Review by Bevil Townsend
Made to Explode
W.W. Norton & Company
Sandra Beasley’s latest book, Made to Explode, is a vital force for understanding humanity during these times of unrest. In the landscapes of Washington, D.C., as well as rural pockets of America, Beasley guides readers through monuments and franchises by gathering you in a language that cradles, like comfort food and a good friend who nudges you to reflect, and then allows you to awaken to a new understanding in a way that is insistent, complex, and satiating.
The title Made to Explode is a nod, on the surface, to the speaker’s allergies to foods that cause her body to go into anaphylactic shock. But, just below that, we understand quickly it is the structure of our society we are asked to examine. Toward the beginning of the book, she writes:
On the Route 7 strip,
next to the office supply store,
next to the pool supply store,
next to the Tower Records,
next to the T.J. Maxx,
the Ranger Surplus lurked
The speaker arrives at a Ranger surplus store to purchase gifts for her father. Among the seemingly innocuous and mundane, Beasley consistently asks the reader to acknowledge the violence that “lurks” like a militarized citizen in camouflage. That this is all reflected against the backdrop of the Route 7 strip reinforces a tone of normalcy, yet we feel the speaker’s quietly appalled resistance that something is not quite right. That ominous feeling continues to permeate the poems as the book progresses. Everywhere the speaker ventures, the history and the unspoken and those who were oppressed and silenced and erased reverberate within the edges of the poems.
While the poems observe the ingenuity of something as ubiquitous as the tater tot, we learn of the speaker’s childhood. She writes: “the golden age of my childhood is a foil-lined tray/ plattered with Ore-Ida product, maybe salt, maybe/ nothing but hot anticipation of my fingertips.” The gluttony in these poems is a deceptive trick. Life seems better, more appealing, love served through food more kind or more ordinary or both. Yet, much like the rest of our American narrative, the brutality is ever present in the waiting-to-be-singed fingers of the child, almost as if it would never happen and knowing it always did.
These stark moments arise amid luscious poems, marked with the integrity of a mind that is relentless in its searching for revelation. To reveal something both true and remarkable such as “spider rain” from the Jefferson memorial at midnight has us discovering that this “rain” is the sticky thread that binds us to our darker past. She writes in the prose poem “Jefferson, Midnight”:
In 1918 and for six summers after, the Tidal Basin was chlorinated so this bank could become a beach. Whites only. Spiders who are drawn to rising heat populate the ceiling of Jefferson’s memorial. Once the sun sets, the temperature drops; they lose their grip and fall. Bodies bounce off my shoulders, bodies land in my hair. Guards call this the spider rain.
What other White lyricists might have done with a poem about the Jefferson memorial, to simply marvel at the beauty of the beach and the statue and connect that lyrically to the Jefferson’s quotes on the tyranny against men which are etched along the rotunda monument—Beasley refuses to do. “Whites only,” she writes. And the speaker accepts as fact that the bodies will bounce off her, denoting that her whiteness will go unscathed by this everyday phenomenon that most visitors to Jefferson’s monument will surely miss.
She sites Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a production of Kiss Me, Kate, and finds touch and tenderness and space to hold the bags of onions in a card table given to her by a friend. And through all of this, she keeps feeding us slices of food and history and reckoning. But Beasley never lets you wander too far into the shadows, there are multiple poems of love and connection that consistently act as anchors. The speaker buys oranges off Route 301 in Florida:
We’ll work for an hour, slicing and pressing,
until we’ve filled two bottles to the brim.
What two bodies couldn’t make music,
within such a tight embrace of aluminum.
The aluminum confinement creates canned food that harkens back to bomb shelters. The speaker, who is searching for a word that rhymes with orange, is also “in lust with Florida’s strange” colors and north and south dichotomies that mirror a flipped microcosm of the northern and southern tensions in the nation.
Yet Beasley is not afraid to venture deeper than these points of taste senses. The book contains poems titled “Black Death Spectacle”; “Topsy Turvey,” which refers to a plantation doll; and “My Whitenesses.” All three of these pieces insist upon internal reflection. Perhaps, the most poignant lines that wrestle with this theme are:
Virginia, my ghosts
Come to the table
And sit, goddammit. Sit.
But it isn’t just racial oppression and inequality that Beasley unearths. There are poems that explore the erasure of female voices and native peoples and ones that highlight disability and gay rights struggles. This book is positioned in an intersection of these marginalized voices, and it does not disappoint in its lyrical approach to reveal insights and wisdom.
Amid these roads and gustatory sensations, we see poems like “The Sniper Dance” as the speaker recalls the everyday madness created by the shooters who killed at random while citizens carried out their perfunctory business.
We needed bacon and bread, so we went to Magruder’s. We needed gas, so we stopped at Exxon. Kids got on the school bus. We watched for a white Chevy Astro. Dear Policeman, the tarot card said, I am God. The woman shot in the parking lot at Seven Corners was an FBI analyst, the newspapers would tell us later.
The randomness of the shootings, which occurred in the D.C. metro region in October 2002 and killed 10 people and injured three, caused sheer terror. The tarot card referenced in the poem was found near one of the crime scenes, according to CNN. Beasley focuses on one of the victims who was a women killed in a Home Depot parking lot. Again, the delivery of food staples such as bread and bacon nourish us, and the sullen mixture of America’s big box stores with American serial killers reminds us that terror is normalized in our society. It is a meal we’ve been digesting for centuries—the oppression, the rage, the topsy-turvy divisions of law-and-order all wreaking havoc on our collective nervous systems—making us bomb-like in anticipation of the final event. Put simply, this book is necessary reading for our modern day.
SANDRA BEASLEY (www.sandrabeasley.com) is the author of Made to Explode; Count the Waves; I Was the Jukebox, winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; Theories of Falling, winner of the New Issues Poetry Prize; and Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, a disability memoir. She also edited Vinegar and Char: Verse from the Southern Foodways Alliance. She lives in Washington, D.C.
BEVIL TOWNSEND is a poet, feminist, and editor who lives in Washington, D.C. She has written two books of poetry, Birdsong and Buckshot: An Elegiac Echo (FLP Media Group) and One Hell of a Woman (Moonstone Press). Her work can be found in numerous online and print journals.