In the age before emoji, long-distance communication was hard. So much ink, so much paper, so much meaning to fit into fiddly words.
So in the mid-19th century, as D.C. poet Sandra Beasley would like to tell you, one A.C. Baldwin set off on a quest to tame the English language. He put together a book of codes that could condense lengthy sentences to numbers, and expand them back again. His title (which could have used a little condensing of its own): The Traveler’s Vade Mecum; or Instantaneous Letter Writer, by Mail or Telegraph, for the Convenience of Persons Traveling on Business or for Pleasure, and for Others, Whereby a Vast Amount of Time, Labor, and Trouble is Saved.
None of us read poetry for convenience, or out of the hope of saving ourselves trouble. There are, as poet William Carlos Williams suggested, better ways to get the news. But Beasley’s new collection, Count the Waves, suggests that Baldwin’s project and the poet’s labors have more in common than you’d think. They share the illusion of brevity—a few marks on a page expanding into meaning. And for all Baldwin’s talk of saving time, there’s copious labor behind packing and unpacking so much significance.
Beasley titles poems with Baldwin’s phrases, from line 4983 (“How long ago was it?”) to line 6716 (“The strictest order must be preserved.”). Her pieces prove an unstated point: Where the Vade Mecum seeks to send one meaning in a few numbers, poetry packs a multitude of meanings in a few words. It’s not efficiency, but expansiveness.
In some cases, the connection between the phrase and the verse is evocative; in others, it’s obscure. But all of the Vade Mecum poems are triumphs, challenging the question of what it means to mean, hinting at how much might be hidden behind a string of numbers.
And they aren’t just intellectual exercises. The poems are full of subtly arresting imagery, the kind that takes a beat to register: “If you could see oaks/in their entirety, you would be offended/by their many-fingered grab of dirt and sky.”
They star a panoply of speakers. “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #2485: ‘I Have Not Decided’” shows weary Tantalus serving in an all-night diner in the afterlife, always one customer away from his break. “The Traveler’s Vade Mecum, Line #346, ‘The Banks Have Begun To Contract,’” wraps a city in metaphors that seem celebratory, until they start to echo of apocalypse.
The Vade Mecum poems would merit a volume all their own. But this collection isn’t it. Instead, it’s half-full of unrelated works—some striking, some forgettable. (Highlights include a lovelorn sword-swallower’s lament and the title poem, a sestina on the subject of modern poetry that manages to be downright gleeful.)
All the poems, Vade Mecum and otherwise, frequently allude to history and myth, from the boats of Abydos to Metro’s June 2009 Red Line disaster. But they strip away dates and names to turn the stories into parables, unmoored from time and circumstance (one poem is even named “Parable,” in case you’ve missed the trend). Outside D.C., the specific Metro crash Beasley references might be unrecognized, but the dread of impending disaster is universal.
And they all reveal how deftly Beasley wields the final line. A poem’s close can tie it up or blow it apart—and Beasley almost always chooses an explosion, or at least a startling pivot. Her closing words shift speakers, realign priorities, reveal what’s at stake. A poem full of smirking love advice for a gravedigger reveals, as it ends, that the speaker is the grave herself: “I’m just a truck crash away./You’re so close.”
The darker meaning was always near, if only we could see it. There may be no Vade Mecum to unlock the code, but there is a generous closing word to mark the way.
Beasley reads at Politics & Prose on June 7.