Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo by David Beach.
Wellington: VUP (2015).
Reviewed by Erik Kennedy.
Jerusalem Sonnets, Love, Wellington Zoo is David Beach’s fourth collection of sonnets-that-aren’t-really-sonnets-but-we-like-them-anyway. Well, I like them anyway. Beach’s work has its critics, notably Robert McLean, who in Landfall Review Online bemoans the “convoluted committee-room syntax” of these “conveyer-belt 14-liners” that don’t rhyme or scan.
These are interesting times for sonnets. When I think of books from the last several years, I realise that practitioners seem to be split pretty evenly between those who write formally constrained, recognisably traditional sonnets – take Don Paterson and K. Silem Mohammad (whose magnificent, zany “sonnagrams” are exact anagrams of each of Shakespeare’s sonnets) – and those who don’t—Sandra Simonds, Dara Wier, Caroline Crew (whose Plastic Sonnets radically transform Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese). In other words, the consensus is that we’re done with consensuses. If Beach wants to force un-sonnet-like language into sonnet form, like a machine extruding dough into uniformly shaped pastas, then that appears to be his right as a citizen of the present.
The fact is that Beach’s material is largely independent of form for its effects. The jacket copy for this book calls his approach “unsoulful”. A less honest publisher might have described it as “philosophical”, but this would be untrue. He is matter-of-fact rather than ambitious to transcend facts. He is closer to banal than droll, if seeing things as they actually are is banal.
The heart of this new book is the fifty-poem sequence “Wellington Zoo” (there are only eight other poems), and these sonnets all draw on close observations made during God knows how many visits paid to the capital’s menagerie. A good, ordinary example is “Wellington Zoo 16”:
The sun bears had been rescued from the
tiny cages of the bile collectors. They
now enjoyed quite a spacious enclosure,
but which was steep – and one bear’s present
progress backwards down steps set into a
cement face made it seem especially so;
the arse-wagging descent certainly
exuberant enough, a showcase for
how zoos can give their inmates the chance to
reinterpret ‘wild’; if here the cliff jig
performed with such reckless gusto as to
look at some risk of ending with the bear,
once again, this time due to smashed bones,
finding its movement severely restricted.
Obviously, Beach’s vices are easy to spot here: the arbitrary, flaccid line endings (the, a, for, to, to), the romance with the semicolon, the gotta-read-it-twice syntax. But his typical virtues are equally plain. The scene is drawn vividly and unmistakably. (Be honest with yourself: is this common in poetry?) An action (‘arse-wagging’, for example) is described and coloured slightly (it is ‘exuberant’) but credibly; Beach does not get carried away. Finally, a comparison is drawn: being unable to move because you’re in traction might be similar to being unable to move because you’re in a cage. This isn’t even a metaphor. It’s an analogy.
This is how Beach’s mind works. A typical Beach sonnet proceeds toward a point of connection in a way which suggests that nothing startling has been discovered, but that a hypothesis has been proved. If, as Les Murray says, “an idea is the worst thing to start building a poem from,” Beach is in serious trouble. But writing a long sequence on any subject is going to involve writing from ideas. In his previous book, Scenery and Agriculture, Beach devoted forty-six sonnets to “Agriculture”. “Wellington Zoo” is superior to that diffuse sequence in every way for two reasons: 1) I think he understands zoos much better than farming, 2) “Wellington Zoo” is informed by a couple of basic thoughts extracted from first-hand study, namely that liberty is a pan-species value and that confinement shapes behaviour in unpredictable ways.
Occasionally Beach takes an ecopoetical turn toward the surreal in order to make a strong point about the zoo’s enforced hierarchy of haves (visitors) and have-nots (animals). Thus a poem like “Wellington Zoo 40”:
Watching the giraffes at feeding time was
an anti-climactic business. They strode
towerfully across to the platform – its
twenty kids looking like an attempt to
appease them, and monsters’ in-your-ear
tongues to portend, via an ability
to unhinge their jaws, the snapping up of
children, gulping down of them, bulges
descending those colossal necks – and when,
after helping themselves to some of the
sprigs the youngsters held out, that followed
by lurching off for a stroll, they swung back
to the platform, it appeared only that
now the real meal was about to begin.
But this suggestion of menace – this is not the only poem about animals eating children – is really a thought experiment, the joke at the end of the presentation. The status quo of the zoo may be a bit sad, but there is no talk of changing it. No action, only looking and describing; no politics, only poetics. And, surprisingly, Beach never draws a connection between keeping animals in zoos and human incarceration, which is often as senseless. But he’s observing, not speculating, and he appears to be happy with his method. To quote a Wordsworth sonnet: ‘In truth the prison unto which we doom / Ourselves no prison is.’
Erik Kennedy’s poems and reviews have appeared in The Curator, The Morning Star, Oxford Poetry, Poems in Which, The Rumpus, and Sabotage Reviews. He blogs about poetry and poetics for Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He studied English at Rutgers and Princeton. He lives in Christchurch. Erik is Honorary Treasurer for takahē.