Probing "Brain" poetry rewards deep thinkers

"Lord Brain"
by Bruce Beasley
University of Georgia Press,
95 pp., $16.95

Sir Walter Russell Brain was an early 20th-century neurologist, a researcher into the clump of gray matter he shared a name with. That bit of verbal synchronicity sets the stage for "Lord Brain," by Bellingham poet Bruce Beasley, a series of poems in search of the place where matter and spirit meet. Some of the poems address God in sophisticated language that evokes John Donne, Emily Dickinson and scripture.

The poet is aware, of course, that any god he conjures will in some sense be his own intellectual creation. Goaded by that paradox, Beasley's poems batter their heads against an invisible wall, with all the futility of a machine trying to comprehend its own design. Beasley aims high, and when he is most successful, the work is transporting. The despairing chant in the title poem, "Lord Brain," is really the essence of the book:

& I watched a slugtrail shimmer down the brick,
felt the dulling of my nerve- impulse, amygdala to cortex,
inchoate dread to thought-of-dread,
& I muttered, Lord, in the brain, Lord Brain, if soul there is,
if Lord there is, Lord, preserve
my soul, if soul
I have,
& I watched the lightning-bug larvae crawl all along that slugtrail toward their mucid prey.

Like the generation of poets that preceded him — Robert Lowell, Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath and John Berryman among them — Beasley charts the canyons of depression as part of his poetic landscape. The poems would seem to be, at least in part, confessional: Beasley addresses one poem to his wife, poet Suzanne Paola, and another to their son, Jin. The book is structured in three parts like a symphony, punctuated with a recurring motif of nine "Melancholia Oracles." The "Oracles" are gut-level readings of the poet's psychological unrest as the cerebral spinnings of the poems get increasingly complex and confounding. Finally, in the tour de force "Aphasic Echolalia," the frenetic intellectual processes begin to unravel. Not long before that, "Melancholia Oracles: VII" reveals what's happening:

The pleasure receptors
reassigned now, to the urgent
business of self-blame:
linkup, signaling
mea culpa, mea culpa, mea
maxima culpa
spiking in every crevice of the brain.

"Lord Brain" isn't the kind of poetry to be read lightly. But for those who appreciate the challenge of intellectual puzzles and don't mind learning the language of neuroscience through a set of endnotes worthy of T.S. Eliot (Beasley calls them "Phantom Limbs of the Poems"), "Lord Brain" offers plenty of rewards.

Sheila Farr is the visual arts critic for The Seattle Times.