessly:
She can only furrow dust with one forefoot
but the breeding season must not be delayed
so her mate will be selected from some herd,
her son a bullock. Nights, the hungry circle
in an unwatched field. Days, quick insects pester.
Speech is a bawl & moo. Am I just a branded slab
The underlying drive of this book, or what we might presume to be Beeder’s aim, seems most fully realized in the final poem of the collection, “Leviathan”, wherein Beeder re-envisions the great and terrifying biblical creature as her own dying father. With her hallmark slyness and wit, Beeder evokes the pitiful yet venerable image of her declining parent:
11Who can keep him from drinking? His breath sets coals ablaze;
phlegm erupts from his throat. His undersides are jagged potshards.
12Against him neither poison ivy nor oak nor AARP could avail.
The poem then unwinds to its tender and devastating conclusion:
15Behind him he leaves a shimmering wake of iron
bronze, spirits, tin, brushstrokes, water-pics & q-tips
expired medications, Hawaiian shirts, ammunition
silver, earth, paper, ashes—
16What stone could you bring him that he did not know the name of?
17Nothing on earth was his equal.
Here we see the best of Beeder—her wit, her language-play, her subversion and reappropriation of history and myth, along with her own life experiences; this poem has the plangency of human sorrow and the intimacy of daily experience.
Ultimately, And so is a treasure box of Beeder’s imagination, both linguistically and imagistically. Perusing this collection we encounter strange images such as “a chiffarobe that weeps clear sap, the tiny saint / emerging from a pinto bean.” In what might be my favorite poem, “Aesop Serves a Meal of Tongues to his Master’s Guests and Predictably is Not Beaten”, we encounter a meal made only of tongues:
tongues upon tongues, tongues upon toast, sliced
and furred with whitish buds like willow saplings
tongues in honey, glaze and ewe-fat syrup, roasted,
The poem concludes with this exhortation:
by serving tongues that tongues will do what they will do:
gossip, pleasure, bear false witness, ululate or scold
or wag, wag, wag. Long may your song outlast you.
In a book so preoccupied with tales, myths, forgotten narratives and invented ones, this passage has a particular resonance. Beeder gives herself over to these tales and fancies—these inventions of the human imagination—with such ardor and intelligence that it’s hard not to be enchanted. Beeder invites you to ride in the gilded coach of her lexicon and takes you down streets to bars where Kronos and Eros make erotic jokes, to a graveyard where Victorians fret over the possibility of being interred while still alive and to the side of a dying man who listens as malaria whispers its dark and voluptuous love song to his wasted body. And so offers much to marvel over and delight in for those who choose to accept Beeder as their guide on this imaginative and wending journey through history, language and song.