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A Review of Nicky Beer's "The Diminishing House"

New Letters, Fall 2010

A Review of Nicky Beer's The Diminishing House

Nicky Beer's debut collection of poems, The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2010), is dedicated to her father who died from a brain tumor early in her childhood.  For a book in eulogy to one's father, the opening line of the opening poem, "Avuncularity," "Every child ought to have a dead uncle" (11), is an unexpected declaration, a violent denial of the speaker's history.  "Avuncularity" goes on to address the daughter who has lost her father and who we learn in later poems is the speaker herself: "he / is the one whose fault it can be: / the slight warps, the spider-cracks in your speech, / the explanation for all the wrongness / that made the other children pause, assess you / a little coldly and pull back as one toward the playground" (11).

Beer continues this direct yet somehow simultaneously indirect approach to the book's central subject matter in poems like "My Father as a Small Submarine:" "The hospital room at night / is the bottom of the ocean."; "Lullabies:" "My heart twists backward to my father; / ... / Maker of nightmates and nightmares. / Maker of night.  Maker of me."; and "A Short Documentary of my Father Running Backwards: "I want to believe / that during your last / beach road jog / the seizure / drew you taut."  These poems emit from Beer's experiences with the physical and metaphysical nature of her father's death and, in turn, from her psychological response to that process.  As a result, The Diminishing House is a book that manages to write from various stages of grief without a shred of sentimentality but without being too standoffish either.  And even though we encounter the father, his declining health, and the aftermath of his passing throughout the book, very little writing is dedicated to what actually causes it; rather, The Diminishing House is anchored by a unique sequence of poems broken up throughout the book in eulogy to various unusual and more-often-than-not frail parts of the human anatomy.  The first of these "anatomical poems," "Floating Rib," is the fourth poem in the collection:

            FLOATING RIB

                                    One member of the two lowest pairs of ribs,

                                                which are attached neither to the sternum

                                                nor to the cartilage of other ribs.

            The permanent elsewhere of fathers-

            my hand goes to my side as I read.

            A lie thrusts out into viscera, gestures

            to untouchable bone.  My own

            private wish: to snap it free and brandish

            -what?  A burin?  A blunderbuss?

            Tool for making, unmaking.  Lever

            to press against my tongue, to bear me

            through terrible convulsions.  I will not make

            of it a new body.  I'll hammer it to gravel.

            The ribcage opens its book, one phrase

            unspeakable scrubbed

"Note on the Xiphoid Process" addresses the "blunt, cartilaginous lower tip / of the sternum"; "Variation on the Philthrum" "the hollow that divides the upper lip"; "Genes" "the red beads encircling / the throat of Rembrandt's young woman / at the open half-door"; and so on.

These poems address/venerate/rue the body's strangeness, focusing on anatomical elements that are often embarrassing or not terribly well known.  In all cases, these poems define via metaphor such strange anatomical features as the Xiphoid Process, which Beer transforms from a part of the sternum to "a single stalactite drip[ping] / onto the head of a blind fish," or the Perineum: "the area in front of the anus / extending to the genitals" which becomes, in Beer's oddly deviant imagination, "the necessary expanse / between desire and duty!" in "Ode to the Perineum."

The Diminishing House is a virtual tour-de-form.  While poems like "LMNO," "Provenance," and "My Father is a Small Submarine" hug the left margin in loose iambic, "Still Life with Half-Turned Woman and Questions" is a list of questions followed by their answers:

            Q.  So, what are you working on these days?

                        A metaphor machine.

            Q.  What did you paint first?

                        A table that glints with the self-assurance of a wrack.

"Variations," "Erosion," and "Lullabies" make use of sections, one with numbers, one with asterisks, and the other with Roman numerals.  "Ouroboros" employs wider elements of the page with lengthy, dropped, and/or indented lines.  "Mako" is in tercets.  And, finally, "Cubital Fossa" emulates via form the object of its definition, "the triangular anatomical region / anterior to the elbow joint":

            Pack mule for packages,

            cradler of gunbutts,

            blackfly cockpit,



            sweat tarn,



There are also three prose poems in The Diminishing House: "His Mistress," the title poem, and "Patellae Apocrpypha," which is bracketed by quotation marks and borrows the language of the Old Testament. 

Beer's poetry is clearly driven by a desire to play and while books about the death of one's parental unit are virtually their own genre, Beer has most certainly made her mark.  The poems of The Diminishing House face down the death of one's maker while sharing with us her lifelong struggle with the reality of her father's death through voice, form, and a rare eccentricity.  The Diminishing House is a singular debut.  Fearless.  Strange.  And emotional in the face of so much pressure to be anything but.

Check out the review at New Letters.org