THE BOOK: Woman Putting on Pearls
PUBLISHED IN: 2017
THE AUTHOR: Jeffrey Bean
THE EDITOR: The wonderful Susan Gardner, who edits with tremendous care and attention.
THE PUBLISHER: Red Mountain Press. From the press’s website: “Red Mountain Press publishes poetry and poets’ memoirs and literary fiction. Our books represent the point of view of the author and are beautiful objects of lasting value. The authors retain full rights to their work. We use the best papers and printers, with manufacturing processes that are low impact and resource conserving.”
SUMMARY: Susan Gardner and I collaborated to write this summary for the press release: “Winner of the 2016 Red Mountain Poetry Prize. Woman Putting on Pearls explores human connection and want as manifested through touch and the physically palpable gaze. With richly patterned sounds and rhythms, the collection forms a loose narrative in seven short sections acting much like musical movements. It traces the arc of life from childhood through death, integrating and savoring sensory experience in all its terrors, pleasures and aches. Interlaced throughout is a series of Voyeur poems focused on a man’s one-sided relationship with a woman he secretly watches. These are presented as interludes and constitute a separate but related loose narrative. Together, the two threads consider the tensions between the opposing needs for intimacy and independence, and the conflict between the desire to escape time and mortality and the desire to be wholly present in body, tasting all the delicious particulars of the world.”
THE BACK STORY: Woman Putting on Pearls is a full-length collection that brings together poems written over roughly eight years, some of which appeared in my two previously published chapbooks: Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window and The Voyeur’s Litany. The book consists of several short sequences of poems, including a sequence of ekphrastic poems based on paintings, a sequence of “Voyeur” poems in which a persona (an invented character) obsessively watches his neighbor, and a sequence of poems exploring parenthood that I call the “kid poems” in which a father addresses his daughter as “kid.” The various sequences took shape at different times—I was rarely working on “kid” poems and “voyeur” poems at the same time, for instance—and for a while it was hard to imagine how they might work together in a collection. Some of the “kid” poems are partly autobiographical and explore my own experiences as a parent (and my own childhood), and the “voyeur” poems are entirely fictionalized—in that sequence I was interested in speaking through a persona that felt unlike me, a character I found troubling and deviant, even creepy, and at the same time sympathetic. These impulses seemed at odds with each other, but once I started putting the sequences together, I was surprised to find they resonated with each other and explored the same themes: love (in many forms), the body, desire, mortality, and the need for human connection. I revised and revised again, I wrote some new poems for the book, I tried out different combinations of sequences, and after about a year of sending it out the manuscript was selected for the 2016 Red Mountain Poetry Prize by guest judge Sarah Sousa, a wonderful poet whose work I was happy to discover.
WHY THIS TITLE?: It’s a translation of the title of a Vermeer painting more commonly known as Woman with a Pearl Necklace or Young Woman with a Pearl Necklace. I found the translation Woman Putting on Pearls somewhere and liked the sound of that more active phrase better. It’s also the title of one of the poems in the collection, an ekphrastic poem based on the painting. I think that poem represents the book well thematically, and the title has obvious resonance with the “Voyeur” sequence since the speaker of those poems often observes the woman next door performing mundane domestic activities.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? Readers have enjoyed the book for its variety, especially the contrast in form, tone, and subject matter between the “voyeur” poems and the “kid” poems. On one level, the “voyeur” poems offer some of the pleasures of fiction—he’s a kind of anti-hero who is at times pathetic and at times sympathetic, and readers have told me they find him to be a complex and memorable character. Some find him scary, others find they relate to him, and some have said he’s a useful figure for thinking about our voyeuristic cultural moment. Many fellow parents have connected with the “kid” poems—and other poems in the book dealing with childhood and adolescence—for their honesty, humor, and exuberance. All of the poems in the book savor sensory experience, and readers who look for rich imagery and close attention to the details of the world will find much to enjoy. Finally, as a musician, I think a lot about sound and rhythm as I write, and I hope readers find the poems a pleasure to hear.
“In Woman Putting on Pearls, poet Jeffrey Bean speaks of the body, its loneliness, hungers, and joy. The body in Woman Putting on Pearls is essentially an isolated entity continuously seeking, not only attachment, but utter oneness with the other. But these poems, like want, are complex. The speaker in the “voyeur” series is sympathetic, pathetic, and frightening all at once. These seeming disparate views of body-love become points on a continuum of the human need to see, touch, love, and even worship another. Through insightful, sharp, and nuanced writing, Bean holds these contradictions in his steady gaze, no need for reconciliation.” –Sarah Sousa, 2016 Red Mountain Poetry Prize judge and author of See the Wolf, Split the Crow, The Diary of Esther Small, and Church of Needles
“In Jeffrey Bean’s Woman Putting on Pearls there’s the excruciating pleasure of wanting—the tastes, the smells, the gaze that longs for a body as slippery as a ruby. In each of these gorgeous poems I lose track of the boundaries of flesh and bread, dirt and the beloved’s hair, what the body holds and what holds a body. Through every season and each love, everything in the world wants in, wants a closeness, an intimacy that overtakes and consumes and transcends time, distance, and skin. And it makes you want that, too. So do. Open the curtains and open this book and let everything in.”—Traci Brimhall, author of Saudade, Our Lady of the Ruins, and Rookery
“These are love poems for fearful lovers, people who know that all romance is half panic. Or sometimes these are elegies sung by giddy mourners. Often they are both. The speakers in Jeffrey Bean’s Woman Putting on Pearls use rhythm and rhyme, repetition and reference to understand and order the world, while deeply “loving the ache of it” in all of its gorgeous and terrifying and impossible particulars.” –Patrick Ryan Frank, Author of The Opposite of People and How the Losers Love What’s Lost.
You can read an extensive review of Woman Putting on Pearls by Brian McKenna in the latest issue of Newfound: https://newfound.org/current-issue/reviews-woman-putting-on-pearls/
Jeffrey Bean was born in Iowa City, Iowa, and raised in Bloomington, Indiana. He attended the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, graduating with a degree in Jazz Guitar Performance. He is the son of writers: his father, John, earned an MFA in poetry writing from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and his mother, Barbara, a published fiction writer, taught creative writing at Depauw University for twenty-five years. Although he grew up in a house full of poetry books, he didn’t start writing until high school when he read Yusef Komunyakaa’s Jazz Poetry Anthology, a book, that, to paraphrase Dickinson, made him feel physically as if the top of his head were taken off.
While at Oberlin, he continued to write, taking workshops with fiction writer Dan Chaon and poets Martha Collins and Pamela Alexander. After college, he and a friend backpacked across Europe for six weeks, visiting Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, and Portugal. When he returned home to Bloomington, woefully out of practice and certain that a career in music wasn’t for him, he took a job waiting tables at a Tibetan restaurant owned and managed by the Dalai Lama’s nephew. After that, he taught gym for a year in an elementary school in Portland, Oregon before enrolling in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Alabama.
Since then, his poems have appeared in such journals as FIELD, Subtropics, and Slate, and recent poems appear or are forthcoming in The Southern Review, The Antioch Review, The Missouri Review, and New Orleans Review among others. In addition to Woman Putting on Pearls, he is author of the poetry collection Diminished Fifth (WordTech) and the chapbooks Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (Southeast Missouri State University Press) and The Voyeur’s Litany (Anabiosis Press). His poems have been featured on The Writer’s Almanac, Verse Daily, and in the 2014 and 2016 New Poetry from the Midwest anthologies.
Vermeer: Woman Putting on Pearls
Sometimes you get a minute or two,
nobody needs you for once, your body’s buoyed
by that grass-and-river feeling after lunch,
you draw back the shutters and the room
takes on the freshness of streams, hard buds
swelling up outside. It’s early spring,
you’ve got your best coat on, ermine trim,
and you lift up a necklace to the light,
to the space and quiet (it’s a gift, it asks
to be touched like this), and the places it touches
you, fingertips and throat, become
organs more sensitive than mirrors or eyes.
The V the ribbon makes that holds the pearls
draws the pleasures of the room in closer:
this chair, this table, this blue rug, the tug
of your earrings, your hair bow like a pink, chubby hand,
the downward slope of your forearms, eyelids,
mouth, light all over the wall like words
for what you wanted, words you can’t remember
now that you’re thinking what the light is really,
shattering fire, violent as birth
for billions of years out there in space, that long,
blue-cold cloth, an emptiness from which
sometimes come moons pink as hands in orbit
around a throat, a head, some pearls, warm for now.
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