“Preservation,” the first poem of Craig Beaven’s debut collection, is set in Texas on the eve of a hurricane, the storm “still 12 hours away, still // hot and sunny / in our part of the sky.” The narrator and neighbors “photograph our houses / for insurance.” This is part of the preparation. First, plants are stashed inside. Lawn furniture is tied to a tree. Then, the photos must be taken with care and a clever touch: “you have to imagine // what will be destroyed, and how. / You shoot your car // in the driveway, the tree / over your car.”
The poem introduces one of the book’s central metaphors: what does it mean to preserve our world, our memories, ourselves? “Natural History” applies the concept of preservation to everything from museum curation to the biology of our lives: fertility, surrogacy, and parenting. What of ourselves do we hope to leave behind?
Some poems in the book are narrative driven and plain-spoken in diction — appropriate to their conversational tone — while others, like “Ghazal,” show Beaven’s ability to control sound and syntax: “In the smelting plant, iron dust swirls the air / like flies, pointillism of a thousand dancing figures.”
In a poem about being heckled while running down a road, he shifts to a natural description that is both precise and inventive: “Although at dusk / the bats swim so close / I hear the ticking of their jaws, / I don’t fear them, my body echoes back / too large to be food. / Erratic swirl, black on black, / they scream and listen. There is nothing / that can’t be taken away.”
In “Rose Garden Pagoda,” a look at a rose and its “labyrinth, its turning” sets the narrator down the course of varied descriptions, including “why cathedrals / were invented—the tall windows / let the light in / and the light moves / as the church turns on the turning earth.”
Several poems in the collection are titled “We Are Happy,” a phrase that evolves from a hopeful refrain in the face of life’s struggles to a note of gratitude. The first poem of the series is a long narrative about the anxiety of attempted pregnancy: when hopes meet biological realities.
Other poems continue this narrative arc, like “In the Museum of Personal History,” a piece that returns to the duality and flexibility of the collection’s central metaphor of preservation. The narrator feels like there are two museums in his life. In one, “I walk among crucifixions, pietas, adoration / of the magi.” In the other museum, “every object in the collection” is “photographed to a hard drive, shot / front and back, close-up / of signature, detail of any cracks / or visible brushstrokes.” In ways both emotional and stylistic, the two museums blend. “Hold still, Jesus,” the narrator says. “No photographs / of Calvary, we have to invent / the weather that day, which was gold leaf, invent / his body—skeletal, nimbus—decide / how the nails went in. Grass emerald // and spikey. Hills receding to distance—will the blood / run or gush?”
“Stargazer’s Field,” a poem later in the collection, feels like it concludes these thematic developments. Days before the narrator’s child was born, he hikes a mountain, and thinks “of the distance between you and I / and how I would bridge that distance.” At the top of the mountain, where “they raised sheep and rams,” there is a “thin line of wire / between them.” The narrator looks at that border, and thinks about his child “safe in your dark water, and thought of you / in ten years,” when they will walk together and “look out / into the valley.” Natural History is a book full of the struggle of living, of hopes dashed and dreams changed, and this poem is a touching and well-earned conclusion.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
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