Reviewed by Amanda Auchter
What is our American heritage, especially those of us who grew up in the South? Our heritage is darkened with the shadows of racism, of war, of sexism, of monuments to these things. But it’s also a tradition of food, of music, of invention, of storytelling. “Who am I in these stories?” Sandra Beasley asks in “Epic,” a poem after C. P. Cavafy’s “Ithaka.” This question is one that we, as readers, all share when coming to terms with our American heritage. Beasley’s fourth collection of poems explores these often wrought, familial, and political heritages that are the golden thread that runs through the fabric of all Americans.
In Made to Explode, cultural tradition is juxtaposed against a society that progresses forward, often running up against these traditions that are held so dear. Many of these poems take place in Beasley’s childhood state of Virginia and her current home, Washington, DC, which are two very storied American locations in and of themselves.
Beasley opens the collection with a discussion of familial heirlooms in the aptly titled poem, “Heirloom.” Here, the speaker connects the invention of Tater Tots — a much loved potato side dish — with her own middle class family’s heritage of food and love. “I need you to understand / why my father will never enjoy an heirloom tomato / glistening, layered in basil,” the speaker begins. Here, the word “heirloom” is played off the name of a type of tomato. But the speaker continues, saying, “he tastes only / the claustrophobia his mother unleashed from cans / to feed four children on a budget. We talk little of this.”
The long lines employed in this poem serve to tell a narrative, to let the reader in on a family history, the heirloom of middle class, of tater tots on a plate, of mothers who cook frozen foods, a grandmother who serves her children cheap canned goods out of necessity. The economics of working or middle class, here, is not beautiful like one expects an heirloom to be, but is handed down nonetheless. It is “cooked to mush” and “peppered with ash,” Beasley writes, but is also “a form of love.”
Historical heritage — especially that of slavery, racism, and whiteness — plays an integral role throughout Made to Explode. In “Monticello Peaches,” Beasley writes of Thomas Jefferson’s thirty-eight types of peaches, creating a stark, haunting comparison between the fine living of the masters and the slaves who were “whipped / three times over before the sun had set /behind Brown’s Mountain.”
Some of the best poems are the ones who teach us something not only about ourselves, but the world at large and this poem fits deftly into that category. Jefferson took Sally Hennings and her brother James from France to work and live on his plantation. In 1789, slavery was abolished there, although it wouldn’t be abolished in America for seventy-six more years. In 1801, James committed suicide. In “Monticello Peaches,” Beasley connects these truths to Jefferson’s plantation peaches, where the cling peaches shred “to wet threads,” while the other, the Freestone, also called The White Lady, “is allowed to lift free.”
“Monticello Peaches” is followed by two other extraordinary poems on race and heritage: “My Whiteness” and “Black Death Spectacle.” In “My Whiteness,” a powerful, lyric treatise on acknowledging one’s own privilege of skin color, Beasley writes of the speaker’s whiteness as her “body’s / spent currency.” Virginia, the speaker notes, is where her “ghosts / need gathering. / Come to the table / and sit, goddammit. Sit.” It is this order to “sit,” that Beasley acknowledges that the histories and heirlooms of racial injustice must be addressed, that we must all, especially those in the white community, pull up a chair to the table and discuss openly, carefully, and importantly.
In “Black Death Spectacle,” a Golden Shovel (a form created by the poet Terrance Hayes) after Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till,” Beasley riffs not only on the Brooks poem, but on the idea of Black Death itself. Like the plague, deaths such as Emmett Till’s (insert names here such Ahmaud Arbery, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, and a host of others) are infectious, deadly, and historic. In Beasley’s poem, where spectators view a painting titled “Open Casket” — a painting of Emmett Till’s funeral — the speaker acknowledges that as a society that bears witness to these tragedies, that lean in closer to see the details (the very Plathian “peanut-crunching crowd),” that “Our tools seduce. Ask what the shovel is / burying. Know that the paintbrush sees only a / canvas.”
One of the most haunting poems in Made to Explode, “Non-Commissioned: a Quartet,” another Golden Shovel after Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” examines the heritage of American soldiers at war, especially those who signed up to serve, the “vertebras necessary / so the skeleton can dance.” What’s so profound in this poem is how the unified voices aren’t glamorized, not heroic, but instead these are the soldiers of real life, the men and women who are “the eighteen rounds in the length / of a minute,” who “took time to pin tin to each swollen breast,” of the fallen. Beasley, who foreshadows this in an earlier poem in the collection, “Elephant,” where the speaker buys the father mace, throwing stars, and a book titled Contemporary Surveillance Techniques “because what do you get the man / who has everything—and by everything / I mean a large-caliber shell casing upright and decorative / in the living room where you might // expect a potted ficus to be.” These are the men and women America likes to tout as airbrushed heroes, cleaning up the image for the public to see. When in reality, as Beasley notes in “Non-Commissioned,”
in the trench offered what was
a different dictionary. We do not
speak of smart, or brave, or honor
This is the heritage of war, Beasley explains: “What’s given / to a boy as he trembles, as he turns green, / is the lesson of swim or / goddammitswim. You serve or are served / on a stretcher.”
The speaker asks us to acknowledge, then, that even with the ugliness of war, that upon returning home, they “belly up / to the bar and speak of the hot /dusks—how you aimed the mortar— and / remember us, who stayed in the jungles lush.”
“We are trying to make space and hold it open,” Beasley writes in “Still Life with Sex,” and this is exactly what Made to Explode does: it opens a space for dialog, for reflection of both ourselves and each other. These poems explore and analyze racism and whiteness, disability, feminism, economic class and privilege, and the monuments and heritages we all share. This collection is an American reckoning with itself, with each other, with our past. The “necessary dirt” mentioned in the poem “Still Life with Sex.” “Could I learn to greet the world this way, to take nothing for granted?” Beasley asks in “Lazarus.” Beasley greets the world in this collection with curiosity and intelligence and makes a space for the important reckoning of our universal American heritages. Through these poems, Beasley exhibits that “Even in winter, the garden can call itself to bloom,” (“Winter Garden Photograph), acknowledging that all of us, in our griefs, in our darknesses, even in the pedestrian ways we go through our days, always return to life by necessity, by the sheer act of living.
Amanda Auchter is the author of The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2013 PEN Center USA Literary Award for Poetry and the 2012 Perugia Press Book Award, and The Glass Crib, winner of the 2010 Zone 3 Press First Book Award for Poetry. Her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming at Huffington Post, CNN, Alaska Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Massachusetts Review, Indianapolis Review, and the Academy of American Poets Poem-a-Day project, among others. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @ALAuchter.