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Poetry Review    



One More River to Cross:
The Selected Poetry of John Beecher
Edited by Steven Ford Brown
NewSouth Books, 2003
Paperback, $20.00 (253 pages)
ISBN:  1-58838-103-X

Editor Steven Ford Brown’s One More River to Cross: The Selected Poetry of John Beecher, reflects well the varied voices of John Beecher, political activist and poet.  A Great-great nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe and descended from Lyman Beecher, organizer of the “Underground Railroad,” at his best Beecher’s poems dwell in the particular, which allows his fiery orator’s voice to fade to a mere mumble, allowing the power of the moment to speak for itself.  We see this in the opening lines of the poem “To Live and Die and Dixie”: 

                   Our gang
                   laid for the kids from niggertown
                   We’d whoop from ambush chunking flints
and see pale soles
of black feet scampering
patched overalls and floursack pinafores
pigtails with little bows
flying on the breeze…

At his worst Beecher’s poems forsake the specific instant, and at the same time the sound, rhythm and detail that would allow the poem to speak for itself.  However, what they lack in artifice they make up for with an earnest voice that speaks for those who cannot or were not allowed to speak for themselves.  In most case this passion overcomes the ornate nature of poetry, in fact taking on a fiery, all be it simple, beauty of its own, reflective of the very human spirit that all poetry is in response to.  In some instances though Beecher feels the need to supply the reader with the moral, as if unsure that the experience and words could speak for themselves, or as is more likely the case, making sure his message is heard.  The sonnet “The Convict Mines, Circa 1910” is one such example, ending with rhyming couplet: “…Crime profited the state / and reinforced the black mortality rate.”  While the heart is undoubtedly present in the poem, the ear and even the eye have trouble reconciling the Shakespearean sonnet with Beecher’s particular presentation of the moment.  

Beecher’s work as a whole, especially as it is collected and presented by Steven Ford Brown,  is nonetheless a vital voice in the history of poetry in that it perhaps represents poetry in what some could argue is its purest form: voice.  These poems are all if nothing else, the voice of John Beecher, unfiltered and unfettered, even by the very words that serve as an unintentional restraint to other poets.  The historical, political and poetic significance of his work and life secures this poets place in time. 


William Ashley Johnson
Southern Scribe Reviews

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