Erin Belieu (photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu
(photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu is one of the poets of my generation whose work I turn to most.

Ever since her first collection, Infanta, came out in 1995, Belieu consistently impresses me with her witty, philosophical, and deceptively conversational poems that are actually the result of rigorous revision.

“I’m very much a sculptor with my poems,” Belieu said in an interview. “It’s getting it on the page where the ditch digging begins.” That may be one aspect of her work that attracts me – although it flows on the page as naturally as a phone conversation, I know it’s the result of much effort.

Another aspect is her clarity of language – she has an “aversion to artifice” and “can’t abide pretension,” as two critics have said of her work. Her humor and pathos and contrariness keep bringing me back to the poems, where I also find moments of real vulnerability.

“You’d hope we’re something/ more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined/ by random gristle,” she writes in “The Body is a Big Sagacity.” Nietzsche’s phrase, from the “Despisers of the Body” section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, reads “The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”

Yet, while Nietzsche espouses a vision where there is no difference between the physical and psychological ability of the body, where a human being’s purpose is to surpass itself, Belieu’s “little man, with itty hands” requires a giant, superhuman truck to surpass the abilities or limitations of his own body.

In a poet of lesser gifts, Belieu’s wry observations may seem mean-spirited; and then she counts herself among the challenged, claiming her own body “once was whole, symmetrical, was/ actually beautiful for three consecutive years,” to reveal where her sympathies lie.

Belieu once said she was “under no illusion that the world can’t sleep without the next Erin Belieu poem.” There are many among us who beg to disagree. Here is Erin Belieu’s poem, “The Body is a Big Sagacity”:

 

The Body Is a Big Sagacity

 

is another thing Nietzsche said

that hits me as pretty specious,

while sitting in my car in the Costco

parking lot, listening to the Ballet

mécanique of metal buggies shrieking,

as each super, singular, and self-contained

wisdom of this Monday morning rumbles

its jumbo packs of toilet paper and Diet Coke

up the sidewalk. So count me a Despiser

of the Body, though I didn’t generate this

woe any more than the little man parked

next to me, now attempting the descent from

his giant truck, behemoth whose Hemi roars

like a melting reactor and stands

as the ego’s corrective to the base methods

by which the body lets the spirit down.

 

Buzz-clipped, tidy as an otter, he’s high and

tight in his riding heels. Pearl snaps on

the little man’s shirt throw tiny lasers

when he passes. But who isn’t more war

than peace? And how ridiculous to suffer

this: to be a little man, with itty hands

and bitty feet, to know yourself lethal, but

Krazy Glued for life to the most laughable

engine. Recycled, rewired, product of

genes and whatever our mamas thought

to smoke: the spirit gets no vote, Fred.

 

My body once was whole, symmetrical, was

actually beautiful for three consecutive years,

expensive as a rented palace, and yet I blew

that measly era watching my clock hands move,

as if I were the trigger rigged to homemade

dynamite. But if you would look inside me,

into all the lonely seeming folks here loading

their heavy bags, you’d hope we’re something

more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined

by random gristle. Which is why the little man

pauses on the sidewalk, why he stops to look at

me looking at him: this pocket-size person,

whose gaze unkinks a low, hairy voltage from

my coccyx. And thus speaks Zarathustra,

You Great Star,

what would Your happiness be

had You not those for whom

You shine?

Ask the little man, neither ghost nor plant,

his bootheels ringing down the concrete.

 

 

–Erin Belieu

from Slant Six (Copper Canyon Press)

Copyright © 2015 by Erin Belieu

All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.

 

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