Breaking and Blossoming: A Review of Dan Beachy-Quick’s "Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs"

$11.95, 48 pages. Omnidawn Publishing, 2015.

by Anita Olivia Koester


Dan Beachy-Quick has always been interested in words as objects, and poems as works of art that communicate with other works of art. His chapbook, Shields & Shards & Stitches & Songs, is no exception. Here that communication is internal-- seven poems communicate with one another through four forms-- the shield, the shard, the stitch, and the song.

The original seven poems assume the shapes of shields as they are each constructed of eight dense lines within a single stanza. The shields cover various themes-- poetry, memory, loss, God, death, love, nothingness/endings. In the opening poem, which is essentially about the act of writing poetry, Beachy-Quick tells the poem to--

Take root in the broken and bloom.

This is the central theme guiding this journey, as this chapbook is not only a book, but a form of passage. This poem also sets the initial tone of the book, there is blood, trouble, rubble and ruin, writing poetry is a bitter business and yet he rallies the poet to--

Mark it in bronze, poet. Grab the tool. Beat it.

In these closing words of the poem, we also hear the echo of the first word, “be”. As the poet must utilize violence to write the poem, but the poet should also “be… it”, as in, be the poem. The poem as a shield is an extension of the self, a way to protect the interior self from the exterior world. It is also an object that makes proclamations about where one’s loyalties lie.

The shield poems are constructed mainly of nouns and therefore have a kind of hardness to them. The second shield harbors many nouns-- sword, words, memory, cloud, bee, fragment, field, mower, seeds, shrouds, deeds, shadows, cords. Amongst all these nouns there is precious little breathing space within the poem, which exhibits the brutality of the connection between a poem’s words and the memories they strive to embody. A shield is typically adorned with a family crest, therefore the nouns chosen here can be considered symbols of what is important to the poet and to the poem. Consider the second shield--

“Sword words

Clash in the memory cloud.

Hectic bee amazed by the fragment

field the mower left uncut.

Shut it down, what only yields

Fragrant blades, lunatic

Seeds in downy shrouds. Lash

Deeds to shadows. Use these cords.”

The poem begins with words sharp as swords clashing within the one’s own memory, cutting down, or mowing down what was once a reality-- a field of grass. Here the poet is like the bee, bringing pollen from the memory to the paper in hopes that the words will fertilize, and the poem bloom. But there is a darker tone to this poem. The seeds are lunatics for wanting to grow into blades only to be cut down. And finally deeds are forced to become memories, so the cycle can repeat.

However the poem does not end here, the shield is only the first stage of the poem’s metamorphosis. Next, the shield will break into shards, and the resulting poem will be a fragmented erasure of the original shield. In the transformation, much is lost. The words have broken apart, within them there are letters that can be put to new use, but for now they lie exhausted on the page, unable to muster themselves into much meaning–

"wo    wo

                                                                          the                 cloud

                                                                 bee a    a


shut     down, wh           y

grant blades

                                                           see                      shroud . Lash

to    a      .Use"

It is up to the reader now to attempt to make sense of the words and to figure out how they connect, if they connect at all. “wo     wo” seems to be the sound the “cloud bee” makes as it buzzes around the field. As in the original poem there is a field of grass, and a bee buzzing around it, but the field is “shut down”, and the blades of grass seem to see their own impending death or mutilation in the shroud.

Beachy-Quick wants the reader to juxtapose the word shard with shroud, he wants us to hear the similarities in the words, as it is only the vowels that have altered, the framing of the word remains largely the same. Embedded in a ‘whole’ poem the reader probably would not have noticed how similar the words shard and shroud are, but in this scattering of words and letters we can become more familiar with the construction of the words themselves, something Beach-Quick has explored throughout his work. Since Whitman, grass has become a beloved symbol of the American poet to denote poetry itself. Here the glades have been used perhaps against their own will; the poem has been cut down, and is offered to us in a state of brokenness. The poet invites us to engage with that which is broken, to discover the shape and make use of fragments. This is why he ends the poem with the word use, as letters and fragmented words are the tools of the poet.

Out of this brokenness is born the stitch. The stitch is made up of words from the shards. These words are sutured back into meaning and wholeness. Many of the stitch poems are beautiful in themselves:

On love… no hinge… all home.
A tone… O moan… O poet.

The stitches also bring meaning to the shield poems, the poem that was originally about love becomes “we await you… you ark of rescue." Here love is a kind of rescue, a savior, but also a ship that protects one as it sails forward. Another example would be the poem about death which becomes, “O yes… you make it lack breath,” this unfortunately is exactly what death does to the body. The themes of the original poems are often distilled into the sutures, some more carefully than others. But there is still a final stage of metamorphosis for the poem, out of every suture blossoms a song.

Every letter and word in a stitch is used to build a song, the songs complete the journey of the poem as well as the journey of the poet, who started off as a literary soldier holding a paper shield. In antiquity, great battles were memorialized in song, and poetry and song were often one and the same. Beachy-Quick reinvigorates this tradition by having the poems’ transformations complete in song. The songs are the longest, most robust poems in the book-- their lines stretch out, their nouns and images are still strong and many are recycled form the original shield, but they are allowed more breath, more music, as well as verbs to move within.

The second shield which became the second shard, which then became the second stitch, completes within the second song, which begins, “The wars are everywhere, o even within”. The bee makes another appearance, though instead of drawing attention to the bee’s ability to pollinate, the poet focuses in on the bee’s stinger--

Even the heart,/ Keeps the sting sharp: art stings thought, thought stings art.

Because of the language lessons throughout this chapbook we quickly see how the word “art” is embedded in “heart”, the two words are immediately married, one cannot exist without the other, how can one love without art? How can one create art without using the heart? Beachy-Quick then inquires, “are there other ways to learn how to sing?”

In every song, no matter how celebratory, there remains the echo of a wail, in this chapbook the creation of poetry is pain-filled act, and yet the poet must use that pain to create something of value. Here again two similarly constructed words, sting and sing, go hand in hand. When all the wars are won and/or lost, when the dead are laid to rest, when the survivors have been given succor, what is left is something that lasts beyond defenses and offenses- poetry, art, and song.  And inside of that song are tucked the remnants of the journey, the song must “take root in the broken” in order to bloom.