With its attendant echoes of the biblical account of creation near at hand, it is a mark of distinction around here for someone to say that they were “present at the creation,” a Washington term of art taken from the title of Dean Acheson’s magisterial and Pulitzer Prize-winning account of his presence at Truman’s side at the Department of State as one of the architects of the post-war consensus that marshaled the world out of darkness. We seek these people out, and if they are no longer around, consult their books, often, among other things, to learn about the much-admired creator, along with the world he created. One of those rare occasions when the creator himself was still around to testify not only about his role but the world he created, in this particular case, almost ex nihilo, occurred twice in the last few months. Richard Peabody, who had very much to do with the birth and subsequent care and feeding of the literary lives of his audiences along with the D.C. literary scene of which they were a part, received their gratitude and devotion at the Gaithersburg Book Festival in June and Politics and Prose in July at readings for the Richard Peabody Reader, released this year by Alan Squire Publishing. Questions after each reading often began with comments along the lines of, ”Why didn’t you just stick with your own writing like the rest of us? Why did you take it upon yourself to publish so many of us?” And Peabody, with characteristic modesty befitting, if not a God, than at least a saint, would parlay each of these comments with a winning riposte such as, “Editing is easy for me,” or “I killed Gargoyle many years ago. I tried to quit.”
Gargoyle, a local literary journal of sometimes doorstop size, shepherded by Peabody through over 60 incarnations since the 1970s, still survives, sometimes by a thread, and always on a shoestring, even as its editor and publisher has somehow managed, during its production, to edit or co-edit 22 anthologies and teach at the Johns Hopkins Advanced Studies Program, where he won the Excellence in Teaching Award in 2010.
At Politics and Prose, store co-founder and former co-owner Barbara Meade introduced Peabody as a “writer’s writer, a reader’s reader, and a publisher’s publisher,” as if to remind those assembled that Peabody had his own writing life as well and had written a novella, three books of short stories, and five books of poems, selections of which had been put together in the current volume. She added that, as writing of note, it had drawn an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda. As Meade said, “It’s not easy to get Michael Dirda to write an introduction. I can’t think of any other book he’s written an introduction for.”
As a writer, Peabody is just as devoted to the unknown, or at least unheralded parts of his city, Washington D.C., as to his unheralded authors. In fact for every successful writer Peabody has incubated in his various publication projects, his stories are often peopled with the unsuccessful ones, drawn with empathy and understanding by someone who must know the pain intimately. His stories erect a world of writers, artists, and musicians who have, for whatever reason, not made the grade, hanging out in a Washington that has not given them proper attention. And the places they inhabit — you’d recognize them only if you’d visited them yourself — make the fact that he sometimes seems content merely to name them frustrating until you realize that they too have earned the exalted significance of national landmarks because the places in his stories are stations of the cross for the up-against-it characters he knows and cares about with such tenderness.
If sainthood requires two miracles, then as publisher and editor Peabody certainly qualifies for one — the audiences were filled with candidates for authorship of his hagiography — but as writer, his knack for making us care about his people and their city in the shadows would ensure his nomination. It’s not that he casts an artificial glow—he’s tough, but the toughness is informed by knowledge of all the crap his down-and-outers have had to deal with. At Politics and Prose, he read all 35 letters in his story “Letters From the Editor,” drawing nods of recognition and rueful laughter time and again. Here is the last one, “Number 35,” in full: “Just the kind of story the New Yorker used to run in the pre-Tina Brown days. Back when they ran a couple of stories an issue. Reminds me of classic Ann Beatie. Give them a try.”
Another piece in the collection, “Confessions of a Literary Editor,” is an essay written in 1985 and, while its title might seem more staid than the other behind-the-scenes tell-alls it suggests, such as Confessions of a Mob Boss, Madam, or High-Priced Call Girl, the Literary Editor is still the kingmaker in a crowd that desperately wants to know his secrets. If it doesn’t quite conjure up the smoke-filled room where a hit is ordered, if it evokes a bit tamer atmosphere — say, tweed jackets and offices that smell of aging books — “Confessions of a Literary Editor” is nonetheless filled with harrowing realities for anyone whose muse insists on poetry or literary fiction:
“On average, Gargoyle takes one out of every two hundred and fifty stories we receive and one out of every thousand poems.”
So while the conversation around the conference table might be more tempered, the dreaded “hit” of the literary world —a rejection form letter—exists not only in the imagination, but in the experience of almost every writer. Readers of Mob Boss confessions cannot make such a claim. And yet, even here, Peabody stands apart. While he is tough, and in this essay eschews imitation most of all—“easily four thousand of the fictions received at Gargoyle were close imitations of Carver/Jayne Ann Phillips/Ann Beattie/William Kennedy/Bobbie Ann Mason/Stephen Dixon…”— he claims to read every submission “all the way through” and writes suggestions for rejected stories and poems: “I basically treat writers the way I wish other editors treated me when I send out my poems or stories.” What comes across is a scrupulous fairness and sense of decency, and perhaps even more surprising, already formed by 1985, a controlling aesthetic not only of writing, but of editing as well, and if such a term can be applied to commerce, even an ars poetica of publishing:
“…[T]here are aspects of this city that aren’t represented in popular novels and have little to do with government. My D.C. is writers, artists, and musicians, struggling to be heard. Living in cheap apartments (for here), hitting the fern bar happy hours for free food, hanging out at the 9:30 Club, d.c. space, or the WPA, attending art openings, free concerts, Redskins games, etc. One wishes more people were aware that there are Washingtonians here, be they Chinese, Salvadoran, or whatever, who are not living on Capitol Hill.”
Publishing, of course, is not poetry. Peabody understands this, if only from the miracles he has not been able to pull off. He shared that he has “a great book of short stories about D.C.” that includes one by William S. Burroughs that has never been made public, as well as an abortion anthology blocked by the Hemingway estate. But at least with his own work he has found a publisher equal to his passion. Alan Squire Publishing is an imprint of the Santa Fe Writer’s Project, founded by Andrew Gifford, who compares his urge to find and champion good writing to a version of what Alice Flaherty describes as “hypergraphia” in her book The Midnight Disease —the writer’s curse, the overwhelming urge to write that cannot be controlled.
The Richard Peabody Reader, coming in at over 400 pages of poetry, fiction and nonfiction from the last five decades, and divided into six parts, “Sex & Love,” “Pop & Culture,” “War & Peace,” “Home & Families,” “Reading & Writing,” and “Sugar Mountain,” his novella published in 2000, is still smaller than some issues of Gargoyle. Michael Dirda, in his introduction to the volume, writes of Peabody’s “storytelling power, the wit, the striking turns of phrase, and the sheer sexiness of Peabody’s fiction and poetry.” One of the pieces he excerpts in his introduction, as if to prove his case, is “The Other Man is Always French.” Here is the poem in full:
The Other Man is Always French
The other woman can be
a blonde or a redhead
but the other man
is always French.
He dresses better
than I ever will.
He can picnic
with a wineglass
in one upraised hand.
and tempt with
He hangs out
at Dupont Circle
because the trees
remind him of Paris.
Did I mention sex?
he’s had centuries
I’m an American.
What do I know?
He drives a fast car,
and can brood like
while I sit home
He’s tall and
chats about art—
I don’t even want
to discuss that accent.
He’s Mr. Attitude.
My fantasy is to call
the State Department
and have him deported.
Only he’ll probably
convince you to marry him
for a green card.
No way I’m going to win—
the other man is
always more aggressive,
always more attentive.
The other man
is just too French
From now on
I’m going out
with statuesque German women
so next time we run
into each other
they can kick his butt
If the history of the D.C. literary scene is ever to be fully described, any accounting will have to include at least a flavor of one of the last comments from the audience at Politics and Prose: “I want to express gratitude from all the writers in this room for lifting us up. You have lifted so many of us up.” And it will also have to include at least the flavor of Peabody’s reply, as he surveyed his flock, deflecting attention with an anecdote about the Redskins, unwilling or unable or perhaps not needing to state the obvious —that he is a writer who valued the work of those in the audience as much as his own.
As most hagiographies insist, the lives of their subjects shine in every moment and instance: “My dad owned a pet store near a place where the team used to hang out. Duke Zeibert owned [the restaurant]. I hung around with these guys. Sonny Jurgenson, if you’ve ever seen him play—throwing it 90 yards behind his back in practice—he really could do anything.” It was all there in a nutshell: Richard Peabody deflecting attention, talking up someone else’s greatness —in this case, a football player’s, a Washington talent before he became Washington landmark. And Richard Peabody was somehow making the scene, noticing, paying attention.
Present at the creation.
If Sandra Beasley is present at any creation, it is because she is overseeing the ending of one tradition and the beginning of another. In “Dover Beach,” Matthew Arnold, who defined a poetic tradition, famously asks his lover to listen (“Listen!”) to the English Channel’s waves and find in their “ebb and flow,” and later in their crashing, a metaphor for human history. Sandra Beasley’s wish to be “a voice that will be remembered” might just depend on how well she updates this tradition, begun, as Arnold tells his lover, when Sophocles was listening to the same waves on the Aegean. Beasley, who read from her latest book, Count the Waves, in June at Politics and Prose, suggested that her reason for the title was a mishearing of the penultimate, or 43rd, poem in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese (“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways”), an anecdote befitting one of this generation’s chroniclers of an unromantic view of love.
Beasley, a graduate of the selective Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, has scientific chops, and therefore qualifies as a poetic spokesperson for a generation for whom science and technology have become second nature. “I had my own key to my own helium neon laser,” she said by way of introducing her poem “The Psychology Lesson.” In it we find Phineas Gage’s skull and hypothalamus, a narcoleptic dachshund, and a psych teacher who flushes a toilet to explain “the refractory period of orgasm.” Her stated reason for the title—a mishearing of Browning’s line—therefore, only tells part of the story.
The fact that Beasley, who shakes “down the Garden of Eden for its seeds” in one poem, is not meditating, like Browning, on states of mind, but instead on physical objects, and moreover counting these objects, points the way. The counting suggests not a Matthew Arnold-like state of consciousness, but rather a scientific instrument — perhaps a tidal gauge installed along the shore recording the arrival and deportment of each crest as well as the wake left by its recess. In poems like “The Wake” and “Let Me Count the Waves,” this gauge’s read-out is, of course, translated into the poetic line. Beasley deploys her transmissions by slotting her lines into traditional forms, including six sestinas that include poems such as “The Emporer’s Valentine” and “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine.” That the 39-line form was invented in the 12th century and attributed to Artur Daniel and the troubadours who sang of courtly love, suggests that Beasley, while looking back, is also utilizing the sestina in order to update its traditional content. “The Sword Swallower’s Valentine” begins:
You had me at that martini. I saw
you thread the olive’s red pimento throat
with your plastic swizzle stick, a deft act
at once delicate and greedy. A man
who is paid to taste the blade knows his match.
The pleasure. The brine. I wish we had time,
I said— you stopped me —There’s always time.
Beasley, whose first book Theories of Falling, was partially dedicated to her vagabond loves (“you know who you are”) and whose “Modern Alice: Hot for Santa,” an update on an American institution, is as remarkable as much for its humanizing of a mall employee as its sizzling evocation of illicit human desire. She is providing a literary update on love for a culture where the meaning not only of love but of everything else is now self-conferred, and all values, once agreed-upon, are endowed with significance only by virtue of the fact that they are personal choices. Beasley seems to be asking what such a poetry of love —where there is no “higher” agreed-upon form that could guide poets from Artur Daniel to Elizabeth Barrett Browning — would look like. And her answer, beneath the surface cleverness of some of these poems is just this side of upsetting, because they are not just heartsick and melancholy, like other many love poems, but portraits of “love,” as it was once understood, that seem to dissolve and merge with death. In her “Valentine for the Grave Digger,” one sometimes gets the feeling that her tidal gauge has become an astronomic instrument, turned towards space, and attempting to lock onto radio waves surrounding a black hole:
…Tell her it’s not the oldest job, but close.
Fossor, from Latin’s fodere, the dark
art of structured loss. Or as she thinks, Holes.
Don’t rhapsodize the sod’s sigh, the liftoff,
the two-step of digging and herding dirt.
Ask her if she’s heard of the monster truck;
when in doubt, chicks dig a sweet monster truck.
Narrated by the grave as advice given from the grave, the poem touches on another aspect of the ancient theme that Beasley is updating for the nonromantic age, namely the bounding together of death and love. In art as well as in sex, Beasley seems to be deploying tales of artists like Whistler and Latrec in order to say that if we chase after what we know, we will never be able to find what we are looking for. The vagabondage invoked in her first book seems crucial as we trace her development as a poet. The tidal themes of Count the Waves suggest, inevitably, a source and beg a question as to the nature of the dark force she is transmitting through her poems, which in themselves can only offer a glimpse inside the engine that manufactures the energy she is trying to describe. Beasley, who has drawn comparisons to Plath, sometimes seems to be reversing the meaning of Browning’s opening sonnet by emphasizing its penultimate line: “Guess now who holds thee? ‘Death, I said’” and leaving out, or at least not insisting, on the last line about love.
In “The Wake,” Whistler’s daughter dies, and he sketches her nonetheless, and one wonders if this gauge, this poet’s instrument for her updates on the nature of romantic love must burn itself up on re-entry, and is in human terms a conduit that must consume itself in the creative process in order for the the poem to emerge. If her valentines seem to center on allocating all lovers the darkness they require to achieve consummation, one can only imagine the requirements of her muse.
Beasley simultaneously sloughs off poetic traditions while paying homage and updating these traditions with her Traveler’s Vade Mecum series as well. In Traveler’s Vade Mecum, a 19th century polymath named AC Baldwin set about to pare down the English language to its essentials, “Whereby a Vast Amount of Time, Labor, and Trouble is Saved.” His code, which offered 8,466 numbered phrases, anticipated the digital age where emojis are now in Baldwin’s business. In “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line 2485: “I Have Not Decided,” Beasley gives us both the mythological ancestors and their modern avatars, the ancient and the contemporary pressed side by side in an all-night diner as “Sisyphus lifts the spatula but the butter keeps dissolving / At the counter, Ixion spins the lazy Susan’s parade.” The Vade Mecum series updates myth but also history, moving from Amydos to the 2009 D.C. Red Line metro tragedy, ”If a metro car comes behind another/and mounts it, // that final squeal sounds / almost like / joy.”
And though Beasley, with her compressed poems, can no more condense the nature of things than AC Baldwin could with his code, she points to the inevitable in her own lovely, menacing, and updated way. “Line 2485: I Have Not Decided” ends with, “You’re always an hour away from where you said you’d be.” This seems to be Beasley’s way of pointing out that, like the riders on the Red Line train, we are always keeping appointments we have no intention of making, echoes themselves of that final appointment that is never made, but is always taken. She seems to suggest, in fact, in “The Emporer’s Valentine,” the first sestina in the book, that the only measure of “victory” is to be able to arrange this final appointment: “To determine one’s death is the small / victory of caged beasts; even the turtle / in a cat’s mouth can draw up, die alone.” This passage not only updates but also upends the familiar equation, and makes death the entryway to a lovers’ heaven.
In “Line 7671: It Is No Secret Here,” she writes:
…You want to kiss my mouth, but not
the teeth inside my mouth. You want
to hold my hand, but not the blood
within that hand. There is a truth
in you, but it won’t be the dirty truth
until it tumbles in the air between
The poem ends in the proverbial walk of shame:
…In this city, there is always
a long walk home in 7 a.m. light,
high heels stabbing the subway grates
A walk home past gutters littered
with the non sequitur of chicken bones,
wings that once dreamed of flight.
Her most explicit update of the poetic tradition of love comes in her last poem, “Inventory,” where she points out that “No one / ever praises the ass of the peacock.” And later: ”Preen all you want. What I praise of you / will be the bare undercarriage, / the calamus. I am done with beauty.” This, her last anti-valentine, brings us to the last line of the book: “I am done with beauty / Only a blinking eye can measure the light.”
Let Me Count the Waves comes from the poet whose first volume, Theories of Falling, began: “After years of research, I can only guarantee // that if you go over Niagara in a kayak, you will die…” And later in that same poem: “Not that we don’t have a knack for certain kinds of falling: / bringing a man home after five rounds of bourbon / because the snow piled up, and he has no coat…” Her next book, I Was the Jukebox, has poems narrated by mythological characters as well as elements of nature. “The Minatour Speaks” begins:
is to unwind the long thread
of your heart and, at the end, tie
The poem narrated by Osiris begins, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” and the book opens with a poem entitled “The Sand Speaks,” which commences, “I’m fluid and omnivorous, the casual/kiss. I’ll knock up your oysters.” And later in the same poem, “Let’s play Hide and Go Drown, Let’s play / Pearls for His Eyes.”
The Shakespeare reference, “pearls that were his eyes,” as well as poems narrated by mythological characters that once held great sway, suggests she’s already in the business of updating, and we can trace her update of the poetry of love from its initial intimations of her theme to full lyric mastery in her poem “Ukelele,” which seems itself an update on the Aeloean Harp, the instrument of the Greek God of the winds, or perhaps Orpheus’ lyre, given to him by Apollo, played to charm the divinities of the underworld, and her answer, perhaps, to Emerson’s call in “Merlin I” for an American version of that very harp. It seems the only instrument capable of combining Emerson’s call for chords that ring “free, peremptory, clear” and Beasley’s sharp-witted modern skepticism of any instrument that claims to reach into the unknowable driving power behind all phenomena of love. Her answer, having reckoned with the big three—Bacchus, Eros, and most of all, Ananke— is not the giant tortoise shell given to Apollo, who passed it on to Orpheus, but the ukelele, modest and therefore appropriate to her task of updating the poetry of romantic love for the 21st century.
The vessel is simple, a rowboat among yachts.
No one hides a Tommy gun in its case.
No bluesman runs over his uke in a whiskey rage.
The last of the Hawai’ian queens translated the name
gift that came here, while Portuguese historians translate
jumping flea, the way a player’s fingers pick and fly.
If you have a cigar box, it’ll do.
If you have fishing line,
it’ll sing. If there is to be one instrument of love —
not love vanished or imagined, but love — it’s this one.
Fit of melody in the crook in your arm, and strum.