BooksWeekend

The Reluctant Surrealist

Guy R. Beining’s poems appear disjunctive but are in fact carefully constructed in ways that call to mind André Breton, Luis Buñuel, and Paul Delvaux.

I first encountered the poetry of Guy R. Beining in 1976, when I published his chapbook, City Shingles, as the second book of my Sun & Moon Press. At the time, I described him to myself as one of the “new Surrealists” I had been encountering — a strange categorization to be sure, but one that seemed relevant at the moment. Perhaps it was just his radical shifts in metaphors and syntax. Being attuned to the “Language” poets as I was then, these imaginative disjunctions appealed to me, even if I didn’t perceive them as purely linguistic transitions; they seemed to be coming from some place deeper than the intellectual play of words.

I’m not at all certain that such a new Surrealist movement within the US ever truly existed. Reading his newest poetry collection, The Silence of My Room, some 41 years later, however, I still sense some of those same qualities present in this volume’s poems. The back cover suggests that he has been labeled a “Beat” poet and a “Language” poet, neither of which seems to truly characterize his work.

Perhaps we need not label Beining at all. The poems of this British-born US poet (son of an aristocratic Russian mother and middle-class Norwegian father) represent an amazing series of shifts of metaphoric imagination, which we might simply admire:

Let’s scribble
on the plates
of the rich
something like
eat the hand
that pulls the plug,
or let’s break
down houses
made out of glass
& look for
the princess of< processed images….
(poem vii)

Yet, I can’t help feeling that the wild associations Beining makes — “eat the hand / that pulls the plug” or “the princess of processed images” — have more to do with something internal, the process of the subconscious imagination, than engaging the associative play of language or the more Whitmanian jazz-inspired cultural observations of the “Beats.” Throughout Beining’s rather remarkable poetic observations, his poetry, in fact, as the title suggests, celebrates a kind of “muttering,” that creates “a crowd within one,” (poem iii) as if within these poems he is offering something so personal that they simply might not be expressed in logical terms. It’s a question, apparently, of “how do / we wear / the head?” A more linguistically playful writer might have asked the same question with the shift of “the head” to “a head,” thus positing the notion of ahead while pointing to what Beining later describes as “my stinking noggin, / my lost identity… (poem v). But this poet is far more specific about his images, even if they defy normal logic, and this particular poem is about bringing out the “marbles which” the poet uses to “play out / in this back- / ground game.” In short, Beining’s language, despite its stunning shifts of metaphor, still seems grounded in a kind of realist presentation which, nonetheless, defies normal logic.

Consider, for example, the title poem (poet xxv):

someone introduced me
to the silence
of my room
by leaving sand-
bags all around
my desk & one
on top of my
writing machine
that no longer
hums. the stand-
in ghosts
of winter go over
the spasms of the season
& finally etch
a dead sheep with a
mature countenance.

If the poem, at first, appears to be a shifting series of metaphors, it quickly becomes apparent through words like “silence,” “sandbags,” “ghosts of winter,” and “a dead sheep,” to say nothing of his writing machine that no longer hums, that this is a poem very much about aging and the loss of coherent thinking. As deeply disjunctive and associative this poem may initially seem, it is actually a carefully constructed series of images that appears outwardly realist in the manner of such Surrealist figures as Breton, Buñuel, Magritte, and Paul Delvaux. While his fantastical images, “a dead sheep” and the sandbags littered across his room that create pleasure for the reader, at its heart the poem offers a coherent message in his madness.

This is not at all to demean Beining’s talent. I believe he is what one might describe as “a reluctant Surrealist,” a writer who naturally thinks in highly metaphoric language. Who else might express the idea that the poet has been “under a stone for a decade” and end in describing that decade as “gone deeper / then sad.” His is a poetry of “the head,” of the mind expressed just underneath its own consciousness:

the shadow of
a mammal gets closer.
shut the mighty door,
shut the mighty head. (poem xxxv)

The Silence of My Room by Guy R. Beining (2017) is published by Chintamani Books, 2017 and is also available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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