Book Review: The Switching/Yard by Jan Beatty

reviewed by CL Bledsoe

The Switching/Yard, poems by Jan Beatty. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Anyone who’s ever ridden on a train has found himself staring out the window and wondering at what he saw. The landscape, the towns we pass, the people; all evoke stories. In her most recent collection, Beatty has written some of these stories. Beatty’s focus is on urban images, especially train yards and manufacturing. “California Corridor” gives us a view of Beatty’s world:

On the San Joaquin Line
between Modesto & Merced,
past the arroyos, past the fruit trees
in rows, rows—hands of the farm workers/
beauty always with blood behind it,
nothing free.
(lines 1-6).

Her language is clean and straight-forward. She describes a beautiful and alien world full of hard-working, underpaid immigrants struggling to survive while waiting for “the angels of bread” (9). She describes California as “a wide,/wide lover” (12-13). A handful of Beatty’s poems describe her fascination with the natural world. “We Cover Our Heads Like Deer” is about a bunch of writers and artists bird watching. The situation is absurd; Beatty is instructed to cover her head with a blanket and walk like a deer, though she doesn’t know what that means. Beatty is often an outsider in these situations, just as she rides on a train observing the difficult lives of others but not entering them. “White Girl in a record Store” describes her attempt to broaden her horizons as she attempts to buy “Rapper’s Delight.” Beatty becomes embarrassed as the record store employees try to sell her a bunch of merchandise. She’s simply curious about a part of the culture she’s missed, but can’t make the leap from her comfort zone to actually connect.

The title poem describes Beatty’s trip to meet her birth father, passing through a manufacturing wasteland, “2 giant sleeping cranes, nothing as lonely as/a crane not working,” she begins. (1-2). As the train moves north away from the switching yard, Beatty describes a beautiful landscape, “…the sky’s/blue-dark with the trees going back to their night souls” (17-18). “We are all so/separate with the same lives,” she reminds (pg. 30, lines 16-17).

Though Beatty deals with some pretty weighty themes, she’s also got quite a sense of humor. “Dear American Poetry,” takes to task the lack of diversity in those poems selected for the major anthologies – diversity in terms of the race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. of the poets, but also for the lack of real emotive power in the poems. “Stein: Letter to a Young Rilke” has a similar tongue-in-cheek approach. She also touches on certain aspects of pop culture, mainly music, by addressing Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the like.

But sense of place is the real focus of the collection. Beatty describes meeting her birth parents, an experience which adds to her desire for a connection with place. Beatty uses language and descriptions often reserved for the Rust Belt, but her focus is California and the west. It’s a changing landscape, at times barren and luscious. Beatty is as much an outsider as we are, trying to make sense of it, and we get to peek at her discoveries.

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