Minor Seventh

For this month’s music poem, a look at Jeffrey Bean’s “Minor Seventh“, which segues neatly into a review of Jeffrey Bean’s 2009 book Diminished Fifth.

Minor Seventh” is a prose poem, it’s a list, and it is built (built of various materials, built so it holds up, and built in the way you talk about someone in very good shape being built). And like all the best list poems the items in it cohere, surprise, make sense logically and make sense in the other ways amalgams make sense (the “poetry” kind of making sense).

And so too do the sounds. They cohere, surprise, make sense and make sense. Listen to how, at the beginning of “Minor Seventh,” the ks and rs and ns in ricochet, kitchen, mixolydian run together then modulate into the ns, ms and fs of Mississippi, blues, smokestacks, hymns, grief, hiss, then swing back to timber and trucks and crawling:

Foghorns, grackles, wheat fields sighing in wind. The night hawk’s ricochet. You better come on in my kitchen. Mixolydian trumpet runs boiling up the Mississippi turning into urban blues and smokestacks over Gary, Indiana. Hymns. Grief. The hiss of sprinklers in timber yards, brawl of log trucks crawling up Mt. Hood. […]

It’s hard to talk about a poem like this without devolving into analogies of music in your description, but it really does work that way, it really is like multiple instruments adding up to a multi-note whole. Bean writes a lot about music (he has a Bachelors in Music from Oberlin). Another favorite passage about music, from “Minor Third”,

[…] The saxophones, their minor thirds—
goddamn them, the way they open over and over
like doors to bright rooms, making you love the things
you have, like something hot you’ve drunk,
an ache as you walk out into the cool.

And even in relationship poems and place poems there’s a deftness to the rhythm and repetition of his lines that gives his poetry an extra aural quality even on silent reading.

With some of his poems, in both books, they seem a little like homework (write a list poem, write your own “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” write in the blues form), and on occasion they don’t get past the prompt and it’s a weakness. A few run the admirable risk of profundity to varying degrees of success — “O gray windows, can you feel the gray evening? / O gray evening, come kneel and die like an elephant” for instance is a pair of lines I would like so much more in a poem that didn’t also say “But something in me / lives among the mouths of roots / that have thrived like red coals underground / through years and the salt of winters.” But these are minor complaints, and the strong poems in both collections are quite something.

Back to the middle of the country-ness — a couple sections from “Encyclopedia of the Wheat” (the ‘write your own 13 Ways’-ish poem):

2.
The wheat knows two dances:
a. The Sea
b. The Sea Snake

[…]

6.
I said to the wheat, O wheat,
family dog of crops,
curl in my lap and sleep awhile.

[…]

16.
Much is not passed down
because the wheat’s way of praying
is to try to forget.

But here’s the beginning of the “Learning to Dance”, a crackerjack poem about youth:

I don’t choose the songs. They just arrive
like a stack of pizzas sent to the wrong address,
pizzas topped with nudie pictures.
We stomp and shuffle, spin even, across Gretchen’s
mother’s orange rug, stir up ’70s dust
that swarms her basement like mayflies,
brings the smell of dads. The saxophone says lorrrrrrd
into a drum, and the dead lady who lives
in the scratchy wind of Gretchen’s records
sings about trouble. […]

“Brings the smell of dads” — what an unexpected but perfect line. That poem goes on “When we lock hands / my unclipped nails gouge her finger fat” and continues this wonderful description of coming of age. Diminished Fifth has many  poems like these, and Bean’s new chapbook, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, is more of the same, and I mean that in a good way.

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