I’m one of those readers who always keep a stack of books by me; my bedside table pile has an accompanying bedside floor mountain next to it. My handbag inevitably holds three or more books that I’m reading simultaneously.
Perhaps chief among the books I’ve got going are a stack of books by the American poet and essayist Dan Beachy-Quick. A youngish poet (born in 1973), he has been prolific (five full collections of poetry, two books of essays with another due soon, one collection of verse written in collaboration with Srikanth Reddy—plus a number of chapbooks), though he says that he writes his poems slowly, verse accreting day by day with one or two new lines. He describes himself as a nature poet, and that is true; he is also a poet whose work is at times difficult, but always intensely musical. From the first poem (‘North/South Composition’) of his first collection (North True South Bright) the poet’s ear for song comes through. As he contemplates a falcon he writes:
From talon to tooth the taut cord could bear a
Hand not known to pluck
The taut cord could not bear a hand unbidden
To pluck from song
One note which sings us both
His search for the song that will include both himself and the unknowable perspective of the creatures around him is both beguiling and impossible.
Beachy-Quick’s books are often composed of long arcs, book-length obsessions: his second book, Spell, is written entirely in response to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. This poetry collection didn’t exhaust his obsession with the whale, and he followed it a few years later with A Whaler’s Dictionary: half literary criticism, half lyric essay, all idiosyncratic reading of one of the greats of American literature. Beachy-Quick is not, of course, the first poet to be obsessed with the great white whale: Charles Olsen before him was similarly obsessed and also wrote a book about that weird sea-going quest and its quarry. I’m planning to pick up a copy of Olsen’s work from a library soon, so I can float along on another poet’s take on Ahab’s quest.
Because of Beachy-Quick’s work on Moby-Dick, I’ve also taken the opportunity to revisit Melville’s tour de force—this time, though, as an audio book. I’ve listened to quite a few books lately (I happily discovered LibriVox, dedicated to providing free recordings of classics), and Moby-Dick is near the top of my list of books to experience aurally: Melville’s biblical language comes through beautifully. And, besides, I’ve always maintained that on top of everything else you can say about Moby-Dick, it is also a deeply funny book: I’m not talking the whale, or even Ahab in his “monomania,” but Ishmael, Queequeg, the crew, Nantucket…We often read so fast, and audio books allow us the time to really spend time with a work often at the speed of the author’s writing. I have laughed out loud when revisiting the church in Nantucket, replete with its altar in the shape of a ship’s prow; I laughed out loud too at that wonderful first night Ishmael bunks with Queequeg in the cheapest lodgings in town—this relationship is delightfully unironic, genuinely romanticised, and yet humorous.
And to place Beachy-Quick in context, I’ve been reading other contemporary American poets—particularly Suzanne Buffam’s whose second book The Irrationalist was shortlisted for the Canadian section of Griffin Prize in 2011 (the American edition is published by Canarium, run by a friend, the poet Josh Edwards)—and the poets of the Norton Anthology American Hybrid edited by Cole Swensen and David St John. The anthology posits a recent poetry that draws heavily on both the techniques and discoveries of ‘experimental’ poetry as well as the arc of ‘traditional’ lyric verse. While I tend to think that all good poets combine elements of these strains, this anthology has introduced me to many poets whose names I knew (Harriet Mullen; Alice Fulton; Donald Revell) but whose work I did not. I both love to have a good argument with any anthology (there is no perfect anthology) but also to make discoveries.
What of Australia? I’ve been reading and rereading the work of Peter Steele again since his death at the end of July. He was my teacher when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Melbourne, and also influenced my decision to go to Georgetown University to undertake a Masters degree. As well as reading the new essays in Braiding the Voices, I’ve been going back through Steele’s poetry. The poems are stuffed full of worldliness, and the collision of all these things is driven by delight and discovery. This ‘thingliness’ in his own work makes me once again, in the words of William Wordsworth, ‘see into the life of things.’ What more could I ask from any writer?
Kate Middleton is the author of Fire Season (Giramondo, 2009), awarded the Western Australian Premier’s Award for Poetry in 2009. From September 2011-September 2012 she was the inaugural Sydney City Poet. She holds MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan, where she was won Hopwood Awards in Poetry and Drama.