Wichita poet’s debut collection is rich and resonant

07/27/2014 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:25 AM

“Music I Once Could Dance To: Poems” by Roy J. Beckemeyer (Coal City Review Press, 98 pages, $10)

Memory is one of the poet’s strongest tools. By recapturing the past, the poet in effect stops time, seizing a moment, then plumbing its depths on the strength of his or her prosody – the diction, imagery, metaphor and rhyme that traditionally have imparted kinetic energy to the poem.

By looking back – with an open heart – the poet can simultaneously look ahead – for an instant – taming time’s passage.

Time forms one of the major motifs in Roy Beckemeyer’s debut collection of poems, “Music I Once Could Dance To.” Beckemeyer, a Wichitan and retired aeronautical engineer, meditates on his past with the mature perspective of a pilgrim journeying across the Earth.

His remembrances of his classmates learning (more or less) the Baltimore Catechism prove poignant and profound.

He does know

that he must offer up his hand

to the yardstick each time

a Catechism question hovers,

unanswered,

in the hollow classroom.

He does not remember

“Man is a creature composed of body and soul,

and made to the image and likeness of God.”

His pain is measured in inches.

His palm, repeatedly smitten,

turns ruddy as his cheek,

and he could never guess

“This likeness is chiefly in the soul.”

Using a strong visual sense, astute storytelling techniques and attunement to the rhythms of the natural world, Beckemeyer creates a remembered music he can dance to, a music that leads to quiet epiphanies and delights for the reader.

Particularly effective are his intimations of the shaping power of nature on the self, the first stirrings of desire.

Sometimes, too,

in the geometric precision

of that July orchard,

my denim hips

would brush against hers,

in counterpoint

to the scrape of skin

against bark, the stir

of faint breeze against

elusive leaf, the muted

chugging

of a tractor far down the row,

its trailing cloud of dusty haze

shimmering.

What stands out in these rich, resonant poems is the care of craft. With a crisp lexicon and vibrant images, Beckemeyer resists the temptation to overwrite or indulge in nostalgia. He remains judicious in his subject matter and precise in his perceptions, as in “Night Music,” a young man’s ode to trains:

As they picked up speed,

their wheels would rub

the rails like a wet finger along

the edge of a crystal goblet,

the rails singing their high

pitched harmonies out along

those great lengths of steel.

In her introduction to this volume, former Kansas Poet Laureate Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg notes how “All of his poems … help us hear where we are, who’s been here before us, and how every step we take lands us on sounds and silences from a multitude of others.”

The poems also help us see the prairie in all its understated splendor.

Meadowlarks launch

themselves off fence posts

with abandon, their liquid

warbles bubbling and boiling,

buoying them up on their long,

flat glides across hot, dry,

griddle-flat pastures.

At his best, Beckemeyer rises to aesthetic heights that reflect the rich heritage of the Plains, taking much of his inspiration from Kansas’ foremost poet, William Stafford.

Returning to his home town, he remarks that

The sign at the edge of town

has said “Population 1000”

forever. I walk the cemetery,

stalk the rows, search

the memorials for that one

particular face I know

must have gone missing

on the day when I was born.

By the book’s end, Beckemeyer’s poems reach a crescendo: He finds a sacramental quality in the ordinary wonders of the world.

we are tumbling end over end

with water in our eyes and ears and mouths and lungs

never seeing exactly where we are heading,

but always accelerating down the canyon of time,

slowing only as we approach the wide, flat valley floor,

bereft of breath,

covered with silt,

estuarine in our end,

one with the earth in our completion.

If there is a lesson to be learned here, it is to seize the moment. After all, it just might hold a music you can dance to.

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