Jan Beatty’s latest collection is one you will want to read. It is as much a journey though the poet’s own sense of origin as it is an exploration of what it means to be alive right now, in this moment. As the title poem insists, “we are all so / separate with the same lives” (“The Switching/Yard”). Beatty successfully makes this true in the collection. The Switching/Yard is about ancestry, self, naming and place. Often humorous, these poems read like a train ride through a lifetime—and we’re along for the ride.
Movement is one of the most striking features of these poems. In many cases, the poems take place inside a train, as in the title poem and “California Corridor.” These poems do not stay in one place very long, and like a train window, the backdrop is always changing. Take the beginning of “Reading Wanda Coleman on the California Zephyr”:
Her sweet bebop a backdrop to floating white silos
Out the window, hoodoo ghosts on the Osceola stop.
Pass an old car graveyard, then an orchard, dirt road/
Black cow/black cow/how do we get around?
So much country, how do we know where to go?
These descriptions are as particular as they are universal, underscoring the notion that this collection is as much about the reader as it is about the poet. Beatty is successful in straddling the line between personal and collective by insisting on precision. Her frequent use of the backslash forces a consideration of the right word for a particular moment, which lends a sense of realism and reliability to the poems. So, too, does the specificity of her nouns, as in “Approaching Denver/Union Station”:
El Jardin Restaurant Pawnbank & Liquor Store,
J&B Auto Crusher, approaching Denver/
Union Station. 2nd fed ex, dead/tree, trailer park,
National Western Club and Beef Palace Arena,
Da-Hook-Up Bar/down to the underground
Caverns of the railyard. church spires of denver city
The names of places, people, and objects fill the poems in The Switching/Yard. “In this place of no-naming” (“Visitation at Gogama”), ironically, names play a central role. The speaker even identifies herself by name: “Jan, look at the muskrat/by the side of the pool” (“We Cover Our Heads Like Deer”). Such naming further pulls the reader into the collection and gives the poems a conversational air, as though they are inevitable, bound to be mentioned. And so many of the poems are funny: “Driving While Wet,” “Top-10 List,” and “Drinking the Lizard King,” to name a few. These poems dare to be bold, even crass at times, and leave nothing sacred. In “Dear American Poetry,” Beatty crafts a subverted ars poetica:
I see you’re publishing:
straightman/straightman/white white white how
Are you kidding me?
Best American Poetry, I’m bored to death—is anyone
alive out there?
American poetry, tell your mother
you’ll be home late—
if anyone’s out there waiting for you to lick them good,
it’ll be a long night.
Ultimately, this collection is about “looking for a false sense of security” (“|Revenant|”), a sense of origin. Birthparents aside, the speaker comes to understand herself outside of a family unit, “because this is my country, I’m the indigenous one” (“The Switching/Yard”). By the time one reaches the final poem–“Notes on a Nevada Flood”–a tone of peace emerges, or at least, competition. The journey ends, the poet says “goodnight to everyone alive–.”