Jeffrey Bean: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window
- by Jeffrey Bean
In terms of both the geography and the straightforward diction in which his work is rooted, Jeffrey Bean is a very middle-of-the-U.S. poet—Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio—with a style that brings to mind early William Matthews. But Bean’s voice in his chapbook Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window is very much his own. (Published this spring, it won the 2013 Cowles/Copperdome Chapbook Award.)
The images and descriptions in Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window’s poems are startlingly beautiful, but they don’t startle, they’re not set off like jewels to draw the eye. They rise naturally from the landscape of the language, spoken by authentic voices who have a hell of a feel for rhythm. (And, like landscape, and like early Matthews, are in danger of being driven past without attention by readers who are looking for adrenaline-spiking turns).
The first poem in the chapbook, "The Bread," subtly a sonnet, is an exploration of a memory. Lists of images, with fine detailing, a fine pacing of parceled-out details, it’s a memory of a meeting of the speaker and a girl he’d come to see possibly some time ago, though the poem doesn’t explicitly say so. "The hand what was mine, the knuckles, the table, smooth oak / The girl I’d come to meet, the sky behind her hair, shook foil." I can’t decide if "shook foil" is a smart steal here from Gerard Manley Hopkins, or too overtly a 'literary' move—it’s really the only such move in the book—but I revel in the small, precise details of "The Bread," like "the hand that was mine," which neatly implies the presence of a hand that wasn’t his (i.e. hers) and/or a hand that was his, but isn’t the hand he has now (i.e. younger then). And not just the sky but the sky behind her hair.
The setting descriptions of "The Bread"’ are also wonderful, one clause fading and affecting the next: "Her legs crossed at the ankle, the coiling / evening traffic, forgettable talk." The crossing to the coiling, the noise to the talk. "The oysters, fat men at the bar, laughs like question marks of breath." The oysters [and] the fat men at the bar, or the oysters [like] fat men at the bar, or both, which is the sort of fine wordsmithing found throughout Bean’s poems. And the vague but sufficient plot setting, "the choice // she made, the choice she almost made" hints at scenarios without being, as so many lesser poems are, about the hinting.
And after 12 lines of carefully paced descriptive lists, the speaker’s desire busts through for just a moment with the straightforward "I had been lonely, I had been hungry as a rat." This is one of this poem’s few complete sentences. That flat hard drop onto the sentence-ending "rat" followed by the steadily bobbing rhythm of the poem’s simple last line recapitulation, "The glass, the salt, the road, her hands, the bread." I have a general aversion to poem endings which beg to be read aloud with a rise in tone on the last word and a gazing out into the distance, but this one earns it.
Another memory poem is "Your Hands on this Rail." It begins with the image, "Your hands on this rail / poised like a pianist’s." Just a lovely vivid description, which is changed in the next couplet, where those pianist hands "are birds in the slow movies / my father shot with his super 8," the image of the hands lifted into motion and the poem opened into memory. There’s frequently a slowness to Bean’s lines, to the details — no, not slowness. Steadiness. "Your Hands on this Rail" continues this presentation of the morphing of metaphors, one into another, an unspooling of images that go from hands to birds to orthodontic retainers to a pasture
in Iowa, full of cricket fire
that held my house and the day
in my twenties you lay on my bed,
peeled off your socks, lifted your throat
up to me […]
(That not-at-all blatant but not-at-all mistakable scene reads like a wonderfully sexy, though technically innocent, bedroom fade-to-black from some old Hays Code-era movie.) And then in the final couplet, a circle back to the underlying idea of preserved memories "still coiled, like a reel of film / waiting to be threaded through light."
Bean uses a lot of lists and repetition, and he uses them well. There’s a deftness to the rhythm of his lines. "What Geraniums Smell Like" is a list poem about growing up, about home, about a brother leaving for war. Geraniums smell, in Bean’s poem, "Like birds. / Like my brother leaving for the lake. / Like the smudge of fireworks on driveways. / Like breath trapped in a canteen." Later they smell like "car leather" and "a war turned low on a radio. / Like parents getting used to you gone." The progression of sounds through each line has a musicality equaled by the meaning, the implications of the similes, solo and in sum.
"Portrait of Two Friends Wrestling" does the same sort of work, moving through time in addition to sound and space.
We wrestle on couches, wrestle on carpets
wrestle in cars, crash flesh into flesh,
wrestle in chairs, wrestle to music,
make up new moves, we wrestle and cry
By the end of the poem, the friends
wrestle with breath, wrestle like trains
across states, away from the chest,
away from the arms, away from the hair, the hands,
until who we were wrestling is only a thought
we wrestle in air, as close as we can.
But Bean can pick up the pace too. "It’s Morning in Michigan" gains more and more momentum until it’s flying into this last section:
[…] the way
I want the smell of the candy-blue light of every late night
drive thru and backseat of my life, every Jennifer
who sat with me and cried into the carbonation
of her Coke, which is exploding, right now, still, inside
my mouth, I can feel it, all of the water in Michigan can feel it,
it calls me to the green fire of the television every night,
the pop-country music of the American language, the cadence
of the advertisers, the cadence of the speeches of the automakers,
the whole of the steel and coal of Detroit hardening, back into fossil,
creaking with the rusty song of the end of things, I mean all of our deaths,
the way our hipbones like hubcaps will roll off into
growling streets, which is just the growl of the beginning
of things, which is just the awkward, unforgettable tune
I want to play, right now, I’m telling you, on the ice-white piano of Michigan.
Bean’s excellent debut collection Diminished Fifth, focused quite a bit on music, but the ekphrastic poems in this chapbook explore paintings, three Vermeers and an Alfred Sisley. "Vermeer: Couple Standing at a Virginal" is a tightly constructed poem, beginning "The girl’s fingers slide along / the virginal’s keys". Bean brings the reader directly into the painting twice, with "The artist has left a place / for you, an empty chair" and, at the pinnacle of the poem, the beautiful image of the viola de gamba which,
lies silent on the floor,
wears silence like
a skirt you could unwrap
if you would kneel down
between the couple,
take the soft wood in
your arms. Can you feel
the notes you don’t play?
And immediately following that question, the poem’s last three lines tie it tight to the beginning — those "notes you don’t play" "slide like fingers / along the skin / of the room." Great stuff.
"Why I Quit Playing Text-Twist" is a quite clever poem which transcends the potentially impersonal intellectual wordplay with real feeling.
I kept missing her. Like in whiner,
where I also missed wren and whir.
I couldn’t find womb in bowman. In gusted
I uncovered dust and sued, but not duets.
And so on, ending with the gently laid down but killer last sentence,
[…] There she was in pusher,
lurking with the user, but I missed her
again, and the pure there, the hue.
Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window explores memory, new fatherhood, the kind of love that burns, the kind of love where "The one you learned to hope for / is out buying sandwiches", lice who are lonely, letters that come through the slot smelling of thumbs, weeds, paintings, trying to fall asleep by watching Bob Ross — life. Filled with poems that are not merely finely put together, but also have something authentic to say, it’s a fine book, one to read, and to re-read.