Shaindel Beers is a phenomenal poet. She's also a friend of mine. We sing in community choir together, and she is aunt to my cats, Luna and Persie. A person with keys to my house, who watches my girls when my wife and I go out of town. Most of all, she's a person I love relating to, joking with, and I deeply enjoy rolling our collective eyes with when someone on social media says something stupid. That all being said, I bought her latest book of poetry before most of that happened, and let me tell you -- Secure Your Own Mask is a collection that deeply affected me as a reader.
I only discovered poetry this year on any level, and I've been devouring as much of it as I can find: from Emily Dickinson to Oscar Wilde, Amanda Gorman to Maya Angelou, from Alice Walker to the immortal Mary Oliver. Poetry moves me deeply, even if I lack the words to describe why. So bear with me as I learn to describe my heart for this book in words -- words that still might be wildly insufficient.
Beers covers a wide range of hard-hitting topics in this collection of poetry. She begins by talking about her own past, abusive relationship. She covers topics such as lost innocence, motherhood, finding peace in conflict, suicide, anti-semitism, the male gaze on women, and so much more. Each one feels as if she's opening her very breastbone, exposing the rawness of herself inside for the reader to experience for themselves. Her language is intimate and personal, using imagery to give us a private viewing of the life of a professional survivor.
In "The Con Man's Wife," Beers describes a woman who is Patient Zero of her husband's lies. In the fourth through sixth stanzas, she writes,
"Once, I believed anything that was said to me.
I believed I was smart and capable and beautiful.
Once, I believed everything that was said to me.
I believed I was stupid and crazy and dangerous.
Some days I believe I've broken my brain by
believing this all at once [....]"
How many of us can say that we've been built up and broken down simultaneously? Those who abuse us can make us feel like we can do anything, yet we're broken and unlovable. Where would we go if we left, and who else would even want us? How can both perspectives hold space in our minds at the same time? Beers brings life to this paradox, speaking with honest clarity to a feeling that I, too, have felt, but was never able to articulate.
I was especially struck by "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican." This set of poems takes the majestic bird and turns it into different allegories -- for loneliness, motherhood, climate change, rebirth. I found myself reading each one two, three times, before moving onto the next. I returned to these poems to write this review, and I found myself looking at each one in a new light, as someone who knows the author a bit more now. Her love of nature, her love of her son, her love of this planet and most particularly the animals that inhabit it -- it comes through with resounding clarity, and I find myself wishing I had the words to say the same. In the first poem of this set, Beers describes a lone pelican floating on the river, and hearing later that it was injured and would probably have to be euthanized.
"My self-doubt that kept me
from calling. Did I cause that pelican
more hours of suffering
or gift it a few more hours
of floating in the reeds,
a little while longer to bob
in the gentle current,
the coolness of water over webbed feet?
Forgive me, pelican. I also, am always alone,
also fly too recklessly for my own good."
I relate to the dilemma on a profound level. The constant desire to do the next right thing, the doubt that holds me back. The guilt when I should have listened to my instincts. What I find, in the midst of this, is a desire for the peace with which she concludes this poem. The knowledge that she might have granted the pelican reprieve or suffering, a gentle plea for forgiveness for what she couldn't know. An acceptance for the outcome. I find myself wanting to learn that peace and acceptance, learning from these words, how to move on from my self-doubt and let myself breathe when I make a mistake.
I first read Secure Your Own Mask when I was in the hospital, receiving an infusion for my autoimmune disorder. I was in for four hours of Rituxan being drip, drip, dripped into my veins while I sat in the leather chair and pretended that I wasn't afraid of dying. What I had imagined, opening the book of a local poet I'd vaguely heard of from my days working at our local college, was a Mary-Oliver-esque nature imagery, profound and peaceful. What I found was profound, yes. But in place of peace, I found the piercing sincerity of a woman who has lived through so much. Someone who doesn't shy away from the cracks between the hard emotions we feel, who is at peace with unsettling us just a little so long as we understand. This collection is a heart on a sleeve; a survivor's heart, broken and yet, still beating. It inspires the survivor in all of us, tells us we can keep going and find passion and breathe new life into our lungs after the pain. It was far from the collection I thought I wanted to read that day. Somehow, inexplicably... it was just what I needed. Maybe you'll find that, too.
(Bonus photo below.)
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(Bonus: a fun little picture of Shaindel pet-sitting for me while my wife and I were in California this summer, and Persie's, erm, "comfort" with getting in the face of her new friend.)