selected by Charles Wright for the 1996 Colorado Prize in Poetry
In Summer Mystagogia, his third book of poems, Bruce Beasley follows the spiritual trajectory of his first two books. “Mystagogia” is a theological term referring to the period following initiation into a mystical state of awareness, and in the poems ofSummer Mystagogia Beasley enacts a spiritual quest to trace the mystery amid the fecundity and beauty of the world in which we find ourselves and the painful losses and death that are the terms of that world. The volume’s obsessions are fecundity and death–“the given world mixes/beauty and mutilation”–as Beasley explores miscarriage, alcoholism, infertility, suicide, meditating on the role of grace and divinity in a world where “we become/what all our losses make us.” At the center of the book is a series of radical retellings of traditional myths and stories: Persephone, Hansel and Gretel, Adam and Eve, and, in “A Mythic History of Alcoholism,” a quick-cutting intermixture of personal experience of growing up in an alcoholic family with stories from the Bible, Greek and Egyptian mythology, fairy tales, and nursery rhymes. Summer Mystagogia works toward a quasi-mystical acceptance of the world of beauty and loss: toward finding immutable beauty amid the mutable things of the creation, and tracking “the fugitive/ripeness of whatever is.”
Bruce Beasley, in his wonderful third book of poems, Summer Mystagogia, puts-up big time. In a sly and forceful combination of Georgia drawl and the mythic language of the world, he builds a voice and a way of seeing that is truly his own and that we recognize as ours to boot. Like the work of our common mother, Emily Dickinson, these poems have her tensions and dialectic of opposing desires, wanting and rejecting at the same time, a longing for longing and its simultaneous acceptance and refusal, heaven and no heaven. There are moving narratives of childhood as well, family functions and dysfunctions, everything emotionally resonant and linguistically crystallized under the white light of memory and desire, the little spiritual and familial Armageddons all our lives live through and eventually harbor in. “A life,” as he puts it, “so lured into words.” It is irresistible, as it turns out, this life, on both sides of the page, his and ours. A beautiful blend of lyric and narrative, of story and storyline, this book puts Beasley in the heart of the heart of his generation of poets.
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Bruce Beasley is not quite like anyone else, and his progress has been dazzling to follow, one of the most satisfying growths into a major poetic presence (as yet virtually unrecognized) I have witnessed. This, his third collection, is his best to date, and its ability to transubstantiate pain and loss into spiritual wonder is not to be missed.
As epigraph to the title poem, Beasley defines mystagogia as “the period immediately following the initiation into a mystery.” Indeed these brilliant poems, often both mythic and demotic, powerfully initiate the reader into a world at once marred and yet suffused by the signs and wonders of an “irresistible grace”–a grace recognized through the difficult acceptance of “what all our losses make us.” Winner of the Colorado Prize with this, his third, collection, Beasley’s religious obsession with a childhood shattered by his parents’ alcoholism, with the world’s mix “of beauty and mutilation,” and with the Orphic act of naming, now flowers into a wonderfully resilient and hard-won poetry of witness. “Somewhere someone is trying to tell you / something that language can’t house,” he observes in “The Monologue of the Signified.” His desire to represent “the decreated” creates a poetry that is both emotionally present and intellectually supple.