Steep Flights

Joshua Beckman, Something I Expected To Be Different. Verse Press, 2001. $12.00.

The first poem of Joshua Beckman's new collection deftly guides his readers between transcendent beauty and the taxing, systematic function of tracking airplanes in and out of a mythical international airport. "Ode to the Air Traffic Controller" begins,

                              Melbourne, Perth, Darwin, Townsville,
                              Belém, Durban, Lima, Xai-Xai planes
                              with wingspans big as high schools
                              eight hundred nine hundred tons apiece
                              gone like pollen, cumulus cirrus
                              altostratus nimbostratus people getting skinny
                              just trying to lose weight and the sky
                              the biggest thing anyone ever thought of...

Consider the role of the air-traffic controller, lodged in his tower and hovering over sensitive, high-tech instruments. With so many human lives under his power, it is rather disconcerting to conceive of him distracted by wild forays into the imagination, but this is Beckman's most intriguing characteristic; namely his skill at keeping aloft various kinds of thought simultaneously. "Ode" is a near-tumult of aerial activity, a daring assemblage of mental and vocal modulations that ultimately balances between ground and sky, the mundane and sublime, self-consciousness and stratospheric universality. Gliding from "planes / with wingspans big as high schools" down to "nine hundred tons apiece / gone like pollen" and then shooting back up to "the biggest thing anyone ever though of" is an impressive poetic feat. Beckman's steep flights between macro- and microcosmic worlds are always fantastic, original, and most importantly, earned.

Continue reading Beckman's Something I Expected To Be Different and "Ode" begins to feel like a mere warm-up exercise. The remaining four poems are lengthy compositions in which the poet intensifies his commitment toward blending various (and sometimes conflicting) modes within one coherent voice. Daydreams, allusions, intimacies, song lyrics, jazzy riffs, comic vignettes, gauzy memories, and scraps of autobiography all find their way into Beckman's work. In "Block Island," a meandering missive to a former lover, he confesses his disposition by stating, "I have a lot of directional-going within me / a lot of dark confused lack of control / heartfelt vibrations of the mind..." Formulated on the page, these longer poems mimic this frame of mind by dispersing and reassembling like clouds.

Despite Beckman's elliptical style, his poems resist the element of collage because his voice finds shape within every fragment. It is a voice that is at once forlorn and passionate and preoccupied with beauty. His ever-present "vibrations" are genuinely "heartfelt," the perceptible thrum of a poet who resists concealing his visceral and emotional impressions. Joshua Beckman's poetry wears its heart on its sleeve, so to speak, and I predict that his influence will challenge other American poets to reach for similar moments of honesty and unequivocal humanity.

David Roderick is the Reginald Tickner Writing Fellow at Gilman School in Baltimore. He has recently published reviews in Agni, American Book Review, Black Warrior Review and Verse.