Jessica Mayhew reviews
by Michael S. Begnal
Beginning at the end of this collection, Michael Begnal notes the poet’s refusal “to fix ourselves/ in time or ink” (‘Manifesto’), and this would serve just as well as an epigram to Future Blues. This is a collection aware of the fragility and harshness of time and language, and a refusal to be rooted in the stasis of either. Begnal’s poetry is fluid and immediate, and his use of textual play allows it to slip from being pinned to the formal.
In ‘Primates,’ Begnal explores the “conception of the word/ HUMAN.” This poem examines a photograph of a group of chimpanzees, comparing it to an early-morning glimpse of the self in a mirror, “a face so secretly and fiercely familiar,” which readers will be able to wryly identify with. However, this poem also goes much deeper than the “3:10 A.M” stunned and squinting eyes, and the knowing nudges of aging; the parallels drawn between poem and chimp highlight the “iron light of sentience,” the harshness of knowledge.
Begnal excels at finding just the right words to root a sentence. ‘Primates’ opens with the line, “His eyes intimate knowledge, this chimpanzee,” the deliberate choice of “intimate” suggesting both an ancestral closeness and the implication of communication, and from this, the poem works around suggestion. The poet guesses – the chimp “maybe the poet of his tribe,” and the speaker’s own “sapience” is “unknown.” This disturbance to the ability of language to express meaning builds to the final stanza:
tomorrow I will kill the poachers
/I will murder the colonists
/I will cut down the loggers
/I will exterminate all the brutes
What seemingly begins as a threatening wish to protect the chimpanzees of the first stanza begins to splinter, reflected in the use of the forward slashes, building to the Heart of Darkness climax. However, in Begnal’s poem there is no Marlow to act as editor and tear off the postscript. The speaker becomes a Kurtz-like figure, and the violent ambiguity of “brutes,” leads the reader back to deeper concerns of role of language as communication.
Darkness and language surface again in ‘Dithyramb.’ The pattern of the urban/ rural couplets are broken when:
...I enter the poem
and am immediately strong-armed
into a dark garage
where there are no shining mirrors,
no strains of deathless song...
The entry of the speaker disrupts the flow of the poem, and yet seems to begin the dithyramb, which is a wild hymn to the ancient Greek God Dionysus. Begnal attacks the urge to define:
they claim they can define
everyone, that I’m this or that,
a maker of cloudy cadence...
An urge which he ultimately defies, setting the poet alone in the urban/rural landscape:
and I’m out along the leaves,
olive-green under the
Bengal uses the juxtaposition of the rural imagery against the streetlights to create a hallucinogenic rebellion which both harks back to the ancient poetic tradition and places it firmly in the contemporary.
The theme of the poet existing outside of the established order is revisited in ‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed.’ There is a distinct modernist atmosphere to the poem, not in form but in content. The poet becomes a flâneur-like figure, roaming through a disorientating city. Temporality is disrupted:
in this part of the city
when you looked at them closer
were constructed of Mayan ruins…
(‘In an Unknown City, It Seemed’)
This sense of timeless isolation is shattered when the speaker of the poem encounters another figure. There is a sense of threat at the end of the poem, when another man emerges to see the speaker, “like a priest.”
One of the strong points of this collection is the shift of tone between poems. In ‘The Fluctuations,’ Begnal observes, “death & loss in your twisted black guts like shit,/ in the stark stochastic scald.” This sits alongside ‘At the Cliff,’ where death/ time sits in contrast, “time wilts and willows,/ residue builds sweet on the tongue.” Here, the softer assonance gives a much gentler impression of time ebbing and flowing, rather than the harsh sounds of the former. Throughout Future Blues, Begnal consistently compliments the themes of his poems with a studied ear to the sounds they make, which is apt for a collection at least partly inspired by music. This attention to the aural is particularly effective in ‘Betty Page.’ The classic monochromatic pin-up image is created in the third stanza:
black her hair
and pale white skin,
the classic black/white
The sound echoing through “black/classic,” and the half-rhyme of “skin/ porcelain” draws the reader into a poem which centres heavily on the notion of darkness, not just in colour (or lack of), but also in tone. This builds to the final proper stanza, in which decay is emphasised through consonance, and the final rhyme acts as an evocation of the pin-up herself:
and clay collects in the cracks below the window
and the furniture begins to show its age –
“Sexless” is scored through in this poem, an ironic nod to the epigram from Betty Page, “I had less sex activity those seven years in New York than I had any other time in my life.” Begnal’s use of typography and textual play works well throughout the collection. In “Dead Rabbits,” he introduces coloured print with the word “red,” emphasising the visceral nature of the poem. An image of a horn is added to “Horn,” further breaking the text and bringing a visual element to a poem focusing on sound. This typographic play could be used more often to bring more of an impact.
Future Blues ends with a ‘Manifesto,’ summing up the poet’s intents and beliefs. This collection flits between deaths – death of the body, death of language, death of the self – and in this movement is the escape of expression. In ‘Manifesto,’ Begnal writes, “for death is statis/ and poetry moves everywhere.” This collection looks to a mythic past, even as it passes through the present. In this poem, as in the others, there is a lack of concluding full stops, which serves to emphasise Future Blues as a continuous, supple body of poetry.
Jessica Mayhew is a British poet, and reviews regularly for Eyewear.