Dan Beachy-Quick is a poet, essayist, and occasional novelist, whose most recent books include gentlessness (Tupelo Press) and Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs (Omnidawn). His work has been supported by the Guggenheim and Lannan Foundations, and he teaches in the MFA program at Colorado State University. His poem “A Century of Meditation” can be found here. It appears as part of the Longer Lyric feature in the Nov/Dec 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “A Century of Meditation”?
For the past few years I’ve been trying to manage a slow reading through much of Classical literature, though I suppose I succeed more at the “slow” than I do the “reading,” distracted in the midst of timelessness. I suppose “A Century of Meditation” records both what I find so moving in the reading I’m doing, and the impossibility of thinking only in those books, aside from the news, aside from life. I find myself much taken by the early philosophical effort to find some image or theory that can demonstrate eternal forms of order—Pythagoras and the tetractys comes especially to mind. It feels somehow there is some thinking one could do that could reveal . . . what? . . . those Laws undergirding the world, God’s face, something past errancy’s reach? But then it seems somehow irresponsible or unethical to devote oneself to eternities. There is a suffering in lives and in the world that shatter theories and dreams, philosophies and immortalities. My impetus was to write a poem that demonstrated its own contradictory nature—timelessness within time, thought within body. And so, following that Pythagorean perfection within the number ten, I decided I should spend last winter writing ten poems of ten lines each, each one a meditation, not convinced it should be about anything more than the making of itself, and to see all what arrived within the lines.
In several places in this piece, you imagine the mind as an image, place, or environment. Do you feel this suggests people exist inside the environments of their minds rather than simply containing them?
I find myself continually conflicted and curious about the relation of perception to mind, of sense to thought. I want to think that the mind forms itself around the world the senses bring within that cavern that is the head; but I also want to see that the mind casts a kind of light back out through the eyes and we see as much according to it as we do the sun’s brightness. Not that those visions are mutually exclusive. Nor do those seem the only formulations, so riddled and labyrinthine is the mind. Part of the maze or amazement of it to me is that thinking feels as profoundly external as it does internal. It seems possible to me to wander through a thinking much as one might wander through the woods; or, like a landscape, what is there to be thought is all outside of us, interfused and interwoven with the air and the leaves and the animals and everything . . . but then, so strangely, so somehow unexpectedly, to step outside becomes a step within, and the internal world deepens just as the external world expands, which is to say that I suspect we are as contained as we are containing.
Much of what seems to drive this poem forward is a sort of confusion which doesn’t offer distinct questions or answers, but rather, seems a victim of its own thoughts. If you feel this is true, how do you imagine confusion works to motivate your persona’s movement in this piece?
I might even say it is a confusion which disallows a drive forward, or at least finds the ability to move forward questionable in a number of ways. In the same confused light, I think it is a poem whose sense of voice can’t be immediately equated with a persona, with the distinction of personality or the identity of a speaker. I suppose the mind is the victim of its own thoughts much as the voice is a victim of its own speaking. Both happen and in their occurrence open up consequences not easily predicted, save that thought keeps thinking itself, and the voice keeps speaking as long as it can. I also feel like it is the nature of a real confusion not to be oriented toward an answer or a question. Real confusions seem to exist for another purpose than to solve themselves, and I believe there is a value in describing such confusions, of showing how it is one might dwell in confusion, or with it, not as a problem to be solved, but instead as some fragile form of life that is the honest result of living, a thing to protect, even to cherish in its way, even if the shape such care takes is an anxious one. Or, to put it all another way—like everyone else, I do this thing called thinking, but this thinking is not me, nor am I it; like everyone else I do this thing called speaking, but that voice isn’t exactly mine, nor do I exactly belong to it. Each becomes its own vitality. Each seeks some source different than the place or person from which it seemed most obviously to originate. But to be confused is to allow the possibilities of such error. To be confused is to allow this thought, among many, to exist: that just because I’m the one speaking, just because I’m the one thinking doesn’t mean this thought, doesn’t mean this voice, is mine.
You discuss voices in this poem which appear anthropomorphized with hands and wills and objectives of their own. Does this equate them to or change their relationship with the often-mentioned mind?
I remember reading in Plutarch’s essay on the nature of Socrates’s genius that he thought the air itself was articulate with voices, as if everything ever said kept repeating itself in the air, and if one could just learn to be quiet enough to listen, that you could hear those voices speaking still. The thought has had large effect on me, I guess. It makes me think each voice is a life of its own, capable of grasping and being grasped, though muscle alone can’t do the work. Reading in this way—and Paul Celan knew it—is a kind of handshake. And a grand confusion opens for us in which a passage on a page becomes a means of wilder travel, and the mind becomes some way-station or way-side, some pasture or some meeting room.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Without a doubt, my family—my wife and two daughters, now twelve and six. They’ve given me this wondrous gift: the realization that life isn’t a writing project.