Book review of I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
Review by Salvatore Ruggiero
What does it mean to give a voice to the voiceless — a mouth to those who have been underrepresented in majority governments, to those whose opinions, sexual orientations, or color of their skin suggest â€œothernessâ€ and therefore preclude them from participating in the community and the mainstream? This is one of the major questions of the postcolonial writing world; perhaps one can even argue that itâ€™s a question that piques any writer, regardless of social status.
Sandra Beasley takes this â€œvoice to the voicelessâ€ to the absurd extreme. As the title I Was the Jukebox hints, Beasley gives vocal chords to world wars, pianos, the platypus, and, evidently, a jukebox. Her projectâ€™s challenge is to inhabit anything that contemporary humans cannot communicate with via words. Words may create the foundation of poetry, but the words in Beasleyâ€™s work more so create the foundation of character in the inanimate, personality in the object. Such defamiliarization with the subject-speaker gives us an amusing and sometimes insightful look into the voiceless. Though perhaps this is more of an exercise to look into Beasleyâ€™s active, nimble imagination.
In â€œThe World War Speaks,â€ we get exactly that; the narrator starts out as an inchoate being, one that sounds like any typical child. Yet we know somethingâ€™s slightly amiss: â€œWhen I was born, two incisors / had already come through the gum. / They gave me a silver bell to chew on.â€ Slowly we understand — through language that feels cold, distant, and unmoved — that this being is created not for the procreation of the species, a biological reason why most children exist: â€œI learned to dig a deeper kind of ditch. / I learned to start a fire in three minutes. / I learned to sharpen a pencil into / a bayonet.â€ The innocent student with a pencil manipulates himself and his tool into being an instrument of war. This crescendos until we realize that the warâ€™s parents â€œwanted an only / child: the child to end all children.â€ The words may echo Woodrow Wilsonâ€™s about World War I, but they takes on a sinister, shadowy presence here. It is uncertain as to whether the war is speaking about further wars when he speaks of children, or if he is speaking of human children in general.
â€œAnother Failed Poem about the Greeksâ€ takes us to a first date at a theme park between the narrator and this Grecian demigod, probably Perseus as â€œHis sword dripped blood. His helmet gleamed, / He dragged a Gorgonâ€™s head behind him.â€ The Greek thoroughly enjoys himself on the thrill rides: In one of the more humorous quotes from this book, the narrator notes that â€œWe went on the Pirate Ship three times, / swooshing forward, back, upside down, // and he cried Aera! waving his sword / until the operator asked him to please keep // all the swords inside the car.â€ For some reason itâ€™s not hard to imagine a bronze clad Sam Worthington lookalike in the middle of Six Flags.
But this grand date deflates, like a grape sunning itself into a raisin, as the narrator acknowledges that even though theyâ€™d both like to go on a second date, it could never happen â€œsince he was Greek, of course, and dead, / and somewhere a maiden rattled in her chains.â€ They are mismatched, not only through time but through archetypes — the narrator isnâ€™t the Greekâ€™s damsel-in-distress type. Yet Beasley allows us to have a glance at this chance meeting, at what could have been, at what we would consider an impossible meeting.
In the poem â€œImmortality,â€ Beasley showcases one of the stronger aspects of her collection: her lyric, forceful voice through short, firm words, wherein sheâ€™s able to connect rhythms and thoughts aptly. The poemâ€™s narrator acknowledges that you wonâ€™t find him on the back of a nickel; you wonâ€™t find his name given to a species of rosebush. Heâ€™s not impressed with the fact that his DNA may be in the blood of his great-grandchildren. Itâ€™s not enough, he admits, for
who doesnâ€™t dream
of being both kite and wind, boat and ocean?
I want to be the ball and the bat and the mound
and the sweat and the grass.
I want to be the vampire who drinks
a tall cool glass of me so he can live forever.
With a staccato rhythm amplified by the Ouroboros image at the end, the poem lives in a world of paradox: The words want to end — they are common monosyllabic words — and yet the narrator does not, willing to suck his own blood for immortality, killing and quickening himself simultaneously. The question is, have we moved far from the thoughts of when the World War spoke?
A detriment to this collection is that so much depends upon the final lines, creating a quick a-ha! moment which changes your total perspective of the poem. The three cited poems here all use that as a trope, and the experience of reading becomes slightly lackluster. The other disadvantage is the fact that as the reader turns the page, he may find himself full of lethargy when he realizes that the next poem is about some other voiceless object. The effect that each poem may have had if it stood on its own is lost when itâ€™s in the sea of pages of this collection. The voices created arenâ€™t strong enough, and they donâ€™t modulate in order to succeed as a fugue or variations on a theme. By the end, it might be a task to want to see what Beasley has up her sleeve. The magicianâ€™s tricks numb the mind instead of massaging it.
In the poem â€œAntietam,â€ the narratorâ€™s mother says â€œour bodies can digest anything.â€ The narrator replies sharply, â€œbut thatâ€™s a lie.â€ There might be too much food on the plate, too many voiceless voices, here to take in; but as individual poems, they are a treat.
I Was the Jukebox by Sandra Beasley
W.W. Norton & Company