Death’s Directives to Bruce Beaver

Bruce Beaver, Death’s Directives (Prism Books 1978)

I love Bruce Beaver’s poetry, though I usually feel that I don’t really get it, and I hadn’t read this book, so I was delighted to find it on Sappho’s second-hand poetry shelves when I went in search of slim volumes to pack for Turkey. I read most of it on our overnight cruise from Kas, feeling just a bit self conscious about reading poetry, let alone poetry with such a grim title, in those hedonistic circumstances. But I’ve done odder things (embarrassingly, this morning I caught myself noting the typos in a menu in Turkish, a language I don’t know at all), and my life doesn’t seem to be any worse for it.

There are 20 poems in the book, ranging from 40 lines to about four time that long. In all of them the poet has some kind of dialogue with death. Death may be a personification of his sense of his own mortality, or of mortality in general, or something less easily defined, like an acceptance of things as they are. There is painful introspection, exploration of the poet’s less than admirable past, reflections on his experiences with sex and religion, meditations on art and ethics, one splendid love poem, three elegies of sorts (for Mao Zse Dong and the poets Neftali Reyes and Anne Sexton). As I’d expected, I was carried along and sometimes carried away by the way he imbues conversational language with a particular, personal music, and am aware that my enjoyment would be greater if I was better read. I’ve never heard of Neftali Reyes, and have read about two poems by Anne Sexton. I got a lot of pleasure from some references like the echo of Yeats’s ‘This is no country for old men. /The young in one another’s arms’ etc in the first poem’s

In another month it will be on
again, the girls will stop hugging their cold
tits, and the boys denim flies
will be bulging, the little kids
here and everywhere else
on the continent will be rolling
around in clover grass and on
the warming asphalt. Dogs, cats
and birds will go madder than usual
about their courting. Everything
and everyone will come alive

and I know there was much more to be had.

The youngest woman in our group asked on the boat to read some of the book. I recommended X and XI, about his mother and the love of his life respectively. She read them slowly, thoughtfully, exclaimed over the way her education had put her off poetry by wringing every drop of meaning out of it, read a phrase or two out loud. I don’t know if her life was any richer for her encounter with Bruce, but mine was. By my own encounter too. I’ll quote you two bits from XI. First a chatty abstraction:

And the best times together come back at moments
that catch me up in the embrace of a rare
music that at the time of making we must have
overlooked and failed to overhear
because of the noise of our hearts and our spontaneous cries.

And then the end of the poem, that gives an example of what he may have meant:

There was a tree, there was a road,
there was a woman with me. And for once
there was forever in an instant
so that I picked a fallen leaf from out
the scruffy grass, a skeletal leaf
and she said, how beautiful,
and made even death appear to smile.

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