Revolutionary Patience: A Response to The Burning Key by Beatrix Gates

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In 2023, Thera Books, a U.S.-based independent press, published Beatrix Gates’s The Burning Key, a volume of new and selected poems spanning a 50-year career. I have known Bea since the 1980s, through years when we joined the same anti-war mobilizations, taught writing at the same colleges, and for a time belonged to the same writing group. Traveling in circles that refused conventional borders between art making and radical agitation, she and I spent our early writing lives in different corners of the feminist and lesbian small press movement. A devotee of book arts, Bea founded and ran Granite Press in rural Maine. We both took part in the international solidarity movement against U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America.

This history meant that I was already familiar with much of the work in The Burning Key, but rereading the poems of a lifetime in a single volume brought renewed appreciation. Struck by the depth of response that became possible because my feelings for the writing had matured in tandem with my feelings for the writer, I grew impatient with the literary convention that dictates a lack of personal connection between author and book reviewer. (Never mind that art has always thrived on bonds between artists who share the stuff of their lives intermingled with the questions of their craft.) It seemed to me that Bea Gates and I — two poets in our seventies, both with many decades in the poetry trenches, both white feminist precursors of today’s upsurge in gender-disobedient writing, both women who have ridden the queer currents (sometimes rapids) of our North American times — deserved a forum that would recognize friendship as a valuable context for analytic reading. I’m extremely grateful to Shuddhashar FreeVoice for extending that welcome.

I open this book, and what happens? It’s as if my pulse slows; I am under a wide sky. I’ve entered a space of elemental relationships. The constituents of the ancient self-made world (the trees in their dream of change, the rocks and ice and light, the fire that “burns everything but the bones”) are not distinct from human beings but inform it and undergird it. I entrust myself to the poems’ faithfulness, their attention to things that matter, be it “the shapes of quiet that are so large” following a move to rural Maine or the life-saving clue in a dream of a dead uncle (“I have learned the same ways: how to/drink and drive off the ones I love …I reach for the women.”). Or the effort to make an opening where freedom might be glimpsed (“a place of air and bright paper, scratched deep into a different sky”) through teaching poetry in a women’s prison. I think of the phrase revolutionary patience, much in the air these days, though not often heard in literary contexts. I think, too, of Édouard Glissant’s call for a “poetics of relation.”

Many of Bea’s titles and dedications hint at such a poetics, reflecting the human attachments that inspired the poems: “Song for Ron,” “Jean here–,” “Translation of My Grandmother,” “I was reading truong in April.” Their contents, too, are profoundly relational, evoking dream encounters, waking conversations, artistic collaborations, and crucial and unsettled bonds like that with the speaker’s brother, who modeled the cowboy ethos (“We drew against each other, even if I just play-drew.”). Further, many pieces explore the fluidity and mobility of links beyond the human. In “The Bear,” the speaker enters the perspective of the hungry animal, circling houses and noting the habits of those who “live in pits of food/and heave it around themselves in larger/and larger circles–.” Elsewhere, the life of the human organism folds into the geologic order: “The scars are in the rocks and on the graves/above water and below the eyes.”

This poet’s affinity for phenomena too often patronized under the lazy label nature (even worse: the environment) has nothing to do with safety or with lulling or the lie of a “beautiful view.” As I read this book, I’m remembering Bea’s reports of the latest storm on the Maine coast, downed trees provoking days-long power outages. How she keeps the wood stove going is a matter of survival. She delights in listing her vegetable crop, complete with details of her planting methods. Yet I know that New York City is hers as well; here she has lived for extended periods, in this “place without sky whose brightness fills the void.” Even as she chooses to put her body in her imagination’s first place, her Earth is never a refuge from history. She sings about the unbearable loss of Matthew Shepard, a young man tortured to death for his queerness, abandoned in the desolate grandeur of rural Wyoming: “He will be like billowing/clouds that rake the plains/this time of year, change hour to hour, comb the grasses/silver, then red, keep coming….He will fly because he is hungry/for it, the beautiful mouth of the sky/taking in all he has to give, the tenderness/of beating wings all around him.”

How grateful I am to be steadied by this speaker who remains somehow calm with the day in the glare of all that is threatened with destruction. This is a voice of profound accompaniment, resolute to refuse the abandonment of others as it stands against the self’s abandonment by careless or vicious people and malign social structures. In the words of a poem written after an infamous mass shooting at an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs: “We have to make it count…./Be unafraid of our beauty.” The work aspires to “make it count” in the face of layered histories of family violence, and against the shock of an arrow in the flesh, the attacker, an unknown hater with a crossbow, who shoots through an open window at the speaker and her lover, rupturing the fiction of home as a place of refuge. Alongside the damage, there is always an emphasis on unexpected and imaginative ways of resisting wrong power, as in the picture of “Grace [Paley], her graying head and bun pulled back, weav[ing] in and out/of the witnessing crowd, holding a baby, daughter of one of those arrested” at a trial in the wake of a women’s peace action. This holding is the emblem of the poet’s own approach to taking the side of quiet, slow life against the shock and awe of onrushing war, the so-American obsession with full spectrum violence.

Embrace of life entails a paradox, for death pervades The Burning Key, a collection as far from morbid as any book I know. It’s a theme that surfaces early in Shooting at Night, a 1980 volume issued by the poet’s own Granite Press in a letterpress, limited edition. (By the way, it’s a singular treat to discover in the end notes such eccentric and artful details of publication history as “37 copies of the edition [of the 1973 collection native tongue] were printed letterpress on cotton rag paper with blue jean endpapers handmade by Twinrocker.”). “I know the depth of your composure/as you loosen the ropes/and let your life go,” she writes in Shooting at Night’s “The Balloonist,” dedicated to her father. In the Open (1998) contains further pieces on the passing of relatives. “Triptych,” a three-part narrative poem, begins in the voice of a gay man whose ex-lover, desperately ill with AIDS, makes a harrowing request: “Charlie said he wanted to die/and Dell and I were the ones,/of course, who were going to/help him do it.” The substance of personhood is what these poems seek to probe, illuminating the life that dying reveals. Death is to be worked with, an imaginative frame within which to accompany those departing or departed, refuting any perception that they are lost or alien. Reading the many tribute/memorial poems, not only for the speaker’s parents but for literary “mothers”— Grace Paley, Jean Valentine, Marie Ponsot, Jane Cooper among them — I remember that I’ve noticed this about my friend: she is someone with a gift for the daughter position. She lets herself be mentored and returns the bounty of her attention. Reciprocity. Poetics of relation.

And what of form, the stanzas’ flesh and blood, the shape of the line as action? It’s hard to generalize when the poems are so various, free verse patterned along shifting coordinates. Poems making canny use of the drama of enjambment sit beside others whose stanzas look like paragraphs. Sound effects are freely improvised, whether by drawing on the music of spoken vernacular (“I’m Muriel Stanhope/and I can see between”) or carefully composing an array of harsh syllabic stresses and percussive consonance to evoke the flayed victim Matthew Shepard (“Blood cake cowlick/Palms like kleenex/Brow cleaved open/Skull cocked hat”). Longer lines, expanding as years go on, befit capacious thought (and as I type this, I remember walking with Bea on a back road in rural Vermont, how she pointed to a tree with branches lopped off to allow for a power line and said wistfully that old trees grow into such beautiful shapes when they’re not tampered with). She had spoken of the watershed in her writing when she realized that a poem needn’t center on the image, that imagery could blend with narrative. And so the later poems are increasingly attentive to what others have to say and the words they use to say it.

A stunning piece, “Dos,” from 2014, relies on the fusion of image and story to marvelous effect. This seven-part poem tells of love between two women, from advent to sundering. The painting of a volcano hanging in the beloved’s home introduces the poem’s procedure of a “volcanic” buildup of imagery, at times intoxicating in its excess and resistant to literal reading while compelling our involvement through its incantatory power. And in fact — so the speaker declares — the beloved herself resists a literal reading, or any reading: “The longing does not end./The interior will not be read.” The disorientation prompted in the reader by this outpouring of emotion and rich imagery mirrors the speaker’s experience of a process at once fiery, transformative, ecstatic, and perilous. The description is simultaneously boldly metaphorical — a snapshot of psychic courtship — and sexily embodied: “If I moved slowly, she stayed/and if she moved quickly, I made no sudden gesture./I matched breath for breath/calling the bird back: desire and flight.”After the poem’s first section, this swirl of dazzling imagery gives way to a more literal (though still densely image-laden) narrative. We learn of the beloved’s girlhood in Mexico, where she grew up between two languages, “close mother English and kitchen Spanish,” staying with her sister and mother on the roof of her grandmother’s boardinghouse while her father lived below with another woman. The tale is murky, fragmentary, and mesmerizing; we see how the relationship unfolds as a question of story. There is the beloved’s need to tell her past yet inability to make the fragments cohere, colliding with the speaker’s perilous desire to melt into someone else’s story, the headlong dive of falling in love. Interior heat, memory knife — and juxtaposed with these, the enigmatic presence of a massive sculpted head of nineteenth-century Mexican President Benito Juárez, the “Unheralded stranger from an indigenous tribe” who “moved towards the doors/and he opened them with his entire being/like the doors of the sun.” This sculpture is the creation of the beloved’s artist father.

The denial of “dos,” two, through the conflation of self and other, though irresistible, is at last untenable: “She is the I I loved.//She the stranger I could almost become.” The poem’s depiction of the breakup’s aftermath (“‘when we cut,’” as the beloved describes it) is brilliant, succinct: “she always/she never/colorless words/twisting to resolve.” As the speaker’s ruminations continue to spiral, the ache of blame and regret can’t be the final story.

“Dos” is a poem of spiritual travail, one that communicates an almost mystic vision alongside its grounding in palpable objects — the knife, the killed chicken in the kitchen, a photograph of “Luis’ [the artist father’s] wide forehead in the sun,” and that brooding head of Juárez, in full public view yet mostly ignored, “stranded on the flats of a sprawling suburban frieze.” What moves me most of all is the daring of its incantatory re-enactments set against the humility of the speaker’s self-questioning. The poem ends with a symbolic departure and a simple acknowledgment: “Time to fly, a bird must rise./I did not know it was my turn to go.” Existing on its own highly original terms, “Dos” draws on and expands what I would like to call the epic tradition in U.S. lesbian poetry. Recalling Audre Lorde’s theory of “the erotic as power,” it asks to be read in the company of a few other pathbreaking works such as Judy Grahn’s “A Woman Is Talking to Death” and Adrienne Rich’s “Twenty-One Love Poems”: ambitious poetic texts featuring wild landscapes of intimate connection inextricable from fraught public histories.

Among the strategies of revolutionary patience: to heed the difficult intelligence of dreams. To be a student of Earth’s endurance. To “trust someone else,” as poet June Jordan counseled. To practice “good seeing”: the poem as a seeing into, with full imagination, yet modest regard for the force of reality. (A procedure extending from the eye to the ear: “Her stories were never mine/but I heard inside the stories/and I found another story, because that’s what I do,” we read near the end of “Dos.”) Here is what the burning key unlocks: not the way, but a way to a way. The poet lifts a voice of accompaniment. No matter what happens, I will not abandon you.To live in poetry as we would live in this world.

 

The Burning Key: New & Selected Poems (1973-2023) by Beatrix Gates,  Publisher: Thera Books

 

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