"We are only bodies": A Review of Tamiko Beyer's We Come Elemental
Alice James Books, 2013 (104 pages)
We Come Elemental, Tamiko Beyer's first full-length book of poems, awakens the reader
to the myriad relationships between our bodies and the elements that surround us. The
book is highly innovative and experimental, charting new grounds as Beyer channels the
voice of water to illuminate its power and presence in human life.
Divided into three parts—"Body Geographies," "Dear Disappearing," and "Tenacious as Salt"—We Come Elemental depicts various incarnations of water. Each part tells a separate story but also offers a marked, distinct style that sets it apart from the others in the narrative. The structure of the book moves from guarded, cryptic beginnings to direct, visceral imagery, unfolding a bit more at each poem's close, like water serves also to reveal through a progressive washing away of silt and sand. Beyer foreshadows a dark, existential truth in the first section of the book as she describes, "as children we sent paper boats down the ravine creek / and followed them all the way to the sewage drain."
She suggests through these poems that we—our bodies, our stories, our lives— are tied to water, for better or worse and that these connections beg us to answer several questions about ourselves, our function, our place, and our relationships with one another.
In "Body Geographies," Beyer effectively creates a sense of urgency and immediacy through her use of the present tense and fragmented action. Natural imagery meets with the visual representations on the page, as ebbs and flows are represented by concrete poems that look as they sound—patterned and moving. The content of the poems occurring early in the book establish complex and distinct identities for the bodies of water, simultaneously personifying the waters as a collective identity but also depersonalizing the individual locations. Language as appears in poems like "Wade," where she writes, "We are only bodies," may seem callous and existential in isolation of the other lines, but within the context of the poem, these verses are tied closely to catharsis and occur to the reader as comfort. The similarities between the lives and lifecycles of these bodies of water and, consequently, our own because we, too, are water, becomes endearing through the poems.
In much the same way, the disrupted syntax is initially jarring in poems like "Trash Sail" where the presence of water is illustrated in the poem's form and emphasized, as lines like "plstcplstcplsticplsticplsticplstisplstic" force the reader to stop reading and to just look at and just listen to the movement of life on the page. Similar approaches occur in other poems in the collection, like "Where the Current Takes," when she begins to list items "alarm clock :: pen :: chair :: desk :: computer :: water filter / shower curtain :: razor :: comb :: toothbrush :: hanger," and later in "Boundary Line," ".your name as salt this salt a gull a gully a gull a gully," creating an amalgamation akin to one of Gertrude Stein's mindscapes, wherein the focus becomes not the objects but the sounds and images creating a portrait and experience so much larger than the words on the page.
Beyer writes in "Dear Disappearing" that "Translation is a form / of disappearance :: my name gone / all wrong in their mouths." Lines like these become metatextual as they suggest a way of looking at the poems before, where the voice is water but we are tethered to the human persona and so hear water not just as itself but also as a human representation of itself. These lines prompt the question, then, of whether we are misreading the poems: Has something been lost in translation? The "Dear Disappearing" segment of the book serves to clarify and reorient the reader, to tidy the unlocked syntax, and to bring the voice closer to a personal, human one.
The final section, "Tenacious as Salt" pulls the metaphors taut. Physical, contemporary human bodies take the stage with the backdrop of water and its accumulated meanings and symbolic representations built up in the first two sections of the book. The narrative in "Tenacious as Salt" takes on the chaotic form of some poems in "Body Geographies." Beyer speaks to this outright: "All day, we walk / around feeling / some absence we cannot place." Just as the book notes a duality of life in water and body, she argues for the same, defining us as "self removed from body / tethered by a string." And to what, to whom, to where? These are the questions We Come Elemental insists that we answer.
Beyer successfully transcends the conventional representations of water, such as baptism and cleansing by rain by connecting bodies of water to human bodies and focusing on water as an essential, physical element ("Eighty-three percent of blood— /deepest water") before moving into the metaphorical, where "the world enters your body." Experimental syntax and innovative poetic forms parrot the experience of straining to hear meaning through static coming in and out, forcing readers to lean in, listen hard, and refuse to let go. It is through static and light on the page, she creates a powerful illusion that generates layers of meaning about the water, the earth, and the ones who live between the two. Reading Tamiko Beyer's We Come Elemental eventually mimics a look into a pane of glass water: "we are all seeing what we wish."