KR Reviews

On Of Silence and Song by Dan Beachy-Quick

Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2017. 352 pages. $20.00.

Dan Beachy-Quick’s latest book of nonfiction, Of Silence and Song, begins with a request from his youngest daughter Iris during one of their walks together: “What are the songs you don’t know,” she asks. Her father says that this is a difficult question to answer, but she presses on: “Tell me the songs you don’t know.” What follows is a book-length response of sorts, a beautiful and serious meditation on Iris’s question explored as thoroughly as a riddle posed by the Sphinx. Since the book deals with the experiences of midlife, namely of being a middle-aged father, teacher, and poet in the middle of his career wondering about the point of it all, Of Silence and Song is primarily an examination of mystery, and not always in a joyful sense. Beachy-Quick’s dynamic, restless essayistic style is well-matched to the larger question he grapples with at this life stage: he has built “a good life” for himself, but is there a point to it—and to him? In questioning this, he also questions the work of poetry, the writing and teaching of which has been his life’s work. Can the pursuit of poetry and song—whether by learning ancient Greek or revisiting Dickinson, Whitman, and others—help us navigate life’s silent confusion, or does it merely soothe us? An undercurrent of dread weaves through this book, but not hopelessness. While it’s true he never offers his reader easy answers, Beachy-Quick gives us a roving intellectual exploration of the concerns particular to his, and this, age.

Taken as a whole, the book is a kind of collage of short lyric essays constructed of fragments of poetry, analyses of ancient Greek epics, personal stories of family and work life, and observations of the world and news. Though it employs memory and scene, this is not wholly memoir. And though it also grapples with numerous texts, from Homer to Ezra Pound, it is not wholly literary criticism either. Instead, this is a kind of applied literature project, a thorough and beautifully-written attempt to see exactly what other poets had to say about the struggles of middle age in an increasingly complex, baffling, and violent world. So, Of Silence and Song isn’t concerned with action or plot so much as it is with a kind of slow, searching interiority that is anything but quiet. This is not a book you read to find out what happens, but to watch the essayist’s mind actively at work.

The question of how exactly to engage with a tumultuous world at times felt hauntingly pertinent given current news headlines that range from impending climate catastrophe to police violence to another school shooting and beyond. Some of the strongest and most evocative sections of the book take a good long look at gun violence in particular through the lens of poetry, edging around this question of whether poetry can help us make sense of things. He looks for roots of cultural violence in the Greek epics; for example, in “Hubris,” Beachy-Quick writes, “The word in Greek sounds the same: ὕβρις. Along with ‘excessive pride,’ it means ‘wanton violence.’ I guess one leads to the other, or they are simply the same.” He goes on to place discussions of several shootings—from Columbine to a movie theater in Colorado to a shooting at a community college in Oregon—alongside discussions of poems and particular poets.

Most startling was his section on the 1966 University of Texas Tower shooting at the hands of Charles Whitman, offered alongside an analysis of Walt Whitman. Beachy-Quick writes, “Whitman wrote the great American poem. Both Whitmans. It’s easier to hear this newest version, the one so many men keep rewriting, each in their own way, but each the same, this poem of America. It doesn’t sound like much it is so loud.” He invites us to take note of both songs together, one known and loved, and the other perhaps a song we don’t know, or don’t want to. Elsewhere, he places discussions of Homer and Dante alongside discussions of other violences, placing poetry firmly in this realm instead of something apart. As Beachy-Quick paraphrases from Wordsworth, “The poet is a hand that acts like a face: it speaks, it thinks.” There is an insistence that poetry matters in how it has witnessed violence but also in how it might direct us away from it.

The chapters where Beachy-Quick invites world events and poetry to speak to each other were some of the most novel in the book, and his chapter on bee colony collapse (“Of Bees in Winter”) is especially arresting. I appreciated his willingness to call out his own previous hubris in favor of the silence of unknowing later in the book, as he moves deeper into his discussion of mortality. This includes not only his own death, lurking just over the horizon that keeps retreating, but also a larger question of where he is leading his own loved ones in his search for meaning. Here, there is a kind of narrative shrug that feels like relief and resignation: “Words that, for many years, felt to me they admitted intellectual failure, have changed their nature: I don’t know. Now they seem to me words of spiritual honesty.” If the book had been certain—more argumentative or forceful—it could have felt like a lecture. In lieu of easy answers, though, Beachy-Quick merely presents poetry and insight. He connects the dots along the way for himself, and perhaps we will follow.

As a poet and writer, Beachy-Quick’s impulse is to turn to poetry in order to help him enter the labyrinthine, existential questions of middle age. He puts Dante to work describing the tone of midlife: “Midway in my journey through life I got lost / In the vertiginous asymptote / Of blank spaces between letters, a forest / In reverse.” This not only expresses the tone but the journey of this book, gesturing back to Iris’s initial question about the songs we don’t know: perhaps all those white spaces between prose fragments and lines of poetry. Being lost in the middle of things can be uncomfortable, but Beachy-Quick seems to suggest that this position is not without its own special perspective. From there, we can look towards infinity in two directions: in one direction is a childhood unknowing borne from little experience, and in the other, if we’re lucky, is a long shuffle back toward unknowing. “[B]lank spaces between letters” also aptly describes the narrative fragmentation of the work, with all of its white space punctuated by letters—from poets, from history, from myth, from essayists, and so on. In any case, being lost in the forest makes for great essaying in such skilled hands, and Of Silence and Song is a novel experiment on a topic that sometimes seems to get short shrift. While lovers of the experimental essay will likely enjoy this book, poets and poetry lovers will especially find much to engage with here as Beachy-Quick riffs quickly from the classics to the English Romantics to Whitman and back again. It is not a quick and easy read, but one that urges the reader to slow down and take note, as with good poetry.

Melissa Oliveira
Melissa Oliveira’s essays and poems are published or forthcoming in AGNI, Post Road, BOAAT Journal, Arts & Letters and others, and her work has been listed as a Best American Essays Notable. Her reviews appear in Hippocampus, the Review Review and PANK Online. She lives in Berlin, where she is writing a series of essays about wandering through history and the once-divided city.