Secure Your Own Mask by Shaindel Beers
White Pine Press, 2018
Making the Mask Fit: a review of Shaindel Beers’ Secure Your Own Mask
The title poem, the second in Shaindel Beers’ most-recent collection, Secure Your Own Mask, conveys the book’s most-imperative message, that we all need to help our self before trying to take care of others. The book’s first poem, “The (Im)Precision of Language,” writes ‘rings’ around words’ variety and their meaning’s separate shadings, like “how far the ring-necked dove is/from wringing a dove’s neck.” Language seems delight in its own playfulness, even as an unintroduced he “threatened” the poem’s speaker with a deer rifle he “cleaned/at random times” when not in hunting season. The threat comes because he is “upset” and “[doesn’t] want to be/divorced.” The speaker confides that “language [becomes] a tricky game,” one wherein
nothing meant everything, where saying everything
meant nothing left to fear
The speaker can only “sing” her “sorrow.” There is always a distance between speaker and speaking, a “difference,” the poem’s ending recalls, “where language leaves us” and when “someone controls every word we say.” That, the poem makes clear, is not a good place.
“Secure Your Own Mask Before Helping Others” finds that place where one’s language gets lost. Composed of four Roman-numeral sections and as a second-person address, the poem is seen between first a female and then a male speaker, she as if ceding onto him: an implied she speaks I and II, while a man commands III and IV. The cessation is as subtle, though, as it is direct: Beers shows, through the first two sections, how not in control of her life she has grown. “Soon,” she tells us in its first line, “you won’t have any needs of your own.” She will ‘walk’ to a lake’s middle, her pockets “filled with all the prettiest stones,” because she was once the “prettiest girl/at the Harvest Moon Ball.” She should be “grateful,” she says, in that she is “adorned with abjection” and “has” what “so many women want,” this “him” whose “boot on her throat” has every “corpse bride in waiting” wishing for him to as become her “treasure.”
She is not “grateful.” She wonders what it would be “like to have pearls/in [her] inside,” so she ‘washes down’ seven Percocet “with the amber of whiskey,” the number signifying that at which “all good girls go to heaven.” He remains nonplussed. He knew she would do this, because her “drinking was always the problem”: she is not “special.”
The poem becomes his:
“Girls like you are so easy
he declares, and then, “because the bruise is already there,” all he needs to do is “press”; with the “other names … already … scalpeled/into [her] skin,” she does not cry when she begins to “bleed … pomegranate drops.” He annoys with her, at her, yet she is not crying, so he wonders
“What’s wrong with you?
Have you gone dumb? Or numb?”
Language’s ‘imprecision’ again: she is not “dumb,” yet she has gone “dumb,” as in muted by her ‘numbing’ pain. “This is like being married,” he opens IV, “to a fucking baby,” then accuses her,
“You’re the abusive one. You’re the one with the anger issues.” Distance is being decreased again: “No,” he tells her,
“… what we should do is have a baby.
That will make everything better.
You and me in one person.
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”
Because he already is “one.” She completes him, makes him whole. He did not need to think it, because for him she is already part of his whole; a baby is a mere another thing, not a person they would create together, so she will feel a part of him. “We’ll name her Pearl,” he decides, and that “she will be our savior.” Still, it’s all “just a game,” in which nothing gets scored, because it is all only “shit.”
Even the oxygen mask he says drops down on the poem’s final stanza, “shit.” “Here’s your chance to save me,” the poem ends in “game.” “Put it over my face and let me breathe.”
The entire collection shows ‘her’ struggle, and desire, to continue breathing. But it’s her breaths now, the speaker who slowly, through each poem, brings back a little bit more of herself. It is her will to live. These speakers intersect with, and react to, the world outside her every ‘piece’ of herself retrieved. In “One Gaza Family Observes a Grim Holiday in Wartime,” she admits she doesn’t “believe in a god,/neither Christian, nor Jew, nor/Muslim” but that she still achieves a faith which comes of the “peace that can/inhabit a human heart.” Here, “peace” implies safety, but also maternal concern, as this poem had begun: “Yesterday my son learned to open the deadbolt.”
The child needs grow out, grow up: she seems to understand this, but like all the “other mothers of Gaza,” she still worries. “Every hour,” an NPR story shows “one Palestinian child” dies. Even with the “violence of [her own] childhood,” for her son all she can “want” is for “babies to be safe, [and] their mothers” as well. Her faith is a prayer for “peace,” which she knows she shares with the world’s huge majority. Yet what we want is not necessarily what we pass on, no matter our intentions, even the boy’s: “his holiday present,/a toy gun [and] delights in the rat-a-tat of the rifle-fire.” We grow inured of our own violence, so that even as we desire “peace,” we manage to make ‘holy’ and a “present” what disarms that “peace.”
How ensure against such violence? Perspective seems be the key, or at least it is for Beers in this book’s third section, which comprises a single, long poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican.” “Self-doubt” is what drives a person quavering between suffering and gift, a deliberation for which she asks ‘forgiveness’ in the piece’s first section, because she is herself, like the lone pelican she sees, “always alone.” Even the most confident among us dislike and do not want to live “always alone.” It is the state within a body begins to “fly too recklessly,” an “alone” which leads the woman to be “always” suffering her own “doubt” and not trusting in her own “instincts,” words Beers italicizes not only for their stress, but for affectation’s revelation. Even as this self-doubt prevails, there comes another, even more precarious state, one from which, “as a woman,” she has “been taught to ignore” the same “connections” these poems make, what she shares, she says, with the pelican she sees alone at this poem’s outset.
But a pelican in a group, Beers comes to realize, acts differently from the one pelican found stranded and hurt. These birds “sit on the rocks preening,” as if toward imaging a “section of concert violins bowing,” a music which seems to bring them “out of their bodies” and to a place where the viewers may witness such a bird’s individual “soft,” synonymous, again, with “peace.” These birds’ peace is “only occasionally/interrupted,” and then only in human error, when one might react by cracking “Oh shit!”
Yet these birds are only “one of the few … species/that fly ‘for fun’”: unlike the poems’ speaker, pelicans are able to feel good about themselves, and so not “wonder what” they “might miss” when “offended,” as they may become with an “innate sense//of measuring air temperature.” Were that we all able to afford such self-confidence as the birds display. Were only we so able to escape our own “metaphor for loneliness.”
A river teems with birds throughout this poem, and of a variety their speaker catalogues in the poem’s seventh part. “We must,” the speaker recognizes in eight that the “pelican is an opportunist” and, in ten, in ancient Egypt, that the Pelican Goddess Henet is “offered safe passage to the afterlife,” such that how, in eleven, the pelican was considered “for centuries” an “allegory for Christ,” and so for “love” and “sacrifice” goes on.
The speaker’s son, “Liam,” appears in this poem, helping the speaker to wonder, “ What will become of all of us, if we don’t take care for ourselves. This “we” is “all of us,” and “we” will suffer, whether we are speaker or antagonist, son or poet, because we lack a “sort of flood memory” that will cause us not ‘await’ with patience for rain, as these birds do. We need fly the same ‘hundreds of “miles per day,”’ as these birds, to see the “formation/of rivers through flash flooding,” and so arrive at water and relative safety. Still, “It’s always these moments/of public brokenness that undo” the speaker, and where the lone pelican communes with the many, her perspective wanes.
Perspective becomes imperative in this book’s poems: the male is by action always their antagonist, while the woman is “always the misfit, the outcast.” In “The Sin Eater,” she realizes, by poem’s end, an awareness that “there’s/no Heaven, no Hell, other than what we make//for each other — ” In “Is It Human?,” the next poem, the speaker is accosted by such absence, in this case in the shape of a neo-Nazi tweeting her, as has become a kind of utilitarian violence for how our current governance works. The “tweeter” threatens her by repeating an italicized “knock” three times, the last following a stanza break and before the promised threat that the neo-Nazis will “be putting all of you freaks in cages,” again like in our current government, except for, with this tweeter, it is the Jews who are concerning, not viral Chinese, or migrating Central Americans, or Democrats. Yet as is again indicative of these times, it does not matter who, but that we just have “trouble being human.”
As in the following poem, “The Con Man’s Wife,” where a life lived in “mourning” becomes a “brilliantly/executed lie, a stay fabricated from nothing.” We might find ourselves “under the same type of spell” (“Playing Dolls”), wherein of our “own body [we] never” belong to our own life. We may “imagine” that, when we “say no,” a kind of man “can’t hear it” as anything but “yes.” Women become, for such a man, the “listing [of] parts,” her body’s, so less of herself, and worse, blamed for them.
Why, despite the amount of our love, and of every mother’s maternal desires? In the book’s second part, in the poem “There Are No (Simple) Happy Endings,” Beers realizes “Every fairy tale requires the absence of mother./Perhaps the presence of stepmother.” It seems important she does not make these women, mothers, proper nouns, and that she brings them to “dead in a fever-dream,” perhaps because, in looking into this elusive woman’s whereabouts, through all the “always-wanting-always-touching” and the “melon-thud of head into wall” with the “crying-crying-won’t-stop-crying,” before and until finding the “calm” to “call the police” and the “free-/fall eight stories … with or without/the baby”: through all of this, such violence. “The Mother Who Left is hero/not monster.” The initial caps’ imprecise propriety helps us learn how far from what truth her fairy-tale absence is. She does not want much, not need much, because “all she/wants to be is alone.”
Perspective, again. The poems come more and more to these women’s need to see clearly and with greater perspective: it is the only way they will survive.
Because that is where culture comes to, blame, especially against women. Beers’ collection wends toward a kind of hope, though, its last three poems finding home in “This Old House,” a going in “Left and Leaving, 2016,” and respect, in homage, in “After Mary Oliver,” who was among a very few poets known by name in this country, when she died last year. For Mary Oliver, Beers’ speaker has “become a lover of solitude” that she is “still not fully human,” not having “figured human love out.” The collection ends, “That there’s been a terrible mistake./
That it will never have to happen again.”
In “Left and Leaving, 2016,” Beers’ speaker delivers a crow she has “wrapped in a shawl” to a sanctuary, only to learn the bird has been shot, and there’s still a “bullet lodged in his body.” She remembers a “disabled puppy” the dog’s own mother “refused to feed,” and the “maimed kitten” a man had euthanized, a “best cat ever” the speaker three times tells that she loves. And her lover, “… moving to another continent,/who keeps saying he doesn’t want to hurt” her. But the speaker knows he is wrong; “that that’s what love is,” such necessary pain delivered, “an inevitable entropy” which comes between us all.
Through the six sections “This Old House” comprises, a man trades addictions and calls the speaker “Sarah,” as in Palin, for how she cooks elk meat. This house is where the woman finds he has saved messages from his former lover, on his phone. This is where, in II, she
“… sometimes [ ] was so sexy,
and sometimes … a good girl
and a dumb bitch and a stupid cunt.”
Where she now tries to say that, for ”ten years/I wasn’t in my own body.” She lists all that she “threw away” in III, curtains, underwear, pie pans and loaf pans, an apple mill; the wedding rings he left her with; and “… lastly, my heart, my heart, my heart —” The son reappears, in the summer, in IV. In V, she is back to “learning the language,” this time of birds, which “flooded the yard” when she is inside, but “disappear” when she goes back out. In VI, she recognizes “it’s tempting to start over,” but that “leaving the house” will “feel like [she’s] letting them win.” She seems “there’s still so much” to “understand,” because with so many things, she “didn’t even understand the point.”
Did I say this collection ends on hope? It does. It’s what the speaker asks, leaving “This Old House,” that despite all the hurt of language’s lack of clarity, all she worries about is “… how will my little birds find me?”
They are her mask, these birds. They flit and fly through this collection, so many kinds of birds, and for them, she is learning, she must. She needs to take care of herself, before she can help those so many others. It’s all we can only do, everyone. That until we ‘secure our own mask,’ we will keep watching, and wondering, and hoping; we will, because we must, take care for and of ourselves. It is all, and it is all that we have to do.
Even as 2020, this Year of Living Selfishly, conspires toward its calendar end, Ray Marsocci continues to verse sustenance from lyrical narratives, poetry the only safe place for his spirit to rest any more.