Sandra Beasley is another new poet for me. I mentioned to a colleague I was looking for new names for this project, and Beasley was among the folks he recommended whose work moved me right away. That wasn't the case for every suggestion; it's easy to forget how subjective poetry can be. Those of us who are ride-or-die Elizabeth Bishop fans may have vastly different opinions about Jean Toomer, for example. I think this is a beautiful thing, overall – but when we're dealing with living poets, people with whom we may be actively associated, the argument stops being abstract, and can start being very personal. I hope I'll never stop soliciting recommendations, but they can make me a little nervous.
My colleague and I do agree in this case, though, and I'm grateful Beasley is finally on my radar. This poem in particular moves me because it's so ornate. The poet is musically deft: her manipulation of assonance, consonance, rhyme and meter are staggering. It's not often that a poet can be sonically baroque in a way that lends pleasure without distracting from the narrative, but Beasley refuses to compromise either lyric or story. This is a poem that begs to be read aloud, and read again and again to savor every little joke, jab, and revelation. Sandra Beasley had me at this valentine, and I hope you feel the same way.
The poem below was previously published in Tin House.
The Sword Swallower’s Valentine
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
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.
That’s when they called me to the stage. I saw
your mouth’s angle change as you made a match
of my name and Noted Gullet! Steel Throat!
Ramo Swami, the Sword-Swallowing Man.
I want to assure you it’s just an act,
but since age seven it’s the only act
I know. My mother recalls that first time
she caught my butter-knife trick: a real man
might not cry, but the real boy wept. She saw
my resolve to build a tunnel from throat
to feet. A dark that deep could go unmatched,
she warned. Your smile is the strike of a match,
the hope of an inner spelunking act.
Facing the crowd, the sight of your pale throat
tightens mine at the worst possible time--
that fickle tic of desire. Yeah, I saw
his last show, you’ll say. Lost focus, poor man.
Funny how women make and break their men,
how martinis both break and make a match.
The best magician will hang up his saw,
release his doves, if the right woman acts
to un-straightjacket his body in time.
If lips meet, the hint of gin in your throat
will mingle with camellia in my throat,
same oil used by any samurai man.
I trained against touch once upon a time,
not knowing a rigid pharynx would match
a rigid heart. I’m ready to react,
to bleed. As any alchemist can see,
to fill a throat with raw steel is no match
for love. Don’t clap for these inhuman acts.
Cut me in two. Time, time: the oldest saw.
Sandra Beasley won the Barnard Women Poets Prize for I Was the Jukebox, selected by Joy Harjo. Her first collection, Theories of Falling, won the New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, AGNI, Tin House, and Virginia Quarterly Review and was chosen for The Best American Poetry 2010. Beasley served as the 2013 Writer in Residence at Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C. Other honors include the 2013 Center for Book Arts Chapbook Prize, a University of Mississippi Summer Poet in Residence position, a DCCAH Individual Artist Fellowship, the Friends of Literature Prize from the Poetry Foundation, and the Maureen Egen Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. She has received fellowships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Millay Colony, VCCA, and Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction has been featured in The New York Times, Washington Post Magazine, and The Oxford American. In 2011 Crown published Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales From an Allergic Life, her memoir and a cultural history of food allergies. She lives in Washington, D.C.