Secure Your Own Mask
Secure Your Own Mask, by Shaindel Beers
White Pine Press, 2018. Winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize. 112 pp.
Reviewed by Donna Vorreyer
“Secure your own mask before helping others” is a safety direction we hear each time we prepare to travel by air. The concept is simple: being safe makes one a calmer and more able assistant. But what if the things that are supposed to be safe are themselves dangerous? In this collection, sectioned into four parts, Beers weaves us a world where even language deceives, where love and violence and beauty are all tangled up in the daily effort to be human, to survive.
Deception, perception, and reality are fluid in the first section of the book, evident from the first poem “The (Im)Precision of Language.” Here the poet navigates the differences between ring and wring, deer and dear, the multiple meanings of the word brace. In the context of a violent relationship, “Language becomes a tricky game where saying/ nothing meant everything, where saying everything// meant nothing left to fear.” This duplicity - both of a violent relationship –where damage and control pretend to be love–and of language is well-explored in several pieces. In “Secret Rabbit,” multiple interpretations of a symbol in a literature class lead to a personal confession, showing how the personal is how we must filter all of our understandings. And in the surprising “The Mechatronic Bird Falls in Love with the Real and Vice Versa,” the reader finds both the seduction and violence of what is artificial—how lies can seem desirable while they harm, lure with their deception. In the last stanza, the decoy mallard could be speaking for any desire that could be harmful: “Don’t come close. My kind of beauty/is no good for you. My teal head, my russet chest. This is the type of beauty/that kills.”
In the title poem “Secure Your Own Mask Before Helping Others,” this familiar idea is twisted to show the thought processes of both parties in an abusive relationship. Parts 1 through 3 of this sectioned poem are second-person conversations with the self. The speaker here gives us images and narratives that are hard to forget: “Why aren’t you grateful?//No one has ever been more adorned with abjection./There are so many women in line for him, each one/a corpse bride in waiting./Any girl would treasure//the feel of his boot on her throat…” and glimpses into a pattern of abuse: “Other names have already been scalpeled/into your skin. Look how you bleed those pomegranate drops.” In Part 4, the poem gives voice to the abuser who ends the poem with “...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.”
There is not only pain here. There is tenderness and a careful observance of nature, especially in the poems that feature the speaker’s son. The last time he breastfeeds, the innocence of learning the names of birds, and the wisdom that only children seem to surface here as moments of clarity and precision. The third section of the collection is composed of the long poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Pelican” in which we again receive carefully observed details about an incident with actual pelicans intertwined with questions about harm and saving and what makes a home.
In the fourth and last section of the book, the poems walk a tightrope between the past and the future, question the real meaning of love, of sacrifice, of how much one must give up to find what is true. Here the naming of the past becomes a ritual for facing a future that, though uncertain, promises, this time, to be different. There are tentative thoughts here, ones that seem to be just finding their own voice without fear. And there is a movement toward release from a pattern of domestic violence in many of the poems, culminating in the long six-sectioned poem, “This Old House.” Part 1 gives an inventory of things that are reminders of the control and habits of the abusers. The aching confession appears in part 2: You might want to know/which he was which. That isn’t the point./What I’m trying to say is that there were/ten years/I wasn’t in my own body./Things happened/in this house that/I don’t know how to write. In part 3, we get another inventory—this time, of what has been thrown away, including my, heart, my heart, my heart. Part 4 begins with the young son wanting to role-play the fairy tale idea that a princess must be rescued by the knight. The speaker turns that into a question: what if the princess were the knight, the dragon?—a rebirth of agency even in that small moment. Part 5 describes a porch and the comfort and companionship of birds on the property, boldly making sure the feeders are cared for, filling the spaces with their flutter and song. Finally, in Part 6, there’s a move toward the future, toward reclaiming a place that used to hold only pain as a home: I’ve/never thought about cabinets and countertops. Only how not/to be beaten, how not to be killed. /I used to think FUCK YOU/when my friends showed me paint swatches or their new bedding./I didn’t even understand the point. Thinking about these things/still seems silly, but this is my house, and I want to fix it.//Besides, if I leave, how will my little birds find me?
There are many poems to savor in this collection. Beers has done an admirable job of making something shining and resonant out of pain, akin to tumbling a rough stone until it becomes glossy and smooth—itself but not itself, transformed by the making.
Donna Vorreyer is the author of Every Love Story is an Apocalypse Story (Sundress Publications, 2016) and A House of Many Windows (Sundress, 2013) as well as eight chapbooks, most recently The Girl (Porkbelly Press). Her reviews have appeared in The Rumpus, Quarterly West, Sugar House Review, Cider Press Review, Tinderbox Poetry, and other journals.