To poets like Dan Beachy-Quick, books are vessels between worlds. What worlds? Why, books, of course.
“Is a planet not yet found a fiction?” asks Beachy-Quick, our poet-physicist. But one could just as well reverse the question in his first novel, An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky, which finds literature professor Daniel mired in daily struggles to complete his first novel, navigate the contingencies of love, and reconcile tragic events from his family’s past. His contemplations and struggles (and, believe me, there are far more contemplations than struggles) occur amidst the attendant furniture of academic novels: musings on the nature of identity, invocations of Greek myth, punny banter with colleagues, cocktail party wine assortments, nettlesome departmental chairs, interdisciplinary romance, anxieties of influence, fears that one’s lectures are growing flaccid, and fairies.
The fairies turn out to be retinue for one of Daniel’s most pernicious struggles. “Fathers are an awful fate,” Daniel is told by his physicist-love Lydia, and Daniel’s fate is to overcome the legacy of his father, who retreated into an Ahab-like obsession to unlock the meaning of an arcane South American scroll. The fairies, one of many fabulistic interludes in the novel, trace back to stories Daniel’s father cherished, and appear in the text to mingle with tales of sleeping giants, a whale bearing words as impressions on its skin from one story to the next, and the shape-shifting journeys of a young girl named Pearl who wanders hauntingly along the text.
A welcome superposition, the tales and fragments evoke the weird, tangled logics of those collected by Yeats or Paul Radin and serve as lively syncopation to the predictably meditative episodes from Daniel: “I spend a lot of time looking out windows; everyone does, I suspect,” he says. This is followed by a passage musing on the junked pages of his manuscript:
. . . every book being a night-blooming flower the reader enters into headfirst, the pollen smeared inside the ears, dehiscent promise of new dreams unfolding within and replacing the wilting old, desire’s buzz a white noise the reader’s winged mind no longer hears . . .
Recognizing its own wilting promises, Beachy-Quick’s language luxuriates in rich imagery, often bearing metaphors hinging on happy kismets of polysemy: the “dehiscent” of this passage can refer in botany to the rupturing of seed pods the pollen produces, in medicine to a vertigo-inducing rupture of the labyrinth of the inner ear (where his pollen’s been smeared).
Vertigo, indeed. The next passage continues: “I spend a lot of time — what it is that time is — looking out the window in my study.” Another starts: “I spend many hours, as everyone does, looking through glass.” If it feels at times like reading a sestina in prose, the contemplative speculations and lush imagery approaching a pastiche of an armchair poet, it only reveals the comparative comfort Beachy-Quick — who has published five volumes of verse himself — finds basking in poet’s structures of repetition and rumination (though it is a novelist’s sly detail that Daniel witnesses all of this from his father’s chair).
* * *
Perhaps seeking to follow in the footsteps of fellow Coffeehouse Press author and poet Ben Lerner’s successful Leaving the Atocha Station, the book poses an important question: Can poets actually sell books these days? That is, I mean: can a poetic sensibility be successfully imbued into the novel? Both are novels with narrators closely reflecting their creators. Ben Lerner and his creation, Adam Gordon, share a childhood in Kansas, university in Providence, and writing fellowship to Madrid in addition to their multivalent eyebrows and conflicted stance toward poetry.
In style, however, the two books seem opposite poles: where Beachy-Quick waxes poetic, Lerner is profane. While Beachy-Quick’s Daniel yearns, Lerner’s Adam self-loathes, while Daniel window-gazes rhapsodically in virtually every chapter, Adam’s few lyrical flights mark escapes from self-mocking romantic and artistic buffoonery. Lerner’s work is filled with the recognizably contemporary: prescription tranquilizers, online chat sessions, terrorist bombings. Beachy-Quick’s campus could be from a century ago; this is a peaty novel of hackneyed carnival barkers, engraved pocket-watches, and star-gazing souls. When Daniel, out on a date, views an art exhibit applying pupil tracking to selfies (recently making the leap from page to tweet at Beachy-Quick’s old academic post), you know despite his fondness for self-examination he wouldn’t know the word or own a phone that could take one.
If this work seems oriented toward the nineteenth-century, it is not Beachy-Quick’s only, joining his verse collections and a book of essays devoted to Moby-Dick. White whales course too through Impenetrable Screen, bright signposts that Daniel must have an obsession all his own. But it’s never quite articulated what that shall be. Completing his stubbornly unfinished book? Avoiding his father’s fate? Coming to terms with his sister’s? With Lydia’s? Or maybe the metaphor is made plain: maybe his Ahabic vendetta is for Moby-Dick, as all his personal wrestlings pale rhetorically in comparison to the attention and passion Daniel lavishes in recounting his triumphant classroom expositions on Melville’s insurmountable novel.
Lerner’s obsessions are similarly diffuse: Adam refers wryly to the ongoing progress of his ‘project,’ (“I took one of the longer showers of my project”) which may be a book, or this book, or more probably his self. He tries but mostly fails to imagine professional success, half-heartedly attempts to bed two women (for the most part desiring whichever he is not currently with), but like Daniel, Adam too is at his most comfortable expounding on literature, whether that be trotting out half-believed, half-hated court clichés on poetry (“Not that poems were about anything”), presenting a concise discourse mid-novel on John Ashbery and subsequently aping his style in prose, or dissecting the ambitions, disappointments, and ‘undecidability’ of his own style.
* * *
Ruthlessly autobiographical and dialectical on the role of art, we might think we’re witnessing a new form: a shrewd arbitrage of the Confessional Poem smuggled into the Novel. But, of course, the novelists have been here before. Adam Gordon calls to mind André Gide’s marvelously puckish 1894 novella Marshlands, whose unnamed narrator never misses an opportunity to announce the writing of his own novel “Marshlands” (the story of a “man who lies down”). He carefully crafts empty maxims to deploy while mocking and being mocked by literary society, models himself (at least in his selection of breakfast) after the Lake-Poets much as Daniel would Melville or Adam would Ashbery, and all the way throughout . . . accomplishes very little writing of “Marshlands.”
His personal life seems a thwarted mess of quickly-abandoned directions, disappointed reflections (“One can only be unhappy at seeing oneself”), disquisitions on the purpose of art, and alternating between chasing and jettisoning women. Marshlands, like Daniel’s and Adam’s works, has expansive ambitions: it is the story of “the neutral ground which belongs to everybody,” or maybe it is “about the normal man, the foundation on which everyone begins,” or really it is on “animals who live in dark caves, who lose their sight from not making use of it,” or as another character remarks, “I say . . . I thought it was the story of a bog.”
Including his own terrible poetry and duplicating Adam’s anxiety over his ‘project,’ the narrator here keeps an ‘agenda’ (or at least has for three days) from which he occasionally directly inserts sparkling entries instructing: “Feel astonished at not having a letter from Julius,” “Worry about the relationship between Hubert and Angela,” “Try to get up at six. Vary one’s emotions,” or “Think of epithets for fungosities.”
Not just a journaler, the author is double-entry bookkeeper of his self: to each entry he crosses out or amends the typically disappointing results, appending thoughts which would be at home in Atocha Station or Impenetrable Screen: “There are some things that one repeats every day, simply for want of anything better to do; it’s not a matter of progress, nor even of keeping things going — but after all, one can’t just do nothing at all . . . ”
In his work on ‘Elegiac fictions,’ critic Edward Engelberg identified this new type of hero which gained voice in the mid-nineteenth century:
True, many Romantic heroes were deliberate and self-conscious poseurs; but even this does not diminish the effect they often sought to achieve by means of their posturing. And while their energies were often spent on achieving such an effect — activity followed by passivity — too often they discovered that posturing can itself become a dangerous game, a self-fulfilling mode of behavior which sometimes trapped one in the reality of the supposed make-believe.
The elegiac tradition of superfluous men currently finds its expression in the heroes of Lerner and Beachy-Quick, but it runs back through Gide to Turgenev and his contemporaries. The poets may be coming late to the elegy game, but it’s worth discovering if something different hides behind their pose. After all, as Turgenev writes in Fathers and Sons, “he was not a nihilist for nothing.” If the superfluous man of that book is an ideologue motivated by an egotistical impulse to scientifically repudiate society, and if Gide’s hero covers his dejection with an exuberant quest to attain literary fame and influence in Paris salons, what keeps our contemporary poets’ heroes in the game?
* * *
Atocha Station and Impenetrable Screen are dismissive of both the contemporary literary scene and writing itself, describing each as inherently ineffectual and self-obsessed (Adam’s love can only ever be for “that other thing, the sound-absorbent screen, life’s white machine . . . the texture of et cetera itself.”) In talking about his chosen art, “a dead medium whose former power could be felt only as a loss,” Adam here echoes the aggrievement of Beachy-Quick’s dehiscent promise:
I tended to find lines of poetry beautiful only when I encountered them quoted in prose, in the essays my professors had assigned in college, where the line breaks were replaced with slashes, so that what was communicated was less a particular poem than the echo of poetic possibility.
The echo of poetic possibility. Here again is the failed promise of writing, but also the idealistic wish only furtively admitted. Perhaps the line has not gone dead, and in a line that could have come from either novel, Adam also hopes: “Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent.”
But a sniff of the real is always out of grasp, and both Adam and Daniel’s many partly-consuming obsessions seem to stem from the same all-consuming virus: that in the end, all is the word, their philosophies admitting no escape of the linguistic. This can flash wonderfully as when Beachy-Quick reveals words to be their own propellant: the character of Pearl tumbles along his book’s gutters from girl to jewel to iridescence to O’s on the page, trailing metaphors of beauty as a layering over of wounds. “This pearl that is the pain in my mind,” Daniel says in one such sequence, conjuring the germ of the work before us or possibly the ghostly presence of his deceased sister.
In the more lugubrious sections of Impenetrable Screen, however, language becomes the subject and emotional resonance yields to professorial abstraction. Plot-driving events — characters deserting one another, mysteriously reappearing, smashing violins to smithereens — happen on the thinnest of provocations while confessions of love, family, or life’s purpose, get bogged up in verbiage rehashing questions of observation or meaning. Observing Lydia’s “white body beneath the sheet’s gauzy light,” Daniel then itemizes the standard body parts male writers do, but only in brief visit before jumping between the body and the name:
To say her name the tongue presses against the backside of the front teeth, draws back to the top of the palate, liquid to plosive, and then the tongue drops, the mouth opens as the hard e lowers into the long a, the tongue just edging over the bottom teeth, and the name is said, it is spoken, expelled with the breath as the sheet falls back down . . .
An inordinate fascination with where you put your tongue usually means you’re in the company of a phonologist or aspiring erotica writer (here it’s probably somewhere in between), but this is the languid, methodical eroticism of an assembly schematic, one which can’t help but evoke the fire of another crafty linguist’s loins: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth,” whose tongue’s much shorter downward trip of steps and taps betray a rhythm and poetry — but also a playfulness and action — out of place in Beachy-Quick’s hushed novel.
* * *
For Impenetrable Screen is a romantic, nineteenth-century metafiction, and one played straight: if the protagonist’s sporadically written novel is entitled “An Impenetrable Screen of Purest Sky,” which in turn is borrowed from a line in an Emerson passage, or if his father’s metaphorical descent into madness may eerily echo that of the tales he tells, or if the book’s citations turn out to cite only itself, it is a mirrored self-portraitist’s layering in of an effect. Stories imprint one another like fabled whales in ways patient, artful, and touching, but these are correlative devices embroidering — never threatening — narrative. Amiable devices bringing none of the rude challenge or discomfort metafiction can promise, as in say, J. M. Coetzee’s recent Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year, stabbing attempts to rend realism like the very unlovely braying of an old man in a cupcake shop. Does that mark Impenetrable Screen as one more notch in the maturation of metafiction, now a genre as manicured as the campus or flâneur novel, every bit as mannered, patterned, and twee?
What to make of the metronomic, reiterated symbolisms of reflection and mise en abyme, or the unreal character of Ishmael who rolls into Daniel’s life with yet more pearls to dispense? Is there anything at stake for the story? Are these stories? All of Beachy-Quick’s major characters, reliably inclined toward gnomic utterances on the nature of identity and representation, sound more like reflections of the narrator than fully independent characters in themselves. Lerner’s characters may have more diverse inner lives, but we are given scant access as Adam bothers to look at others only to see how they may be gazing at him: it is not until the end of his fellowship that he bothers to discover his hoped-for “lover and translator,” Teresa, is a poet in her own right, more accomplished in her language than he is in his.
The symbolism is rife: Daniel’s chapter of gazing through windows ends with him grasping at his rippled image in the glass; his last words of the novel find him speaking to his own reflection. Near the beginning of Atocha Station, Adam says, “it was like seeing myself looking down at myself looking up.” On the final page, lifting a line from a Lorca poem of a barren fruit tree seeking death, Adam asks, “Why was I born between mirrors?”
Much has been said by critics of these characters’ self-absorption, but these are not just your garden-variety self-obsessed. These are narcissists. But not the narcissists of the easy story we tell ourselves when diagnosing those vain gym-goers after our memberships have lapsed; a narcissist is not an egotist. This is a narcissism with all the slippery frustrations and cautions of the original myth.
Everyone forgets that Narcissus went unrequited too. In Ovid’s telling of “Narcissus and Echo,” Narcissus beats his breast, miserable as he wastes away to death pining for the image he’ll never possess. In other tellings Narcissus takes his own life upon recognizing his plight. Why? He had the love of all around him, nymphs like translators echoing whatever he might deign to say, but he couldn’t make real the object of his gaze. The same conundrum afflicts these characters: as can be seen in the small praises they receive, even if Adam and Daniel finished their works to grand accolades, something would still go unquenched. As psychiatrist James F. Masterson puts it:
I suggest that these qualities — yearnings for uniqueness with regard to an idealized object, and shame and humiliation over such yearnings and the vulnerability which they engender (with the ever-present danger of their nonfulfillment, or a response of contempt from the all-powerful object) — define an essential element of the narcissistic experience.
When he further diagnoses shame as the hallmark of narcissism, just as guilt marks other neurotic conflicts, it brings to mind Adam’s lying that his mother is dead in order to trigger the sympathies of women he meets. Contemplating one such confession this ‘guilt’ comes while he feels his “face burning.” Blushing: the physiology of shame, not guilt. His greatest rage in the book comes at a public panel when, stumbling over Spanish poets’ names, he feels shamefully revealed to be as provincial as the American stereotypes he’s spent the novel setting his image against. In Impenetrable Screen, Daniel may savor a more earnest and somber guilt, but it is he who assumes “Everyone vanishes,” except his omnipresent “I,” and it is he who summons a character near the end to assuage his own pain, not that of those he has hurt.
Comparing artistic creation to the process of crystals forming around a salt, André Gide’s first published essay drew a parallel between the poet’s lot and that of Narcissus. In Lerner’s and Beachy-Quick’s work, both keen balances of the autobiographical and the mediated, each book’s narrator resembling its author just so—yes, both Atocha Station and Impenetrable Screen can be read as grand narcissistic projects of their authors. If that sounds like a slight, you haven’t listened to these books: Freud identified humor as a “triumph of narcissism” while Heinz Kohut argued that the creative attitude itself is narcissism transformed, and these works too argue for themselves as achievements, talismanic keys attaining some degree of access to “life’s white machine” and “desire’s buzz.” That poetry’s dehiscent promise, the echo of poetic possibility — what both poem and poet could be — crash hard against poetry’s inevitable failure to ever change, represent, or be the world may be just that hidden pain underlying both works, the narcissistic injury that elicits Beachy-Quick’s “consecutive layers of nacre” forming the iridescent pearl in your hand.
Impenetrable Screen is at times quite poignant, and Atocha Station is canny and wickedly funny throughout. It is a blessing that the novel as a form is a loose, baggy monster with folds enough for both these writers. But before ambitious young poets everywhere begin furiously deleting their line breaks, it’s worth asking: where does this go? If the mirror-loving authors alluded to in these works — Nabokov, Borges, Ashbery — brought theirs from the funhouse and set them up in order to map the far side of the moon, or excite the stuff of story into laser light shows breaking out of the page, the elegiac reflections of Lerner and Beachy-Quick return always to the tarnish on their own mirror-stands. If the novel’s monstrous ambition is the same as it’s ever been: to tell it all, to reflect the entirety and interiority of the world, where can that go if you are — like these writers — trapped gazing? Not at new planets or foreign shores, but always, alone, yourself.
Or, as Beachy-Quick places it in his poetry collection, Spell:
Though the wave opens, I am never
Let in. I promised you the deep wave
’s inner chamber, I’m sorry.
Do you see Sir—
How the crest of a book builds at the binding
And finally spills over on to no shore?