NEIL LEADBEATER Reviews
Beauport by Kate Colby
(Litmus Press, Brooklyn, NY, 2010)
History and our perception of it is at the heart of this collection and Kate Colby approaches it from some interesting angles. At one point she writes a letter to the 19th century and at another she sends an aerogram to eternity.
Kate Colby is an American poet. She grew up in Massachusetts. She graduated from Wesleyan University and holds an MFA from the California College of the Arts. She now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a copywriter and teacher. In addition to Beauport she is the author of four other collections of poetry including Fruitlands (2006) which won the Norma Farber First Book Award in 2007.
Beauport is set in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Historically, it is centered around the figure of Henry Davis Sleeper (1878-1934), a well-known American antiquarian and decorator who built his home and the repository for his collections of Early-American antiques there. He called the house “Beauport” after Champlain’s 1606 designation for the harbor. He began building it in1907 and expanded it continuously until his death. During his lifetime he befriended and moved among some prominent local figures. Today, Beauport is known as the Sleeper-McCann House and is now as a museum.
Unusually, there is no table of contents. Instead, the reader is led straight into an untitled piece of prose headed up by a silcrow – a typographical character used mainly to refer to a particular section of a document. This “double S” or sectional symbol is frequently employed to head up prose pieces in the book which are otherwise untitled. These are interspersed with titled poems followed by specific dates, e.g. Liberty Enlightening the World (1885) or titled poems with no dates at all, e.g. Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (n.d.). By assigning dates to the titles of some of her poems, Colby attempts to place them in their chronological context, to pin them down, even if the detail of what actually took place is open to interpretation. According to the note on the back of the book by the poet Julian T Brolaski, the titled pieces are attributed to “Currier & Ives lithographs of the Victorian era leisure class.”
Looking at history through a frame, as if looking at a painting, Colby makes a reference to the compositional rule of thirds and applies this to some extent to her writing. The oblique angles from which she focuses on her subjects do not necessarily center on the subjects themselves, nor on the line of horizon but on something much more intangible. It is this elusive quality that gives these poems their strength.
Just as a memory can sometimes spark off another memory, Colby uses certain phrases from previous poems to spark off new ones. These are often opening phrases, e.g.
It is the sort of day in June … (page 9) > It is the sort of hot, heavy day in late July… (page 17) > On a thick September afternoon… (page 54) > It is the sort of gray day in late November…(page 68).
The chronology is not straightforward. Given that Sleeper was born in 1878, it may come as some surprise that all of the poems that have dates assigned to them fall before that date except the last one which is dated 1878. This has the effect of placing the reader into three time zones: one that explores specific historical events before the birth of Sleeper, one that records imagined scenes involving Sleeper (Sleeper as a child, Sleeper as an adult) and one that is engaged with the writer and the present moment. Colby skillfully weaves all three into a seamless narrative. The dates may be markers for historical events but they do not explain the events themselves. They are only, at the end of the day, the most definitive thing about the events. Nothing else is entirely certain.
Colby is at her best when she paints evocative pictures from the past or gives us vignettes from the present moment. An example of the former is the picture she gives us of Sleeper as a sickly child:
He lies in an old rope hammock in salty-green midsummer. (Whether “still” or “again” it doesn’t matter. The Great War hasn’t yet happened. Time was a different kind of dimension). With one foot on the lawn he gives himself a periodic push. There’s the creak of old rope rubbing against itself. Irregular birdsong. A buoy bell, both near and far. The sound of clipping from behind the hedge.
An example of the latter is this vignette offered up in praise of her dog:
I love my dog. I love his soft ears and sweet eyes, his paw pads and piebald coat. I love how he thumps his tail when he sees me in the morning and curls up next to me with his head in my lap while I watch TV at night. I love his puppy breath, his speckled chin, his gentle teeth on my hand and his warm belly where I rest my cheek and try to match his breathing.
There are also some extraordinarily vivid passages such as the one where a teacher takes her pupils to a railroad track and instructs them to lean against it so that they can hear an approaching train coming down the line. Whether or not this actually happened is open to conjecture:
On a field trip to Walden Pond, the science teacher explained how the iron tracks conduct sound. If you lie down on the track bed and rest your ear against a rail, you can hear the train way off down the line. So, an entire sixth grade class laid itself down on the rusty rails and heard the train so clearly that it could have been just around the bend. At which point, the train came around the bend and all hell broke loose. Poor science teacher. Poor conductor. But in those days parents would laugh at this story later told over dinner. It’s just a story – there is nothing in it.
To Colby, history is full of anecdotes, flawed memories and misunderstandings. Some are distortions of reality itself. The belief. for example, that the world is flat; that a wall peels away from wallpaper (rather than the other way around); that Thoreau, far from living off the land at Walden Pond, was sponging off his neighbors; that a man believes that it is the act of falling asleep rather than the sleep itself that brings about rest and refreshment. With its structure of vignettes, hymns and fragments, the line between fiction and truth is often blurred. It raises a number of philosophical questions along the way such as:
-can something be true and beautiful too? (Keats mused over that one)
-is death equivalent to destruction?
and this statement, which is especially pertinent to the theme of this collection:
-can you miss something
you’ve only known
for a moment?
How about never?
What do we learn about Sleeper in these poems? We learn that he is a sickly child; that he is fascinated from an early age by colour, shape and texture; that he is obsessed with tide times (Beauport, being on the coast, is set against a backdrop of the sea); that he is a collector of musty Orientals, busts, tomes and a potpourri of dead things; that he likes looking at the outside world through a picture window. His perception of the world is always framed by the remnants and artefacts of the past. Yet we are told that art is not a facsimile of life.
Colby tries to rewrite or replace history. As she says in the opening piece:
History is spreading. It once stacked neatly into boxes, but now it’s cast all over the floor, everybody’s business. Both everywhere and inaccessible, a slick surface on which to fight for a grip…
History is up for grabs. Did such and such an event really happen? Was it really like that? How reliable is the witness? Colby maintains that we can only feel its dimensions or those of something like it. Nothing is seen in black and white but rather through a spectrum of different colours. This book gives the feelings of events without actually going into the detail. Every day history is vanishing before our eyes:
What’s left in the corner of my eye is closing in:
Self-Portrait as Seen by Myself Between Closing Elevator Doors.
According to Colby, we idolize the past and are especially susceptible to all the good things about a previous era. We see things nostalgically through rose-tinted spectacles. The past we so often long for may not have been all that good after all. Colby knows how memory can play tricks on us down the passage of time. It is her take on the 19th century, a world peopled by fashionable turn-outs in Central Park, bands of Old World immigrants, antique buoys and small glass globes; a work of the imagination that is informed by her own particular understanding and sensibility.
Neil Leadbeater is an author, essayist, poet and critic living in Edinburgh, Scotland. His short stories, articles and poems have been published widely in anthologies and journals both at home and abroad. His most recent books are Librettos for the Black Madonna (White Adder Press, Scotland, 2011); The Worcester Fragments (Original Plus Press, England, 2013); The Loveliest Vein of Our Lives (Poetry Space, England, 2014), The Fragility of Moths (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2014) and Sleeve Notes (Bibliotheca Universalis, Romania, 2016).