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Steven Karl on Kate Colby

Beauport by Kate Colby

Litmus Press, 2010

Review by Steven Karl




Kate Colby’s third book, Beauport, shares its title with the seaside mansion (now called the Sleeper-McCann House) in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The oft-labeled “outrageous” designer Henry Davis Sleeper created the mansion over a century ago.  Sleeper’s Beauport has carved out a particular niche in history as a mansion that represents what many consider quintessentially “New England.”  Colby’s collection, which is a mixture of verse and prose, also seeks to capture and then recapitulate the essence of New England.   This recapitulation is really the nerve of the book as it seeks to affirm what it means to be labeled “New England,” yet Colby often plays with these expectations taking the work in sometimes dark and surprising territory.  The poem “Liberty Enlightening the World (1885)” contains these lines:


                                    the wall

                                    is peeling

                                    away from the paper.


            So, I will start the song over

            from the beginning again

            and again and again

            until I can really feel it


Colby moves from the concrete image of peeling walls into a commentary about the nuisance of song.  “Song” here can be substituted for “history.”  The tension in Beauport is between factual history and remembered history.  The idea of replaying a song from the beginning is like rewinding history over and over again until one finds what one is looking for and therefore can make a physical connection to it.  Much of Beauport lies slyly from the perspective of an unreliable speaker seeking to either make a “connection” with the past i.e. “history” or to rewrite history on a personal level.  Slavery, war, and various manifestations of violence seep around the edges while life is lived through the lens of wants, desires, and heavy dashes of domesticity intertwined with interior design.  In the poem “Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth (n.d.)” Colby writes:


                        History has taught us anything:

                        record your deeds in irreducible

                        materials, travertine and code,

                        at least leave behind a pile of

                        crumpled clothes on the floor

                        to suggest the body that once

                        became them, becomes them

                        again, a foundation

                        whose seamless joints don’t need

                        mortar to withstand centuries —


“History has taught us anything” can easily be misread as a question:  Has history taught us anything?  The idea of leaving clothes behind to bear some kind of physical evidence of existence initiates the cycle of “this has all happened before and it will all happen again” à la “to suggest the body that once/ became them, becomes them/ again.”  Colby is questioning the idea of permanence in the face of history and time.  Which leads the reader to wonder—does the passage of time make something more permanent, or less so?  Beauport seeks to have it both ways. History as it is taught or passed on cements recollection (although Colby is always questioning who has the access to create “historical” legacy) yet Colby knows how memories can seduce, trick and change resulting in the dilution of memory. 


Time becomes the through-line that simultaneously connects and disconnects the real from the imagined.  In the poem “The Snow-Shoe Dance: To Thank the Great Spirit for the First Appearance of Snow (n.d.),” Colby writes “an endless feedback loop of antiquity/ sans the inconveniences of history.” Earlier in the book, the poem “Home to Thanksgiving (1867)” says “I miss everything/ all the time, even/ what’s in front of me:” and from another poem, “Sailor-Far-Far, / I hope this feeling/ never goes away— this/ is consummation, is/ the look of time-lapsed/ stars moving across a life, is/ the megaphone through which/I see you” (from “The Sailor- Far-Far at Sea (1845)”).  The speaker is always hyper-aware of time, how impenetrable it seems to be which causes the speaker to continually look ahead and behind. The book constantly questions how does one make time tangible?  Time marks history but history consists of more than the tangibility of physical objects.  So the complexity of history comes from the marriage of the physical to the remembered (which we both trust and distrust being aware of the fallibility of both memory and how perceptions (societal/culture) change with the passage of time).


Beauport draws its source material from Henry Davis Sleeper, Colby’s remembrances of her New England upbringing, as well as lithographs of Currier & Ives, so the charm of the book is that Colby’s writing is alive with interrogation and philosophical mediations of history and the way we attempt to stay connected with a nature that is constant and never stills except in the crevices of our brains.  The result is a book that is both lyrical and conversational. A book that always feels in the present.  There’s beautiful music throughout such as from this untitled prose-block, “…Slow curtains/ of spray fall on dark hanks of knotted wrack and/ rockweed, a carpet of barnacles, tens of thousands/ of unseen open mouths.”  Ultimately, Beauport will set you adrift with beautiful imagery and haunting questions that will linger long after the book is finished such as,


                        What if the world began with the kiss, then the reel ran

                        backwards. How would it end: a clock radio yawping

                        into eternity.

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