Circle's Apprentice
Circle's Apprentice
Dan Beachy-Quick
Tupelo Press, 2011
From Patience to Memento: Dan Beachy-Quick's A Circle's Apprentice
Jenny Gropp Hess

Unsurprisingly, upon first perusing Dan Beachy-Quick’s Circle’s Apprentice, one discovers an epigraph from Emerson’s “Circles”: “Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” But Beachy-Quick does not stop there, adding a second epigraph from Holderlin’s “The Course of Life” which generally describes the condition of this apprenticeship: “Everything’s a test, say the gods.” The rest of the poem is as follows:

The Course of Life (Lebenslauf)

You too wanted more, but love
     Forces all of us under.
         Pain’s necessary curve
             Returns us to our beginnings.

Whether up or down, in the holiness of night,
     Speechless nature determines all the days to come;
         Yet in the labyrinths of death
             You can find a straight path.

I know this—not once, like mortal instructors
     Did you heavenly, all-knowing gods
         Have the foresight to lead me
             Along a level path.

Everything’s a test, say the gods.
     Having found his strength, a man gives thanks
         For everything he knows, and, knowing
             His freedom, goes where he wants to go.

The poet’s apprenticeship is revealed as a permanent vocation; the tests never end, yet he must accept this freedom as the source of his strength. It is thus that pain is the apprentice’s exclusive sensation: in the instance of wanting more, the seeker reaches the physical threshold, the perceptive limit—love—and it pushes him, without individuality or agency, around “Pain’s necessary curve” which “Returns us to our beginnings.” And thus Circle’s Apprentice opens with the short poem “Lullaby” (quoted here in full):

            Quick goes the starling,
                        quick goes the thrush,
            little child, little ghost,
            the world singing patience
                        speaks rust.  


The apprentice must have patience with the painful transition from childhood to adulthood, and from person to ghost—it is his first inherently intimate circle. In the quick movement of the starling and then the thrush, Beachy-Quick acknowledges the child’s circular existence—one songbird following another in disappearing succession, so similar and yet so different, kin to imagining a body’s transition to its future ghost. And only a comma separates the child from its ghost: this is not a poem of time frozen; it is a poem of time passing. So when the poet anthropomorphizes the world as “singing patience / speak[ing] rust,” I am reminded, gently, of Simone Weil’s definition of force: “it is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing. Exercised to the limit, it turns a man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him.” But Beachy-Quick lets the “thing” sing beyond the corpse: his pathetic fallacy allows him to see a mirror of himself in the world while simultaneously acknowledging that force, as the central quality that moves the circle forward, will take him—turn him—into the mirror as a “ghost,” a “rust,” a lyric leftover. In the world he detects a song, an emotion (“patience”), and he sees that the song becomes visible in the image of time passing (“rust”).

The poet continues to compose from a transitional state, recalling Melville in the next poem, also titled “Lullaby”: the opening line, “Little whale, little ghost” eventually begets “No boat but a coffin, / and horizon for a coast.” As Emerson says, “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary picture is repeated without end.” Yet what of Beachy-Quick’s chosen spot in nature? He alludes to the scene in Moby Dick when the carpenter converts Queequeg’s coffin into a life buoy; the common symbol of a life’s end thus becomes the unique symbol of a life saved. And thus a body lives on, saved inside a redefined coffin on the transitional space of the sea; this is a painful beginning, this abandonment of a seeing body on a space “blank as ocean.” The visionary self, always in the act of passing away, never comes ashore, yet the abandonment is redemptive: the poet’s momentum is in speaking his constant perception, in realizing that perception often feels like mirage.

Beachy-Quick continues to confront and expand Emerson’s natural world in poems like “Catalog,” which documents linguistic states of oscillatory being (“Coriolis effect, circadian rhythm, other myths—”) and the expansion of the scientific world (“missile trajectories, fission, / Particle collider”), stacking them together “In the mind” to create “reason’s castle, reason’s drawbridge”—the world becomes a mythical reality where an “idea wears a war-mask” and “terror dous[es] terror with fuel.” The human race’s Stevensian rage for order, its inimical circling, leads the poet to be constantly threatened by his own ideas, which in turn leads him to reject Emerson’s concept of the transparent eyeball:

            Where, when, Peace, will you, Peace? There is
            Between the eyes a nest, a failure, a distance—
            Put your eyes in the nest. Brood on vision
            To see what will hatch. There is a question—
            While the satellite carries voices across Orion’s
            Chest—written on a turtle’s back.
            It is a question we forgot to ask. It glows
            As if written in flame. Follow it in the dark.
            Walk slowly. Call it Mother. Call it Father.
            Call it God or Child or Hero. There is a
            Question ringing in the voice, a bell
            In the throat clanging. How follow, it asks,
            How follow, through the night, the whole
            World’s night, follow those words: Patience, Memento.

Unlike Emerson’s meditative assumption of the position of “transparent eyeball” in “Nature,” in which he “stand[s] on the bare ground” and is “uplifted into infinite space,” saying “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me—I am part or particle of God”, Beachy-Quick’s meditation is on our inherent failure and distance from the world. The Emersonian state of seeing, in which the question of existence moves from the back of the turtle to the ring of the voice, is stopped up by man-made objects, like the false celestial body of the satellite, which carries its own indeterminate voices. But Beachy-Quick’s trial of perception is a generative one; we should recognize it, the naming of the question, as the family or savior or creator (“Call it Mother. Call it Father. / Call it God or Child or Hero.”) that we should have faith in: here, the imperative to follow Patience begets something emotionally bolder than rust, a Memento. The poet’s agency is called to walk beside the act of following—the memento asks to be filled, kept, remembered; it is active, leading him further into the dynamic space of lyric naming.

This respectful imperative is carried out lyrically in poems like “Hypothesis/Hymn,” in which Beachy-Quick enacts Gertrude Stein’s incantation “a rose is a rose is a rose”:


            What we need: rose, sun, the sun that rose,
                        the sun that rises, the rose that rises
            and unfolds its budded sleep in light (O

            Rose that is an eye) we do not know it.
                        To imagine the world is to touch
            the world with itself: rose, rose, and other

            faulty claims: I wrote this poem today
                        I’m writing over many days this poem
            (how many I’ve forgotten) days


The lyric offers memory and time their lives inside Stein’s words as metaphors grow out of homophonic song, the hymn that pays homage to her vision by demonstrating its possibilities. Its certainties and uncertainties are equal, extensive, and possible: truly circular. These songs are Beachy-Quick’s eyeball—this is his patience, his ability to turn the memento—in this case, the rose—around and around itself, giving it Stein’s intended dynamism in his own voice. In this way rust, and the ghost, speak. This is the force of Beachy-Quick’s apprenticeship to language and to the poets who came before him.

In “Fragile Elegy,” Beachy-Quick filters his poetic vision through Ezra Pound’s imprisonment in Pisa, where he began to compose the Pisan Cantos in an infirmary tent after spending 25 days in a six-by-six foot steel cage:

                                                             […] I think
                        of him who in prison sang a scent
                        of leaf in his hand to remember
                        who saw through the smoke-hole
                        Sirius in the infirmary tent who
                        might do best to acquire forgetting
                        to add silence in who cannot
                        remove beauty from brute time
                        fringes beauty with harm and he
                        saw on three wires the sparrows sit—
                        the sparrows who in the searchlights nest—
                        and composed the canto to varying
                        perches and so composed his song
                        and so a wire now in my eye hums
                        the image in blue wires and inter
                        lines the words on the blank

Where Pound’s physical eye once rested, so Beachy-Quick’s figurative one now rests, yet Beachy-Quick documents the pain of Pound’s compositional moment, making it part of his own, carrying it forward. In this way Beachy-Quick joins Pound’s circle and lets it expand in his own eye; through the filter of Pound’s moment emerges a richly redefined “blank” compositional space from which a more informed language will emerge. Surely Pound, who says in Canto 83, “The eyes, this time my world, / But pass and look from mine / between my lids / sea, sky, and pool / alternate / pool, sky, sea, // morning moon against sunrise”, would respect this circular establishment of lineage.

In Circle’s Apprentice, because body and lyric are fused together in apprenticeship, we can understand why we never feel the kind of spatial isolation we see in poems like Mark Strand’s “Keeping Things Whole” (“In a field / I am the absence /of field. / This is / always the case. / Wherever I am / I am what is missing.”). Rather, we encounter a poet who, in one of several poems entitled “Tomb Figurine,” rolls the body, wholly, from loaded blank to loaded blank:

            The field was blank. Then the body lay down.
            The body lay down on the grain.
            When the body grew blank the grain grew blossomed.

                                                     […]The body
            Bears a weight. The weight is blank.
            Trees and mountains echo in the field.
            The sky is cloudless. The echo is in the eye.

The echo in the eye, Beachy-Quick knows, is inseparable from his language; in the final poem in the “Tomb Figurine” series, which is also the last poem in the book, Beachy-Quick writes, “In this language “I” meant “here,” it did not mean “me,” / It meant a location in which this body I am / was not an expression of love but a word of / Presence.” The eye and the I are fused in their turning: “These roads end at the horizon where I also end, / Present in this world as the alphabet is present / In this poem.” And then, at the road’s end—the end of this book—we reach the concern to come, that of impossible construction:

            *I. *I. Sometimes *I like to stutter.
            *I like to think the sky is blue. *I see sometimes it’s red.
            More soon on the nature of impossible constructions.
            The man in the moon. The sea-rose. The living-room.

The asterisks recall “Anniversary,” where Beachy-Quick writes: “To speak, the amethyst nothing / Hidden inside the trinket shop’s stone, / Dark eyes dark asterisks where light / footnotes a margin left blank.” The blank is always beside the I, where the eye may seek it, at the intersection of language and the circular possibilities of thought. Through to the end, Circle’s Apprentice holds to its respect of the circular blanks the apprenticing poet inherits: handfuls of poems run on variants of “blank” titles (some previously mentioned) such as “Lullaby,” “Poem,” and “Tomb Figurine.” One must come to the book ready to read into these reiterative, evolving gazes, the apprentice’s paths along Emersonian circles, to fully appreciate Beachy-Quick’s project.

Jenny Gropp Hess

Jenny Gropp Hess' writing appears in or is forthcoming from Seneca Review, Colorado Review, American Letters & Commentary, DIAGRAM, and Typo, among others. She is a past winner of the Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art poetry contest and the Unsaid Magazine Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Award for Fiction in the Face of Adversity.