The Seer and the Seen: A Review of Joshua Beckman’s The Inside of an Apple

The Inside of an Apple, by Joshua Beckman, Wave Books, 2013, 91 pages, ISBN: 978-1-933517-75-9

            The Polaroid has gone the way of the technological artifact, but the swell of nostalgia upon the company’s announcement that it had discontinued manufacturing its eponymous cameras speaks to the Polaroid’s enduring charm. Like all photos, the Polaroid captures a particular moment and point of view. Yet the technology that made the results instantaneous also often made those results – at least in the hands of an amateur photographer – foggy, indistinct, and washed out. The camera inflicted a veil of mystery on subjects already in a small field of vision, re-presenting them as if through eyes half-closed and from just barely too far away. Perhaps this is where some of the Polaroid’s seduction lies: the aesthetics that muddle its subjects make those subjects moodier, more evocative in their ambivalence. They have unexpected resonance beyond their small size and simple, white frames.

            The poems in Joshua Beckman’s sixth full-length collection The Inside of an Apple are in many ways literary analogs to the Polaroid. They are palm-sized: most are under twenty lines, and the longest individual line barely exceeds a dozen words. In such tightly-crafted vessels, there’s room for no more than a few images, a few notions, as in his poem “starlings:”

                 starlings described
            for the people I see
                 their heads poke out
            looking to feed, and
                 they’re singing
            and they’re occupying trees

William Carlos Williams’ thumbprint – his narrow concentration, his stair-step lineation – is all over “starlings” and other similar poems which, like Polaroids, describe a decidedly singular piece of the world.

            Centered on the page, the considerable white space around each poem frames that poem as a self-contained unit. Yet Beckman has dispensed almost completely with titles. If a title exists, it’s typically a phrase noted only by an underline within the body of the poem itself. Without formal titles drawing a clear boundary between poems, The Inside of an Apple tells a larger story despite having little traditional “narrative.” Like flipping through a stranger’s photo album, reading through the collection offers so many tiny glimpses of the unfamiliar that, by the end, it is not unfamiliar anymore.

            This is not to say that The Inside of an Apple is fully knowable. Rarely, in fact, are these poetic snapshots as simple as their controlled focus and small size might suggest. Beckman likes to blur his lens with ambiguous syntax and lines that grind against that syntax, putting a precise meaning just out of reach, as in these lines from “damp sprung run:”

                 damp sprung run
            of dirty clothes
                 play on my bed
            and lamplight
                 (August 28)

So, too, does Beckman upend the deceptively simple with wild leaps between the sacred and the profane. In “stars,” the collection’s opening poem, he takes us from the celestial to a porch light in twelve tiny lines, and moves from hail falling on a hat to “the things / you saved up / for dreams” in seven lines in “crackle crackle.” Tone can change just as quickly; “that being alive,” a poem about bees, puts the high language of the line“it’s a magical thing I felt / compounding its spark within me” right alongside the line“and then from out of my ass / fell that little ball of wax.” Through Beckman’s willful (and often playful) deconstruction of his poems’ features, those poems maintain the Polaroid’s signature veneer of intrigue – an ambiguity that draws you in for a second look.

            The visual metaphor of a photograph is doubly appropriate for a book so consumed with the act of seeing as a subject matter. Many poems – “starlings” included – in The Inside of an Apple are about the speaker’s viewpoint as much as they are about what that viewpoint contains. The speaker uses his sight – both real and imagined – to find his center (“how the mountain calmed me down”), to question empathy (“on 13th street”), to understand his place in the world’s ecological systems (“God’s cabin’s a jungle”), to reach out emotionally to other times (“early end of year”) and other people (“first snow”). The collection’s titular poem, an ars poetica, illuminates this obsession in a profound moment of complete clarity:

            I saw a picture being still
            and I was still too
            having seen something.
            everyone in town is gone to sleep
            and I step out into the street
            so I might see a thing
            and see a thing I do.

Here, Beckman celebrates the dialogue between the seer and the seen: the way seeing something makes what is seen a picture, and the way that picture changes the one who has seen it. The poet’s task, Beckman seems to say, is looking in order that he or she might see. The true subject of The Inside of an Apple, then, is not the speaker but the relationship between the speaker and the world he observes – the ways in which they shape one another.

            The Inside of an Apple deserves to be read more than once. Perhaps it needs to be read more than once; the way Beckman manipulates language and form can confound at first, and short poems often tempt the reader to invest in them less. But the pleasure in The Inside of an Apple is great, found in both the individual poems as singular phenomena – the Polaroid snapshots with their small, dense mysteries – and the collection as a whole – the photo album that invites us to question the larger mystery of what and how we see.

—Emily Grise