Essay

Twice-Told Tales

Laurie Sheck and Dan Beachy-Quick re-write the classics.

by Tess Taylor

Oddly enough, Dan Beachy-Quick wants us to know that he, Dan Beachy-Quick—(or that whom we call Beachy-Quick, though of course call me Beachy-Quick doesn’t run off the tongue as well as call me Ishmael)—is a whaler. Just as Sheck uses the monster to enlarge her poetic terrain, Beachy-Quick is actually on a second voyage, retracing poem-scapes he has visited in his 2004 Spell, published by Ahsahta Press. One of its many sequences begins: “Scholar-on-waves, a water gazer, / Call me // Ishmael.” A book with poem titles such as “The Head of the Whale (An Epistemology, A Psychology, An Economy, A Flame, Tooth, Bone, A Theology of the Blind, A Murder, A Deaf Ear),” Spell circles the Leviathan, Ahab, and Ishmael. So Beachy-Quick’s Dictionary presents a new problem: Is it another poem? An enlargement of Melville? An expansion of Beachy-Quick?

Perhaps all of the above. Essayistic, inventive, and frequently brilliant, it certainly tells us a lot about how Beachy-Quick reads. As well as enlarging and surrounding Moby-Dick, it also surrounds some of the poems in Spell. While Sheck adds fictions to Shelley’s narrative, Beachy-Quick extends an undeveloped part of Melville’s book—a dictionary, supposedly Ishmael’s, about whales and whaling. He appropriates the space of the dictionary to his own readerly concerns—reading as Beachy-Quick posing as Ishmael.

In fact, in several places The Whaler’s Dictionary offers us ways not only of reading Moby-Dick but also of reading Beachy-Quick. (As I’m sure Beachy-Quick has long noted, the syllabics and use of hyphen there are more than a little similar.) For instance, in Spell, the poems to Moby-Dick, he writes

                                                         A board
On water is buoyant, I know: I cling to wood—
A dictionary buckles and drowns. I know

I do not drown: I’m abridged, afloat, call me—

In this poem, Beachy-Quick both predicts his own dictionary and retells the part of Moby-Dick where Ishmael hangs onto the remains of Queequeg’s coffin, which Queequeg had engraved with hieroglyphics. In Beachy-Quick’s later (abridged) dictionary, under an entry called “Coffin,” he writes: “Ishmael survives death by embracing a coffin. Inside the coffin is no body, but all knowledge,—‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.’ Ishmael doesn’t read what he embraces. He does not come to truth . . . .He puts his arms around that which he too does not understand.” As if needing something to buoy him up, Beachy-Quick wraps his own words around Melville’s.

Given Beachy-Quick’s own fascination with the slippery nature of truth, one can’t help but think that this kind of double reference is part of the point. Beachy-Quick figures language as voyage, and poem as craft. He likes to see the line of text bobbing on deep realms of nonunderstanding, and to point out that even as we see the figure, we can’t fully fathom the depths. We’re never certain who Ishmael is, and so too, Beachy-Quick is perplexed by what it means to talk in “his own” voice or to be a self that speaks in a poem or story. Beachy-Quick figures himself as scholar gone to sea, poet lost on seas of text. Alive to literary possibility, he takes on Ishmael’s preoccupations with definition, explanation, and classification. He then exploits and explodes them. Beachy-Quick has a remarkable knack for finding little infinities within the great white novel—for illuminating its smallest elements, just as a small piece of dried whale-skin “laid upon the printed page” (Melville’s words) exerts “a magnifying influence.”

The feeling of navigating between Melville’s book and the books that Beachy-Quick has written about him (one purporting to be poetry, the other purporting not to be) is exactly this. It feels like playing with magnifiers, cross-currents, cross-referents. Beachy-Quick has always been fond of forming and de-forming words, of soundplay earned through tightening the screws of sound. He’s less into the stresses of proper iambics than into placing language under stress. One chapter in Spell called “The Anvil, a” is followed in short suit by: “Then, Avail.” Ahem: Avast, ahoy.

As Beachy-Quick repuzzles Melville’s own hunt for order—fathoming its scales of valuable and valueless, its extracting and extracted bodies—he too pursues the whale into the globe’s outer reaches. Interestingly, both Frankenstein’s monster and Ahab’s great white whale pass the liminal space of the then-unmapped Arctic. (Even now, in 2009, we are celebrating only the centennial of any explorer ever reaching the North Pole.) While the monster ends at the Pole, the whaler ends in the equator. The whale emerges at the dateline, and the narrative of hunting and hunted hovers quite literally in a no-man’s-land where rules of landed time, and perhaps of landed literature, don’t seem any longer to apply.

As Daniel Tiffany notes on the jacket for A Whaler's Dictionary, Beachy-Quick is wounded by a book, harpooned by it, as if as well as being the whaler, he is also the whale. But his books also serve to anchor the book, in both word and world. He accounts, with his dictionary-esque philosophical sequel, for the unhinging, dramatically liberating experience of reading—one that pressed him to hunt in his mind’s farthest reaches.

Through her monster, Sheck also offers a dramatic account of literary pursuit. Perhaps the biggest pleasure in either book is the referral and reference, the fact of being sent hungrily off into Shelley’s or Melville’s thick linguistic universe. I think the height of my summer was reading Moby-Dick again, deeply entering that readerly place, which, despite Sheck’s or Beachy-Quick’s (or anyone’s) companionable commentaries, still felt deliciously solitary, and rewarded me with thinking that felt entirely my own.

One wants, in a way, to push Dryden’s notion of imitatio further, to explore the crevices in it, as well. It’s not merely, as Harold Bloom famously argued, that our bookish predecessors cause us literary anxiety. Good writing is also generative. It makes other writing possible; in its presence, our minds are more alert and alive to the possibilities of making and figures of thought. Good writing is enabling—its very shapes create new territories of desire for those who trace after it.

And this is a spatial blessing that literature alone bestows. Both companion books respond to something we feel instinctively as keepers of books—that unlike the globe, writing can be newly conquered. As for the questions about the dangers of conquest that each 19th-century novel poses, they are as alive and fresh to us now as they ever were, perhaps more so. My dictionary or account of Moby-Dick might have to do with its shifting internal exoticisms, its plays about race and racialism; my poem about Frankenstein might also take place in a hovel, not unlike the cottage where I am writing this essay about being a reader. As for the sequels, I loved the premise of each, the passionate intimacy that both books afforded their predecessors. They made me want to make my own.

Originally Published: September 30, 2009
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COMMENTS (2)

On October 8, 2009 at 4:19pm Allison wrote:

and your essay makes me want to make my own too. Thank you.

On October 16, 2009 at 12:21am Evan Gottlieb wrote:
Laurie Sheck has in fact published five (wonderful!) books of poetry, not four as the reviewer claims. They are: _Amaranth_ (1981), _Io at Night_ (1990), _The Willow Grove_ (1996), _Black Series_ (2002), and _Captivity_ (2007).

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 Tess  Taylor

Biography

Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, the Boston Review, the Harvard Review, Literary Imagination, the Times Literary Supplement, . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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