Dan Beachy-Quick is the author of five books of poem, most recently Circle’s Apprentice (Tupelo Press, 2011). He also wrote a collection of inter-linked essays on Moby-Dick, A Whaler’s Dictionary. He teaches in the MFA Writing Program at Colorado State University.
The minute gears mutely whir. To put your ear
Against it is to put your ear inside it.
It does not tick. It isn’t a heart.
It has no pulse. It isn’t a clock or a wrist.
Scrutiny can coax no secret from it.
There is no hearse with one flat tire
In endless circuit, headlights dispersed
In fog like sunset behind a veil.
A paving stone extends a grave through iron
Gate to a door at home. To knock
Your hand against it puts your hand inside it,
As in a cloud at night the pale moon
Gathers itself outside itself its own light
And glows dimly behind the dust that outshines it.
It has no heat. It isn’t the sun.
It isn’t uncertain. It does not think
About the sun or the distant balls of dirt
And ice that circle closer to the star
With each circuit done. Comet tails
Darkly flowing back as the horse leaps
Forward, straining against the catafalque
All November, predict disaster as grammar
Predicts breath, the need to breathe, or the mind
Must rest. It is its own edgeless disaster.
It is there as if it were not there. Vague
Repetitions haunt the circumference.
To walk out the door is to place your foot
On a stone worn away by another’s foot.
Rumor has it that the sun sends heat in form
Of sight. Watch the ice as it melts
For proof: water pools, darkens on a stone,
Becomes as a shadow on a stone,
A horse’s hoof as it rises off a stone,
Except it rises forever, and the shadow is gone.
Such processes turn the minute gears.
It is not a note in the margin. The margin is
Covered with snow. When the winter fog
Disperses a black horse stands on ice
And cannot move. It is as if a breathless song
Hovered like a veil in the air. The black
Horse’s breath spirals upward like smoke.
Pyre-smoke like a thumbprint as a cloud.
Similes sing mutely in it, likening the unlike.
Mourners name the peace they find and walk
Away. To step into it is to find it missing.
The footprints are before you as you go.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I wrote this poem a number of years ago, four or even five. It started—as is somewhat typical with me—while I was reading another book, thinking about it, trying to understand it. I was reading Levinas at the time, and though I could not find the passage now, found in his work the image of the footprints being ahead of one as one walks. The paradox of the image both fascinated me and in some ways terrified me. It seemed to speak to the difficulty of poetry—both the reading and writing of it, that it alters, even reverses, our normal order of things. We’ve been already where we’re going. Past and future seem to flip their relationship, and in the poem we walk forward into the past.
The poem also feels to me a place whose actuality is never wholly actual, exists by not wholly existing. To read is to enter into such difficulties. This poem is in many ways a poem about the nature of a poem, a sort of meditation that tries to resist that language of similarity, and through similarity, image. It is a poem that tries to take itself apart, part by part, even as it constructs itself to do so.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
I don’t revise in any normal sense of the word—if there is a normal sense. I write line by line, day by day, often only two or three lines a day. I wait as patiently as I can to see how a next line might unfold inevitably from those previous—to let the poem in some sense dictate itself, and so escape from the easier limits of my own intentions. What revision occurs happens in these small ways, in the lines, a change of a word, often the smallest words, articles and such. The poem took a few months to write, as they tend to.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was "received" and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
Yes. Wholly. I might, though, question the discrepancy between that which is "received" and "sweat and tears." They aren’t in my experience mutually exclusive. Far from it. Inspiration is exactly where work begins.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I had no formal mode in mind. The poem, because in part of its thinking "mechanically," thinking in terms of gears, mimics that motion with its own peculiar spiraling, and a type of image very obviously pulled from the teeth or cog of another image previously established. But I also wanted to press as hard as I could on the artifice of simile, of showing the imperfection in laying claim to similarity, and to show that in all such claims there lurks the dissimilar, threatening the very construction that makes it able to be apprehended. I suppose I felt very interested in the faultiness of figurative language . . . to find somehow greater necessity in imperfection than in its opposite.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
I don’t recall. I don’t think all that long. It was first published in Zach Barocas’s wonderful online forum The Cultural Society. It’s only now appearing in a book, Circle’s Apprentice, published in May of 2011.
How long do you let a poem "sit" before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any set rules, nor even a philosophy. If someone is kind enough to ask me for a poem, I try to give them what I can. Mostly that means waiting. I try to know that a poem is done, of course. That, I think, is easier said than done.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
I suppose, with this poem in particular, it tries to open up any notion of fact and show in it certain inconsistencies. It is a poem that doubts certainty, that tries to show that arriving at certainty isn’t the best work a poem can do. But to undermine the fact in such a way isn’t to subscribe to fiction. It’s simply to suggest that the actuality of world and self cannot be defined by the facts that seem to make-up that existence. The fact is a form of certainty often reliant on forms of denial, and one of the things I love about poetry (or love about the poetry I love) is that it complicates the facts with the vagaries of experience and thought.
Is this a narrative poem?
I’d say yes. In many ways, I don’t see how a poem cannot be narrative. It adheres to some logic it discovers in itself, proceeds from one line to another, and that is a narrative, even if it ends up not being linear, or plotted, or significant of any of the ways we normally hear that word.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
Yes. As I mentioned above, the whole poem arose out of reading Levinas. But reading it again, and thinking about it, I think Keats is there, too.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
No. I find myself distrustful of imagining an audience. The only audience I know is the poem itself, and its relation to those writers who influenced it. That’s not an audience that receives the poem in any explicable, normal way. That anyone reads my poems at all still comes as a genuine surprise to me. A gift. But like any gift that is truly so, it’s not one I plan on.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
As I do with most poems, and I’m sure I did with this one, I show my wife, Kristy, and send it to my dear friends Sally Keith and Srikanth Reddy.
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
I’m not sure it does, save that it is a different poem. I think my newest work is at some remove from this poem, but for a number of years, this poem has been part of a large thinking connecting all the poems together. Maybe one facet of what I hope is a multi-faceted effort.
What is American about this poem?
Perhaps only that it has been written by me, who is American, and who takes Thoreau’s sense that an American writer must test another’s ideas against his own pulse. This poem is for me just such a test, to see if I can think for myself as another has thought.