good beast by Andrew Michael Roberts
Burnside Review Books, 2015; 94 pp
Reviewed by Michael Levan
Andrew Michael Roberts’ poems in good beast are oxymoronic along the same lines that jumbo shrimp are; even in their smallness, their brevity, they fill us more than we think possible.
Written with an intensely lyrical bent, these poems align themselves with haiku, though perhaps you’d be hard-pressed to find haiku that trades seasonal mentions for references to the Death Star and Darth Vader. Still, it’s within this imagination that much of the book’s power begins. The first section, “death star: a history in fragments,” has a loosely narrative structure as Darth Vader and the Devil pop up here and there as they work to corrupt the speaker. In fact, the “I” of these poems has a lot to contend with: those forces of evil desperate to get hold of him, a grandmother disfigured by years of smoking that he’s commanded to kiss, questions of faith. This last item carries the most weight in this opening section, as we learn in “the dreamless and the meek”:
i blame him
when i pray.
This quiet longing for order and connection to someone—or anyone, really—amid a world that beats us down and works so effortlessly to convince us of the absence of good is central to many of the later poems too. Take “flipbook of the dead”:
when he went blue
they shocked my father’s
heart so hard it burst
into a confetti of moths
which later fell as a light snow
iceland, which understands
winter darkness like a wife.
Roberts’ ability to pull off that last couplet is remarkable; even as we admire the odd but captivating image of a heart exploding and eventually becoming snow, the moment becomes that much more powerful with the simile’s incorporation of the wife. It’s a subtle and immensely clever move, which deepens even more considering how the poem’s next section concludes: “while mother / wrings her hands / in a hospital lounge.”
There’s always a plan, an epiphany that these poems are working toward. In “that poet, the sea” we’re told of one of the speaker’s adored memories: almost drowning in an undertow. But what is first unsettling becomes moving as the poem closes:
in the silt
and the roil,
i love slowly
Throughout the book, Roberts reminds to fight for beauty, for our selves, while we happen to be struggling. Life is both good and bad, beauty and ugliness. It is full of small moments of clarity and large periods of disillusionment, and vice versa. But the combination of the two is what gives us purpose and then peace, if only we can embrace the seeming contradiction.