Review: Secure Your Own Mask, Shaindel Beers
By Lennart Lundh
There are books which clearly deserve the awards given them. Shaindel Beers' Secure Your Own Mask, recipient of the 2018 White Pine Press Poetry Prize, is one such from first line to last. Beers' voice is clear and consistent throughout the forty-two poems which form the book's four sections. Dealing largely with intense traumas and their echoing aftermaths, the language is intimate and frankly honest with no sign of hiding behind self-referential phrasing. The form of the poems -- a mixture of prose poems and free verse -- is not just secondary to the words' function, but largely incidental, as the poems' flow and rhythm move naturally across line and stanza breaks. Finally, the mechanics of capitalization and punctuation, as well as strong proofreading, add to the book's readability. All these points are critical to creating a successful collection, and Beers earns full marks.
This mastery comes as no surprise. Beers has authored two previous, well-received poetry collections through Salt Publishing: A Brief History of Time (2009), followed by The Children’s War and Other Poems (2013). A professor at Blue Mountain Community College, she also serves as Poetry Editor of Contrary Magazine. With those combined credentials, one should expect no less than work worth one's close attention.
The thirteen poems in the first section deal with violence and abuse in forms both personal and societal, including that of not having agency in one's own life. The opening poem, "The (Im)Precision of Language" (page 11), while almost playfully considering multiple and often contradictory meanings of words, is crystal clear when Beers explains:
he was grooming me for greater violence,
the rock thrown at me in the car,
the wedding ring pressed so tight
by his hand holding mine until I bled.
The position of the abuser as being the one in need of saving is openly rejected by the title of "Secure Your Mask Before Helping Others" (page 14), which ends in the abuser's words:
. . . though you're lucky I give you anything,
you worthless bitch.
Oh, look, here's the oxygen mask.
Here's your chance to save me.
Put it over my face and let me breathe.
"The Secret Rabbit" (page 23) neatly captures both the lack of control the narrator experiences in her life and the reason for it:
. . . The way girls were given by their fathers
to a husband to a grave and that was the only story.
. . .and me
with no way to make a world of my own because I didn't know
Section two's eighteen poems focus primarily on surviving and escaping through choices that, if necessary, are neither easy nor pleasant in their execution. In "Friends, 1991" (page 35), Beers tells of being, "Scared shitless / of ending up pregnant or poor or fat / or all three." and concludes:
. . . We couldn't have
lived any different. We couldn't have saved
one another. We were just trying to survive
the only way we knew how."
"There Are No (Simple) Happy Endings" (page 36) describes the overwhelmed mother considering (self-)destructive escape routes, but ends with her opting for a saner control:
And this is where we learn
The Mother Who Left is hero / not monster.
To walk away, board the bus, step up
into the cab of the big rig, telling the trucker
Thank you. I've just got to get out of here
is the same story as giving the child love.
This epiphany grows into belief in one's self through the rest of the section, and reaches maturity with the last lines of "Playing Dolls" (page 61):
. . . Stare down
the hammer above your porcelain skull. You know your body
is misshapen from following the choreographer's uneven directions.
Now, what are you going to do to fix it?
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican" (page 65) is the sole poem in the third section. Its fifteen pages concern themselves with continued growth and re-understanding after the escape from abuse. The need is clear when Beers relates:
You said, That's your problem. You always
doubt your instincts.
As a woman, I've been taught to ignore
connections. The ones between myself
and the moon, the tides
internal and external.
The mechanism is awareness and observation of the world as macrocosm and individuals within it as microcosms. Of pelicans preening, Beers ponders, "I wonder if they can hear / the frictions of their surfaces one against / the other." In an exchange between a professor and a young man, there's "the professor asking / My God, what happened?" and "the lie slipping out of his mouth / A baseball I didn't catch."
And there is growth, though the process is likely never complete. The dangerously overwhelmed mother of the early poems now tells us, "I want my son to be like that brave boy / so gentle and unafraid all at once." It's also become possible to feel the pain of strangers:
. . . someone
has spray-painted, Angela, I love you.
Fix me. It's always these moments
of public brokenness that undo me.
There is even strength to embrace the world, to ask, "What will become of all of us, if we don't listen?"
The concluding section's ten poems aren't the story's conclusion. It speaks to us about healings, as in "Prayer to the God of Small Things" (page 83),
Please let me dwell
in the smallness of this speck that disappears
when you smile. Let me weather the winds
fanned by your eyelashes.
but continues to measure the present in light of the past when Beers asks, in "Curious George Loves the Man with the Yellow Hat" (page 86), "How much of love / is love? How much the geometry of jawline / and hip ratio, search for the golden spiral?"
There is surety in hard-won wisdom to be passed on, exemplified by the closing lines of "The Old Woman in the Forest" (page 87), saying, "Heed me, my child, don't trust men who claim /
to be princes, who claim to possess golden keys." Still, "Left and Leaving, 2016" (page 99) reminds us that if body and mind have been repaired, the world has not, warning, "There is no happily after -- the fairy tales / are lies. We only have what we were able to cling to."
Ultimately, we have here a well-crafted, unblinking journey through horrors and hopes. There are, besides personal lessons for the individual reader, so many classroom settings which would benefit from Secure Your Own Mask being a major part of the syllabus. Get a copy, read it more than once, and share its beauty with others. Recall that question: "What will become of all of us, if we don't listen?"
Lennart Lundh has published sixteen books of poetry, two short-fiction collections, and six volumes on military aviation history. His work has appeared internationally since 1965.