Jan Beatty is professor of English and director of creative writing at Carlow University, director of the Madwomen in the Attic writing workshops, and distinguished writer in residence of the Carlow University MFA program. Her fifth book, Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, won the 2018 Paterson Prize, and her memoir, American Bastard, won the 2019 Red Hen Nonfiction Award.
What would it take to be home in one’s body, to walk around the world as oneself, knowing the pain within and without us? Jan Beatty boldly answers that question by making a fire map of the body. These roiling poems smack into walls of meditation, only to slide down the smooth concrete into the flatline of joy. These are vital poems of dimension, of both psychic and literal travel, of the elasticity of truth and struggle, of the daily nature of desire that brings us to our knees—then shotguns us back to the heart’s center.
In Jackknife: New and Selected Poems, Beatty travels the turns and collisions of over twenty years of work. She moves from first-person narratives to poems that straddle the page in fragments, to lines that sprawl with long lines of train tracks. Always landing in meaning, we are inside the body—not in a confessional voice, not autobiography—but arriving through the expanded, exploded image of many stories and genders. The new poems leap imagistically from the known world to the purely imagined, as in the voice in “Abortion with Gun Barrel”: “I am the counselor,/there are cracks in the barrel of the gun/there is aiming/shots of sorrow—/ shots of light.” Commitment to a rabid feminist voice continues, but arrival has a new ring to it, with beginnings rescripted: “I am a bastard./I walk around in this body of mine.” Beatty’s fascination with the highway and the breakout West jackknifes at the crossroads of the brutal and the white plains of loss—the body torn down and resurrected in the twenty first century.
In Jan Beatty’s fourth collection, The Switching/Yard, she takes us through the ravaged landscape of the American West. In unflinching lines of burning lyric and relentless narrative, she forges the constructed body into movement. What is still stereotyped as the romantic journey—now becomes as scarred as the Rust Belt. What lives in our collective unconscious as the Golden West becomes almost surreal, as these poems snap that vision in half with extended description of ghost explorers.
We see the open truck cab, the farm workers on the corner waiting for pick-up; we see the speaker returning west to find the long-abandoned story of the birthfather. There is no stable landscape here except the horizontal action of moving through. Landscape becomes story. In this extended tale of the idea of family, we find stand-ins for the father in the form of a hit man, Jim Morrison, and ultimately the unyielding road takes the place of the body. The Switching/Yard is at once the horizontal world of the birth table where babies are switched, the complex yard of the body where gender routinely shifts and switches, and the actual switching yard of the trains that run the inevitable tracks of this book.
In her third collection, Beatty travels inside the body to the blood that codes us, moving beyond the language of post-confessionialism into fourth-wave feminism, challenging notions of the “romantic” “and the “brutal” and how they exist within us and between us.
Winner of the 1994 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize Winner of the 2000 Creative Achievement Award from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust “In every poem, she keeps her fury contained, but omnipresent, so that it resembles a cornered dog’s warning growl, yet she hints of happier possibilities.”—Booklist