Silverfish Review Press, 2019
Reviewed by Laura Van Prooyen
“Nothing can be spared / from time” asserts the speaker in the opening lines of Craig Beavan’s debut collection of poems, Natural History. In this book, winner of the Gerald Cable Book Award from Silverfish Review Press, we discover the speaker’s struggle is not so much against time as it is about the question of existence. With a museum as the backdrop, the speaker weaves together ideas about art and artifacts as he navigates through the difficult circumstances of not being able to conceive a child. In deeply personal, story-driven poems, the speaker questions what lasts, what doesn’t, and our involvement with the process. Divided into five parts, the book’s opening reveals a couple undergoing IVF. Part II interrogates the question of personal history, and Part III moves through loss, while a mix of hope and uncertainty trouble Part IV. The final section of the book moves toward an optimistic, new beginning. These richly detailed, observant poems intertwine domestic and vocational concerns, grappling with questions about production, reproduction, preservation, family and desire.
The threat of loss launches Part 1. An impending hurricane sets the speaker into action, tying “lawn furniture / to a tree” and taking pictures of all of his belongings, trying to “imagine / what will be destroyed, and how.” Forces of destruction and survival preoccupy the speaker, especially in the multi-part, looping poem “We Are Happy” that details invasive and impersonal IVF procedures. After each troubling vision, from cells compared to a “shard of safety glass,” to scopes, lasers and long needles, the speaker ironically, repeatedly states, “we are happy.” The repetition suggests the speaker’s fatigue and grim hopefulness at what has become a long, clinical journey for them both. The poems in Part II, however, reveal a husband somewhat resigned and grappling with futility. In the moving “Self-Portrait with Ortho Tri-Cyclen,” the speaker looks to the past, to being unmarried, young, poor and having dutifully relied on the pill to prevent the pregnancy he and his wife now long for, an effort he sees was needless. Beaven’s deep, empathic poems are remarkable for the way they position the speaker’s story in relation to the physicality of the wife’s experience, creating a voice we trust, one that speaks his truth through the lens of awareness about what her body endures.
Part III looks outward through grief. In “Elegy” the speaker mourns the end of his biological bloodline and the potential to be genetically linked to a child. But, in the comic “Ode: To the People Who Drive By and Shout Insults While I’m Jogging” the speaker is willing to embrace a different, solemn perspective: “All of us are in it together, all of us / are being gathered, waiting / to take our place / on that dark boat.” He seems to find some comfort in our communal fate and a kind of hope in letting go, as we discover in “In the Conservation Room.” One of the strongest poems in the book, we discover three sections that advance associatively, moving from the museum’s conservation room and the preservation of Rembrant’s Portrait, to the couple receiving information in a sterile medical examination room, to the speaker’s heartbreaking direct address to the “fantasy,” to the “speculation” of a child:
Dear Rorschach Test that would reveal
our lives to us, dear never even a ghost, never enough
of you to die, pattern of black ink
on plain copy paper, I am making you
into an ekphrastic poem… .
The speaker turns his disappointment and sorrow into the restorative act of creation. He makes the thought of the child that will not be into a work of art thereby, ironically, creating something that exists, something that might last.
I craved you, non-you, gazing intently each day,
staring as if at a masterpiece handed down
400 years; you were us, ink-blots on paper,
you were our history, our blood, you held all of us
in your coils. You were nothing.
We couldn’t save you.
Even as the speaker claims, “You were nothing,” writing the statement, creating the poem affirms that the “you”—even if only speculative—existed. This complex, multi-layered poem highlight’s Beaven’s gift of metaphor by way of associative links; the poem creates and preserves a portrait of grief, a process that paradoxically allows the speaker to arrive at acceptance and emotional release.
The hope of new possibility opens Part IV, where we find in that the speaker and his wife are:
…trying to decide
if this is our son
growing six months
in the body of
last name blacked
Formally, the staggered, spaced lines reflect the uncertainty of the adoption process; the couple wonders if the birth mother will chose them. In this section of the book, the speaker seems to be in a place of “in between.” Emotions cycle, dreams recur, and the speaker becomes reflective, ruminating about his previous ideas about lineage:
When I allowed myself
an image of the future, I thought
I would name a son James—
part of my father’s name—
but in adoption
it’s not right
to extend a line that way.
And it’s no big deal to me
now, and maybe never was…
This direct, honest voice does not shy away from interrogating painful growth that results in new understanding. This speaker is the sort who we trust, who we can imagine having open conversations with his future children, where no topic would be off-limits. This voice reveals a complex, thoughtful man who draws his conclusions based upon hard-won experience.
Being forced to shift from the life hoped for to circumstances that define a certain reality is not welcome, but can be transformative. In Part V, especially in the book’s final poem with the recurring title, “We Are Happy” we discover a couple that is cautiously optimistic about what will be next. Unlike the biting, ironic version of “We Are Happy” that appeared in Part I, here we find a couple that is pragmatic, but open to wonder: “We are driving to meet the mother / of our son, to meet our son, we are happy.” While the “thread seems precarious” between the couple and the baby’s mother, she decides yes, they can be the parents. The speaker feels ready to embark upon parenthood, steadied by the wisdom he gained from his experience: “It will be pain / and it will be joy. We will be sad / and we will be happy.”
If this book begins with pain and vulnerability, it ends with a weathered sense of joy. Just before his son is born, the speaker takes a walk to a mountaintop, envisioning ten years into the future when he will share the experience with the boy. His vision is as expansive as it is tinged by harsh realities: “We will see mountains, and as clouds move, further mountains… / We will hear the report of rifle shot. / We will wear orange vests that say / don’t shoot. I’m human.” This collection of poems speaks through the world of art to deftly address the human urge to create, delving deep into questions about longing and belonging. In Natural History, Beaven creates a clear-headed, insightful speaker who we trust to guide us through museum workrooms, medical procedures, and emotional complexity. This voice rings true.
Craig Beaven was born and raised in Kentucky and earned a PhD from the University of Houston. His poems have appeared in Best New Poets 2016, Tin House, Third Coast, Pleiades, Rattle, and many other publications. He currently lives with his wife and children in Tallahassee, Florida.
Laura Van Prooyen is author of two collections of poetry: Inkblot and Altar (Pecan Grove Press 2006) and Our House Was on Fire, nominated by Philip Levine, awarded the McGovern Prize (Ashland Poetry Press 2015) and the 2015 Writers' League of Texas Poetry Book Award. She is also co-author, with Gretchen Bernabei, of Text Structures from Poetry: Poetry Writing Lessons for grades 4-12 (forthcoming: Corwin Literacy February, 2020). She is a recipient of grants from the Artist Foundation of San Antonio, the American Association of University Women and has been awarded the Annual Glenna Luschei Award from Prairie Schooner. Van Prooyen earned a B.A. at Purdue University, an M.A. at The University of Illinois at Chicago, and an M.F.A. in Poetry at Warren Wilson College.