Local poet Jeffery Beam's latest collection, Gospel Earth, carves out a place for itself in the long tradition of nature poetry as a spiritual treatise concerning the natural world. If the earth is a gospel to be read, the poet has scoured its lush verdant verse to translate small poignant moments from the vast world. Everything you are not noticing in the natural world has been captured in this book.
One poem exemplifies the nature-spirit connection that Beam engages throughout the book: "The Green Man's Man," written on the occasion of the retirement of the assistant director of the North Carolina botanical garden. The Green Man is the mythic figure who, according to Beam's notes, exemplifies "a figure of unlimited vegetative force" and has many cross-cultural iterations, in Osiris, Dionysus and even Robin Hood, to name a few. The poem begins: "For a long time I/ stand at the oak's foot/ asking it// what can you tell me of/ time." The poem recounts the days, joys and tribulations of standing before an oak, even considering a rather humorous drawback of such worship: "I sit at my table counting/ the times an acorn hit me/ on the head."
At times, Gospel Earth sounds like an ancient spiritual text from the Psalms or Rumi. The untitled three-line poem, "Humility nourishes everything/ Do good so you would soothe/ Your face should always be shining" has that sort of didactic, musing quality. Another poem, "Night Gospel," one of the sparest in the book, is just three words long: "Moon bronze cup." These poems operate like haiku, as if the words peel an onion; and your eyes burn with seeing something in a new way.
Many of Beam's poems are minimalist and sometimes remain mysterious and elusive because of their pithiness, as in the untitled two-line poem "Intelligence deity earth corruption/ Cold sun rises over morning river." You are left to ponder the relationship among its pieces. Perhaps the sun rises and the natural world goes on, uninterested in the world's corruption or intelligence or deities. Perhaps corruption on the earth is like a river scrambling forward; the sun shines its intelligence upon it. Perhaps the reader is meant to simply mull it over.
There are subtle moments of humor in the book, as in another one-line poem, "The Visitation: Moth," where Beam seems to undercut an overused metaphor: "No flame to explain me." In "Geneses: Seventh Day," Beam uses the voice of the weather forecaster, albeit a rather poetic one: "Cool very clear clammy still but sun-quiet vacancies surrounding." These playful moments crop up among the serious. Alongside titles that make an overture toward religious tradition, such as "Testimony" or "Resurrection," we have "The Book of Nuthatch," a poem that embodies the concept of a gospel of the earth. The full poem is as follows: "With a flick of/ sunflower seed shell/ a cut—/ a thrust—/ explaining/ itself to/ sun." The way a seed explains emphasizes the language that is used by natural things, recounted by Beam's gospel.
Not all the poems in the collection are quite so minimalist. "The Cook's Song," after MFK Fisher, is one homage of many to be found in the book: "With the wolf at the door./ Feast. Make the shared chop/ the best. Make/ the mind miraculously/ cunning. Make the toast. butter brown." Playing off Fisher's famous work "Consider the Oyster," the poem ends delightfully: "Consider the onion. Consider the olive. Consider bullfrogs barking in the pond." That last line, the most playful of all, may seem to invite us to consider eating frog legs for dinner but also has the effect of pulling us out of the flavors of nature, inviting the reader to consider the wide natural world beyond the dinner table, the sounds beyond the taste.
In a world often lived inside plaster and concrete, Beam's poems invite us to look outward to nature and then inward to the self.
Beam will read his work Thursday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m. at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill.