Sunday, 6 March 2016
Review by Jonathan Taylor of "A Brief History of Time" by Shaindel Beers
At one point in her remarkable poetry collection, A Brief History of Time, Shaindel Beers remarks that 'perhaps / Derrida was right - that the center is not the center, / but is perhaps the center of something else / whether we are speaking of time, language, the universe.' The whole collection might be seen as an empirical testing-out of this philosophical hypothesis: to put it another way, in Beers's poetry - in the words of Blaise Pascal - time, language, the universe are spheres in which the 'centre is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.' No doubt Stephen Hawking - as well as Pascal, Derrida and Einstein - would understand.
The poems themselves understand and test out these ideas, particularly as regards notions of time. In many of the poems, the present - what should be the 'centre' - cannot hold; the poems' present is always unstable, volatile, always prone to slip backwards of forwards, into present and future. The title poem, for example, starts with the word 'Now' - the 'Now' of a present love affair - but quickly moves backwards to the Elizabethans, the Greeks, the poet's own past, and forwards via insurance policies to a loveless future ('though I'll [still] love mountains as only a flatlander can'). The present is always ready to collapse into past and future: in 'Sleeping Man and Woman, Circa 2000, C.E.,' contemporary lovers are viewed like museum exhibits from the distant future; in 'Why It Almost Never Ends with Stripping,' the dominant present tense encompasses both the start of a stripper's career, and its horrific end in violence and pornography; in the wonderful final poem, 'How Time Betrays Us,' the present of the writer ('Right now, I am 27 in human years. / My cat is 83') might be very different to the 'present' of the reader, which is also necessarily very different to the multiple presents of everyone else around the reader - as, indeed, Jacques Derrida himself might have predicted:
In the time it will take you to read this,
somewhere in America, a woman was raped.
171,233 animals were slaughtered for human consumption.
32 children worldwide died of starvation.
I may have already died, but you are reading this,
thinking I am 27 and very much in love.
Clearly, there is an implication here that written language survives us to be read in the future; and the same implication pertains in the poem 'I Give You Words': 'Because the body is so ephemeral and corrupt, / what is beautiful today may not be so ten years hence. / I give you words.' In this sense, words can reach out to the future; but they are also marked by the past: 'I try to use old words, inherited from generation / after generation, and try to make them say new things.' At the end of the poem, though, Beers admits that she has 'failed ... / to say the thing anew.' Always reaching out to the future, words - marked as they by 'generation / after generation' - also collapse into the past, and 'newness' is almost an impossibility.
The only real escape from the flux of time - from the overwhelming co-existence of past, present and future - in Beers's poetry seems to be death. Only in a 'dying man's house' (for example) is the 'bathroom clock / ... stopped at thirteen 'til two.' Only in this house are 'the weeds ... certain as death.' Death, in this sense, is like 'hiding under covers' - hiding from future and past. Still, in the poem 'Overview of the Carbon Cycle,' whilst is it true that 'it took death to wrench us apart for good,' at the same time, the narrator imagines a future in which 'someday ... / our carbon bases [might] combine ... / to burst forth the head of the same daffodil.' So, even in death, there are encoded possible futures which reconfigure the past.
Not that the interpenetration of past, present and future is all negative; time doesn't always 'betray us': after all, a transient love affair reconstituted in a daffodil is a beautiful possible future, and in the superb and disturbing poem 'HA!,' one man's cruelty towards a cancer victim is answered by a possible karmic future.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor's books include the novel Melissa (Salt, 2015), and the poetry collection Musicolepsy (Shoestring, 2013). His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.