The Lyric of the Crowd: Re-Reading Jose Perez Beduya


by Jay Aquinas Thompson

by Jose Perez Beduya,
&NOW Press, 114 pp.

The five-year-old poetry book can be a lonely thing. After a hoped-for hothouse blossoming of critical conversation dies down and the book is no longer taught, examined, or hyped as “contemporary,” but before the sifting of literary works into historical periods marked by exemplary texts or indicative turns, a five-year-old book survives—if it survives—as a back-level prop supporting its author’s professional aims, or as an old friend tucked in a reader’s bag. American small and institutional presses bring out so many books of poetry each year that many slip by. This is a shame, especially in the case of a book as prophetic, and powerful, as Jose Perez Beduya’s first and so far only poetry collection, Throng.

Throng had nothing to do with the poetic fashions of 2012. It didn’t attempt the consciously “hybrid,” Jorie Graham-ish experimental lyric then coming out of Iowa; it entirely lacks the first-person zaniness of James Tate’s young fans; it didn’t reproduce the formal effects of post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. Throng did share the implicit subject of many of these latter experimenters—the alienation of the individual under capitalism, and the mediating power of social and market forces on individual consciousness—but Beduya’s book avoided the cerebral coldness of much of post-L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry.

As both digital interconnectivity and overt state surveillance have become even more apparent in Americans’ daily lives, Throng, at five years old, now feels incredibly timely. The book’s central question is: how does one write morally from an unavoidably collective and mediated consciousness?

Throng speaks almost exclusively from a plural “we,” stranded in an environment of medicines and razor wire, confirmation numbers of membranes of light. Situated “Inside the Bright Wheel” (the title of a sequence of poems braided in fours through Throng), Beduya’s speaker weeps and shivers and works, dies without sleeping, is segued “to a change / Of person but exactly // The same scenery” [13]. This is not to say the speaker is evened out or made uniform. On the contrary, this “we” has as many roles as there are slots in the social machinery of their world. Sometimes the plural speaker is sometimes an agent with power over scurrying human objects, as in “The Architects”:

We designed
A transparent ringing carapace
To descend over our citizens

Glassing the city
So our laughter
Will always bounce back down to us [17]

But more often, the “we” feels like society’s little people, the lonely seekers and worker-drones of a proliferant, overwhelming social environment.

Now we learn
Helplessness for everyone

Now we trade warmth

For the pleasure of the group
Now we are pacified

By the breeze on our foreheads [73-74]

The mood of Throng isn’t foreboding, exactly—disaster and its remnants have already come, have already surrounded the speaker—but Beduya’s tone throughout the book is cool, analytical. Even eye-popping images are quieted by the poet’s use of skinny, unpunctuated stanzas and plain declarative sentence structures:

Here comes wind crucified to a horse
And dust that was breathing once
Reconcile the columns
And the arm will be
Grafted back to you
No heroic aftertaste
Only sleep and amnesia
Forced march of night
Across the eternal eyelid [77]

This balance of energies recalls George Oppen, whose Of Being Numerous is an obvious progenitor for Throng; it also suggests the allusive, cryptically political late poetry of Bei Dao. Anyone who’s ever slumped exhausted on a late bus after a long work shift or scrolled vacantly through Facebook on a lonely night can relate to Throng’s tone of subdued alienation, and Beduya is far from alone in trying to create poems from it. But what stands out in Throng is the moral urgency—even tenderness—that Beduya brings to his subjects:

Music is fed to us
We who also drink

The milk from our elders’ eyes
Our legs are strong and bright

Though we can’t dance at the inside
Of a memorial anymore

We have found that mercy
Stops the heart [36]

This urgency is often communicated in desperation: “We must mass-produce / Mirrors to stay what we are” [29]. But, notably, it is sometimes also expressed in the intimation of a spiritual reality that, Throng suggests, just may lie beyond the mighty social and political forces acting on the speaker. In “Revolver,” the plural speaker slips past debt collectors and a devouring “shopping complex” to a place of refuge:

Through the wine the dead
Murmured their absolutions

We found joy again
And feasted
Without remainder on the other
Side of the ruins [40]

Taking up the theme, another poem asserts that “There is joy and warm / Feeling without accumulation // But we must look everywhere for it” [68]. Then again, that poem is entitled “Through Error.” And far more often in Throng, the world presses hard on any gestures the speaker makes toward spiritual consolation, furtive pleasure, or human dignity: “Washing the body we realize / There is a line of cars behind us” [81].

Not everything in Throng succeeds. Beduya’s poems have the vigor and seriousness of someone opening a new terrain for his poetic consciousness, but the results can sometimes feel gestural. In the weaker poems, Beduya’s ideas are diminished by received-feeling evocations of an uneasy or violent mood: “A line of drunkards / Scale a row of sycamores / To praise / And elegize money” [69]; “All we are / Are our papers” [51]; “We gut our enemies / But speak softly into them // By force of habit” [38]. Lines like these are too familiar, suggesting an overdetermination of image by tone.

But, despite moments like these, Throng is an undeniably significant book five years later. Its plural voice undermines simplistic notions of the lyric subject; its moral seriousness rejects the studied anonymity, goofy play, and arid satire of its contemporaries. This independence and vision means that the psychosocial environment of Throng feels even more familiar now than it did five years ago:

We sit
Transfixed as attendants

Wheel away the dusk and floodlights
Squeeze through the trees

We hum

Not in pain are we

Most alone
But in music [63]


Image by dailyinvention.

About the Author:

Jay Aquinas Thompson is a poet, teacher, essayist and activist. He has poems and critical writing in (and forthcoming in) THEthe_poetry, Volt, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review Online and Poetry Northwest. He lives in Seattle, where he plays in the band Princess Seismograph and teaches creative writing to women incarcerated at King County Jail. He keeps a blog at