Jared Beloff’s Who Will Cradle Your Head? reviewed by Linda Mills Woolsey
Who Will Cradle Your Head?
ELJ Editions, Ltd., 2023
In A Sand County Almanac (1949), Aldo Leopold writes: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” As those wounds have become more apparent even to non-specialists, ecological anxiety has grown more common. Yet it can still feel lonely. Jared Beloff’s Who Will Cradle Your Head explores the contours of this loneliness in deftly crafted poems of “anticipatory grief” for a dying world.
Beloff’s “world of wounds” is eerily familiar these days–a place of wildfire, deluge, damage, and extinction. But it’s also a place of intimacy and love, a space of communal sorrow relieved by humor, tenderness, and small gestures toward hope.
Writing against the grain of Don’t Look Up culture, “Are All Your Predictions for the Future Real?” opens the conversation by challenging our doubt:
If by real you mean as real as a house floating
into the sea, the waves claiming the kitchen,
sticker shock of a “For Rent” sign tacked to its side—
then Yes, every thought returns true, every line,
image and imagination. I have dreamed them,
taken them from the night like a frown, so when
I speak in warning, I have weathered them all…
As “reality whistles in our faces” Beloff ushers us into dystopian reality and dream, video footage and field experience, punctuated by visits to art installations and museums of loss in poems like “The Hall of Lost Scents,” “Exhibits in the Museum of Ice,” and “Exhibits in the Archives of Sinking and Melting.”
Using an array of poetic forms, Beloff gestures against literary monoculture, while his “after” poems and endnotes acknowledge a diverse artistic community. The book’s short poems become core samples of a surreal ordinary, lived in the shadow of environmental catastrophe. Dueling epigraphs—from environmental scientist Robert Cowie and Ovid’s Metamorphoses—set up the collection’s quarrel between resignation and hope.
Who Will Cradle Your Head is a poetic ecosystem, gaining force from a web of connections among the poems. We follow interleaved series (the aforementioned lost world museum exhibits, parenting in the apocalypse, roaming Anthropocene ruins) and discover twinned poems suggesting William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience complicated by chirality. Beloff’s book invites and rewards rereading. With each stroll through the poems, I find more echoes and resonances, note more tensions held almost in balance, catch more subtle puns and paradoxes.
For instance, many of the poems ponder adaptation/ maladaptation of cells and species or replay saving/punitive Ovidian metamorphoses in a Darwinian world. Classical and Romantic echoes abound, but the voices are contemporary. Beloff’s speakers move in video worlds of time lapse and rewind, sitcom and sci-fi.
While this may sound like heavy going, it’s not.
Two grieving voices anchor the collection, often eliciting a visceral response. A father records family scenes against a backdrop of ecological apocalypse. A Sasquatch roams his ruined world with the sensitivity of Mary Shelley’s Creature and the sorrow of her Last Man. Both voices explore ambiguities of love and survival in ways that recall the father and child in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
The first poem written from the father’s perspective, “Animal Crackers,” opens with a light touch as the daughter pulls cookies from “the head of a large plastic bear like a magic trick.” Beloff’s eye for detail enchants us: “A large cat slopes its shoulder, front paw extended as if to find proper footing between her thumb and forefinger.” But the bear’s smile is “wild,” his “teeth tight with grit and grin,” his “Isn’t this nice…isn’t this sweet?” grim. Naming the animals—”Snow Leopard…Lowland Gorilla”— recalls refugee polar bears rummaging in “metal dumpsters.” And naming becomes the book’s first echo of biblical themes of fall and deluge, the Adamic failure “an attempt to live in an unrecognizable world.”
Whether “Watching Time Lapse Videos with My Daughter” or vacationing at the beach, then, parental love is shadowed by terrible possibilities. In “Just Another Tuesday in the Anthropocene”:
…Our daughter holds her arms up sparkling,
transformation on display. I try not to think too hard about
the future she’s growing into, how coral limbs will fan out
one cell layer at a time, a thousand tiny polyps radiating in
the warm sway before bleaching into mausoleums ground
by acid and time…
This is poetry of a world we take for granted, already yielding to a surreal twilight where the hot sand of change clings to our skin. In its cycles of mass extinction and species recovery, there’s no guarantee of human, let alone individual, survival.
In “The Ship of Theseus” the familiar paradox becomes a museum exhibit, its reconstruction linked to cell renewal (“Our taste buds change / every seven years…find joy in new flavor: tang of blood…”) and system collapse (“A forest burns across continents, / a glacier calves cities of ice / which only just remember / they were once the ocean.”) The speaker’s final question echoes through the book: “How long do we have / before we forget what we / have replaced: each nail / and tooth, the splinter’s weeping?”
Such large concerns make it fitting that transformations also energize Beloff’s use of form. Prose blocks coexist with right-justified verse that suggests their erosion. While George Herbert’s 17th-century “shaped poems” evoke an ordered world of divine providence, Beloff ‘s explore instability, at play in concrete/visual borderlands. Stable geometric forms contain aporia and tensions (“Our Dreams of Late” and “Our Dreams of Love”); swarms of a single word become a storm cloud or tornado (“Adaptation” and “Murmuration”). “The World Seed Bank” takes a more traditional form: entombed seeds wait in a tiny poem whose shape may be that of a seed—or teardrop.
Other poems chart responses to dissolution. “The Bird Collector” is a volunteer, gathering dead birds near Biscayne Bay. Some species have already left for higher ground, but “Somehow this hasn’t been registered as a fact we can grieve.” Human and avian worlds collapse as the speaker muses, “Each bird crashes dreaming of a windowed horizon, not realizing the sea and its dotted green is already behind them. Everyone here is looking for more space and time.” “The divers off the coast of New Florida” splash down into a world already lost—a drowned suburb poised against the “archeological reality” of The Golden Girls.
As for the poem’s second voice, in “Sasquatch explores Fresh Kills” the place name recapitulates the ambiguities of Sasquatch’s hunger, guilt, and grief, as introduced in “Sasquatch mourns the pygmy rabbit.” Sasquatch’s lyric prose has broken into lines of verse as he explores the New Jersey landfill turned park, now a dump, but “wilding.” Stumbling against human artifacts—”a doll’s mottled face,” “remains / of an abandoned car seat,” he asks, “Who will cradle your head?”
Boundaries between Sasquatch and the father blur, though, as the speaker traces “…these green recesses / like a scar’s braided / renewal shading our grief” in a moment of tenuous consolation. The “Rewind” that ends the book may be impossible, but love and care persist, even in ruined worlds.
In sum, Who Will Cradle Your Head? confronts what Leopold called “the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Beloff understands our refusal to face the precariousness of human life, the ways we adapt to the unthinkable, how “we worry, but not enough.” In “Living Happily at the End of the World,” he writes, “The world ends like an almond tree pulled by its roots, / withered brittle / before it could rot” as “I pass you a drink. We smile, the world on fire around us.”
Yet, Beloff’s poems do not leave us comfortless. As he empathizes with the last ant following the last trail of a vanished comrade or a mother elephant grieving her calf, Beloff reminds us of our intimate connection with a threatened world. Without offering glib solutions, these poems enact the power of being present to that world as we find it, still shot through with “flickerings” of resurgence and moments of love. Here, our grief matters and care is still possible.