One of the pleasures of the writing life is getting to know the other people who gravitate toward that sphere. Writers are fun. They spend prolonged periods holed up with their creations, and then (with the exception of your Dickinsons and Salingers) they emerge from their caves into the bigger world, usually feeling somewhere between mildly disoriented and bat-shit stir-crazy. Excellent company, by my standards.
Among the other great pleasures are getting to watch a friend’s work evolve, to hear the voice in its varied contexts, and to notice the patina building over time. It’s such a long process that (for me, at least) it’s hard to envision the finished form. So I had no idea how delighted I would be when I opened my mail and found my friend Mike Begnal’s poetry collection, Future Blues, right there in my hands—so many of the loose pages we had pored over a few years ago in workshop all bound up in a beautiful, proper book:
Reading these poems feels a little like watching footage of fish in the deep ocean: their forms have evolved for purposes logical—particular to their terrain—but a little mystic somehow too. The images float by strangely, yet there is a sensibility in the negative space between them as well as between the lines and stanzas:
nothing will be okay
nothing remains pristine for long
stretched out in a dark bed,
the spectacular lights of death
all this terror,
the flying humanoids in the air for real,
the sinister people who want
to come back from the past,
a leafless time
that wind shook.
(“Blues for Tomorrow,” 13-22)
The form and content are raveled together artfully here. The poem’s stanzas hover much like the flying humanoids, in some places vaguely threatening my ability to navigate the current of the page, yet never drowning me in it entirely. Although Begnal steers toward an abstract place, when I arrive, I get the sense that I have been there before, lying sleepless in that room, antagonized by those ghosts. The metaphor triggers an unsettled feeling a little like déjà vu, but the resulting tension is appropriate and complementary to the concept.
These poems not only reckon with the dead, but also commune with them. An informal ode called “Samhain,” for instance, pays tribute to those dead who “are there, in a word or line/you thought was your own,/ and walk among us to/ night” (30-34). In this poem, Begnal is particularly conscientious of the line, as evidenced by the break between “to” and “night,” suggesting both toward our own demise and tonight, as in on Samhain (the Gaelic festival which begat Halloween.)
The central concept is broader in scope, though, and extends to the idea that we invoke the dead by simply speaking, so many of our words weighed down as they are with history. Fittingly, the poem is dedicated to Mongán, a seventh-century Irish chieftain whose namesake is a semi-divine figure from Gaelic literature. Such ghosts rustle through the lines, and in the introductory stanza especially, the rift between words reflects the rift between worlds:
for all the dead who have spoke before
me spoke for all the dead who have before
spoke for all the dead who have before
dead for all who have spoke before the
I trust in language always.
This is a poetry that makes room for its ghosts. The intentionally muddled syntax of the worried line leaves an impression of language as an inheritance, something that (as those of us who teach freshman composition know all too well) sometimes comes in jumbled variations and barely decipherable waves. Just when the syntax pushes my patience toward its limits though, I am soothed and surprised by that single, simple line, “I trust in language always.”