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).
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:
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
"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.
"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,
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.