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Tamiko Beyer packs a good deal of complication into We Come Elemental, her slim new book of poetry from Alice James Books. With a lean, lyrical style, Beyer asks the reader to contemplate the connection between the natural world and ourselves; how water and mud and land intersect with identity and body and politics; and whether the lines we draw are as firm as we would have ourselves believe.
The book is divided into three parts: “Body Geographies,” “Dear Disappearing,” and “Tenacious As Salt.” In all of them, the constancy and mutability of water wends its way through as the uniting element. Beyer delves into its numerous forms and possibilities, from its molecular composition — “Each molecule polished / each o each pair of h a banquet of lust –” to its destructive, colossal power as hurricane.
She also explores humanity’s ecological impact, referencing the North Pacific Gyre in her experimental piece “Trash Sail”: “trawling boats haul up netfuls / oceantrash translucent.” Its mirror poem, “Where The Current Takes,” uses the same headings, yet addresses the convoluted connection between body and gyre, currents driving both, pollution flowing from one to the other and back again.
In fact, much of the book is concerned with the conversation between ecology and body, and the subsequent acts of translation, transformation, and disintegration. The middle section of the book, “Dear Disappearing,” is composed of one long, intricate poem, spanning nineteen pages and dealing with this liminal space. Interspersed throughout are question-and-answer sessions with the disappearing, yielding haunting and obtuse images. “What is the rank and what is the given?” they are asked, and they reply, “The beast is but you and your merited skin, / teller of nothing, farewell worn thin.”
Weaving through these interrogations are other short sections, exploring the nature of disappearance through language (“Translation is a form / of disappearance :: my name gone / all wrong in their mouths.”), thorough death (“Flesh shreds or just grows old / and turns to dirt to concrete to building”), and through ecological abuse (“The last glacier / at the equator melts, streams / away in the soaking rain.”). The poem stands as a scathing critique of consumerist culture, corporate malfeasance, and willful ignorance. In an unusually direct line, Beyer writes, “See everyone behaves or seems to / like “it’s not their problem.” / I have to admit infuriation. What’s this I’m breathing?”
Yet she also offers solace and solution: “Desire is not disappearing / ::desire is the other side :: desire / makes appearing come upon us.” Indeed, Beyer’s poetry is at its most stirring when describing the sublime nature of body and desire. “But here. Body, our bright, metered field. / Drape me / in barnacles and salt :: watch me turn marvelous.” While her language can at times be dense (for all its sparseness), it is still infinitely readable for its sonic and visual qualities, even if not completely comprehendible on the first go around. Instead, the first read leaves an ambience, an excitement and gut feeling that subsequent readings deepen with meaning. Beyer crafts her poems with careful consideration to sound, form, and connotation, often playing with the possibilities of formatting and enjambment.
“Water West” and “Water East,” which bookend the volume, are two of the most approachable pieces, stylistically, and also lend a clearer connection to the author. Prose poems that rush headlong, they detail experiences in various coastal cities. It is in “Hudson River,” a poem within “Water East,” that Beyer encapsulates the themes of her book in lovely, evocative words: “Then in such field quiet we understand our alliance to that bay down south crowded with ghost ships and torch, elbowed skyscrapers, underground velocity, to our own chaotic bodies that have followed us north, tenacious as salt’s press.”
What is remarkable about We Come Elemental is that it effectively queers nature and body without explicitly doing so – the assembled poems create such a liminal, flexible space that artificial lines in the sand are washed away, so to speak. Gender, sexuality, and body coexist with the ever-changing tides, and desire is upheld as a pure form of (re)creation. Beyer has written a nuanced book that deserves a careful, joyous, and thoughtful read.
We Come Elemental
By Tamiko Beyer
Alice James Books
Paperback, 9781938584008, 104 pp.