Whether fair or not, it’s difficult for me not to think of Jorge Carrera Andrade’s Micrograms (Wave Books, 2011) when reading Joshua Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple (Wave Books, 2013). To begin with, Beckman helped translate Andrade’s poems; moreover, both collections contain short form poetry that focuses primarily on the natural world.
Andrade’s manifesto “Origin and Future of the Microgram” defines the microgram form as a:
Spanish epigram deprived of its subjective hue…an essentially graphical, pictorial epigram. Through its discovery of the deep reality of the object (its secret attitude) it arrives at a refined emotional style. An epigram, then, reduced in volume, enriched by complex modernity, widened to everything that makes up the vital chorus of the earth. (3-4)
In addition to describing the general parameters of the microgram, Andrade traces its lineage through the Japanese haiku, outlining their shared trajectory through Latin America poetry. The formal and sonic resonances between the microgram and the haiku can be seen and heard rather clearly when reading the poems. Take, for example, the poem “Poplar”:
The poplar dips it brush
into the sky’s sweetness
and makes a landscape of honey. (48)
The poem likens the poplar tree to a painter, its branch to a brush, honey to paint, and the sky to a canvas. The poem offers us a vision of the natural world wherein a tree becomes an artist, and its creation becomes one element of the natural world transformed into an aesthetic contrivance. Andrade manages to build all these transformations into a three line poem with a concise and economical style.
As with Micrograms, much of Beckman’s new book centers on short, image-based poems describing the natural world. For a matter of comparison, read [Stars], the first poem in Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple:
that form from bells
planes that act
palette of early
over the yard
it is a branch (1)
While slightly longer than Andrade’s “Poplar,” the poem still maintains a compact form with its twelve lines never exceeding four words. And just as “Poplar” transforms a tree into a painter, Beckman’s turns stars into bells; but, conversely, he also turns planes and electric light into stars and tree branches. Yes, Beckman’s poem exhibits a “drunk” poetic wherein a boozy brush paints a “blue / palette of early / night” in such a way that it confuses the natural and synthetic worlds.
While at first blush, confusing the man-made and natural worlds may appear disharmonious with the microgram’s tradition, it is, in fact, the very trajectory Andrade predicted for the form. Toward the end of his manifesto, Andrade asks: “Can one indicate the future itinerary of the microgram?” The answer, of course, is yes; and the poet offers us his prediction:
The earth’s skin has gradually begun to thicken with the works of men: tunnels, train tracks, buildings of all sorts. The metallic tower of the wireless telegraph is the tree of the modern eclogue. The waves and messages that cross intermittently in the sky have begun to replace birds. The “insignificant heroes”—as someone called the beings in my micrograms—will surely be defeated by the mechanical world…But this does not signal the death of the microgram. It will be reborn, rather, adorned with an urban character. The hero will no longer be the oyster or the swallow, but any of those mechanical creations that are transforming our time…And the microgram, that tiny lyrical composition whose name only I have invented, will bloom again, more vital and suggestive than ever. (25-26)
Returning to the transformations that occur in Beckman’s [Stars], then, we see not an aberration or bastardization of the microgram, but its natural progression and growth. In fact, the opening stanza of Beckman’s poem [That being alive] addresses this point most overtly:
That being alive
the bees buzz around
not fields in which their lovely flowers grow
but a big plaster apartment
kinda honey and yellow (14)
The bucolic fantasies of poetry from ages past have passed. No longer do bees swarm fields, pollenating the flowers growing there; rather, they “buzz around” a “big plaster apartment.” Indeed, the landscape of our “mechanical world” has altered dramatically, and the poet must account for these alterations if the microgram and its newer permutations intend to “bloom” in our contemporary times.
There is, yet, another difference between Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple and Andrade’s Micrograms that bears mention. According to the Ecuadorian poet, a microgram should be “deprived of its subjective hue” and offer readers an objective account of the natural world. And certainly, there are instances throughout Apple wherein Beckman composes in a dispassionate voice. Take, for example, the following poem:
now, full of
like a cloud (22)
Short, terse, and image-based, the poem reads very much in the style and voice of the microgram and haiku traditions. But, at least to my mind, Beckman’s poems succeed most often when they don’t rid themselves of a “subjective hue” and, instead, infuse themselves with a twenty-first century subjectivity. The most common manner in which he does this is through the inclusion of a first-person speaker who narrates his own life, such as: “I ate an apple, that’s fine / and after Anthony left I got a whiskey” (13).
More interesting, though, are the linguistic ticks that create a more generalized aura of a twenty-first century subjectivity through voice; for instance, in the poem “Silver streamers dazzling winter”:
was the half moon
and today was basically
the half moon too.
A glacier’s blue
in the middle of a lake
I only had one day
during which I could get myself
out into the middle of it
and I did,
kudos to me. (8-9)
The use of the word “basically” helps create a conversational tone, as well as implying the lack of desire to name or discover specific details of the moon’s waxing and waning. Instead, the speaker contents himself with a “basic” assessment of his natural surroundings, affecting a voice that implies a rather cursory or off-hand investment with the natural world. Likewise, the use of the colloquial “kudos to me” contributes to a common, everyday idiom that reads as self-congratulatory in that Facebook status-update sort of way.
But I mean this in no way, shape, or form as a pejorative statement; in fact, I feel this is one of the greatest strengths of the collection. The Inside of an Apple reads most vibrantly when the voice sounds current, casting off the sometimes antiseptic and somewhat stale tones of haiku and its modern derivatives. To this end, Beckman (whether consciously or not) updates the microgram even more radically than Andrade predicted through the inclusion of a “subjective hue” that, through voice, locates itself within our contemporary moment.
Bashō once wrote that, “To know the pines, you must go to the pines,” arguing that one must immerse oneself within their environment if one wants to properly understand and write about it. Likewise, Andrade understood that the microgram can offer us a vision into the “deep reality” of the world around us if only we engage with it upon its own terms. It would appear, then, that Beckman absorbs his environment and its deep realities through images of natural-to-synthetic transformation and the inclusion of a voice that is distinctly of and for the twenty-first century.