Nicky Beer's Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes

Nicky Beer's Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes as Stereoscopic Jewel: A Review by Brady Alexander

It was a sickly February day when I discovered Nicky Beer. I was a bit under the weather too, procrastinating homework in my university’s poetry room. I found a copy of The Octopus Game, figured anything was preferable to James Fenimore Cooper (rest in penance), and dove in.

What I discovered was a poet of incredible sensory talent, chilling poise, and a playful, yet often merciless command over the language. Her descriptions of the toxic blue-ringed octopus are practically engraved into my brain: “his first / words of love should be perfectly preserved / for this tattooed girl, this contortionist / adrift in the lonely excess of her / power, so rife with death throughout she will / at times, upon her own breath, taste its chill.” That piece, “Frost on the Octopus,” transformed my sallow scene to brilliant and venomous ice castles. It was, and is, breathtakingly alive. So when I think of Nicky Beer, I always think of then, remembering the rain as it mutated into snow.

Beer is, however, hardly defined by a single poem from a single book. The Octopus Game (Carnegie Mellon, 2015) and fellow poetry collection The Diminishing House (Carnegie Mellon, 2010) are both winners of the Colorado Book Award for Poetry. She’s been published in Miracle Monocle, Best American Poetry, Poetry, The Nation, The New Yorker, The Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. And she has a new collection out, focusing on simulacra, pop culture, science, sexism, laughter, and art: Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes  (Milkweed Editions, 2022). All of what I’ve said about Beer’s work applies to it—and certainly much more.

It’s hard to ignore Beer’s talent for magnetic language, and Real Phoniesis full to bursting with vividity: “Small rorschachs of saliva bloom” in “The Great Something,” or the warblings of “Thorn Ostinato,” where the speaker trills, “O rose you coral reef in the night’s undertow / O rose you brain of ravenous aphids... O rose show me how to die in all directions.” Even in its moments of revulsion, Beer’s word choice is incredibly precise, the image crystal clear: “the smell of drilled bone” in “Excerpts from The Updated Handbook to Mendacity,” for instance.

As an aesthetic reinforcement of its meditations on duality and blending high and low, Real Phonies’s ugly parts are painted beautifully, while its gorgeous parts are often truly hard to read. This blending is encoded into poems like “Two-Headed Taxidermied Calf,” in which the speaker recounts viewing the animal with an empathetic tenderness, and with a distanced parody: “I hated myself for pitying it... But there was something / in its tender swirls of ochre hair / that the amateur taxidermist / couldn’t quite make / laughable.” Later in the poem, the speaker, full of longing, tells this piece of history: “Caesar was a twin, the other / stillborn. They say / he believed if he swept / his arm across enough of the world, / he’d finally catch his brother / who’d abandoned him to dream / alone in the dark... / When the animal was dying, / was it relieved it wasn’t dying / alone?” And all at once, I found the speaker’s jokes and snide comments to be a way that they protect themselves from feeling so much, as I was.

Then—the speaker lets us in on something shocking: “I lied before, about Caesar... I just wanted to see / if I was still as good at it / as I used to be.”

I laughed out loud.

Across cultures, the trickster archetype reveals great truth through his deceit. And Beer’s no different. Half-animal and half-divine, Beer’s poems remind us that art is also artifice; it is a fabrication. We come to understand more of the world, and of ourselves, through our connection with people who don’t exist, immersing ourselves in plots that don’t exist in worlds that don’t exist. We see fabrication as a theme in “Mating Call of the Re-Creation Panda,” “The Benevolent Sisterhood of Inconspicuous Fabricators,” “Forged Medieval German Church Fresco with Clandestine Marlene Dietrich,” and in “Magicians at Work.” All remind us of realities that we may find within illusion.

And there’s a gendered bent to this, as well. The speaker in “Forged Medieval German Church” pleads to the audience, “Tell me we don’t want all our goddesses / flattened and pinned to a wall, wings spread / and immobile,” while “Magicians at Work” showcases the grueling effort of the titular characters “all to make a woman float / to make a woman float / and none of them ever thought of simply asking her.” Whether as Brer Rabbit or Anansi or Coyote or Sun Wukong, or Loki, Hermes, Odysseus, Raven, and Maui, the trickster is an overwhelmingly male figure. While there are many clever women in mythology and folklore, women only tend to act as tricksters when they’re seductresses, like Greek sirens or the Onigumo, a female spider that pretends to be a prostitute in order to eat men. There’s a reclamation of the role that’s going on here: of women as tricksters, women as comedians, women as sages; women with the power to control someone’s reality, if only for a moment, through their cunning, through their observations, through their laughter.

And these poems are really, really funny, with even some titles being jokes: “Drag Day at Dollywood” and “Self-Portrait While Operating Heavy Machinery.” The funniest, my favorite, is “Exclusive Interview.” The poem is an interview, of course, but all of the reporter’s questions are blacked out. I won’t give any spoilers about this—so don’t worry, I’m not going to kill the punchline. I will give you this morsel, though, to whet your appetite, one of the speaker’s responses to a question: “ mother. She was a loving, tender-hearted woman, who always felt terrible when her divination would keep us up at night... But no matter what demon-spawn she might have been summoning, she was always there to meet us at the bus stop after school, discretely wiping the viscera from her hands.” In a genre that’s so frequently so serious, the collection’s comedy is both delightful and thematically compelling.

The only major thing that doesn’t often work is the incorporation of pop culture. At times, of course, it shines to great effect: in “Drag Day at Dollywood,” for instance, or the opening line of “Dear Bruce Wayne”—“My parents are dead, too.” But other times, the poem is distracted by it instead of heightened. “Self Portrait as Duckie Dale” is a lovely, longing croon, but because I didn’t catch its central reference, I remember spending 20 minutes googling 80s movies more than I remember reading the poem. The trend continues into pieces when I caught the reference, too, like “Dear Bruce Wayne,” which despite a potent opening still suffers from a tonal and thematic incongruity. The first stanza is about trauma; the second about presentation, freedom, drag, and spectacle; the third about violence against women, all while carrying the same core metaphor in each. In one stanza, people like the Joker are applauded, while the next mentions the very real and very scary threats of harm that women face: “every woman goes out / knowing what you think / you alone had sussed: / the world is a dark alley / hiding a gun in its mouth.” The Joker is a shadow in that alley; and he is a bullet in that gun.

Additionally, while Marlene Dietrich (a bisexual icon from the mid 20th century) shows up from time to time, in poems like “Marlene Dietrich Considers Penicillin, 1950” or “Marlene Dietrich Plays Her Musical Saw for the Troops, 1944,” we never really get to know her through the poems, and that limits those poems’ audience. A piece is not a dud because it isn’t universal, though. And I’m a reader who’s content to know I’m not the center of the world. I can imagine these Marlene Dietrich poems as love letters to older queers, and in that role, they’re often sweet. But as a queer so young I didn’t even live through AIDS, the only time that her inclusion fully works for me is in the “Forged Medieval German Fresco,” where she shows up as a literal icon—a false god in a fabricated fresco; an idol for its maker and a woman stripped of her reality.

There’s one last segment of Real Phonies that I want to mention before closing things: the stereoscopic man suite, which itself could be a very potent chapbook about science and love, the clinical and personal, and simultaneity. It features a protagonist who constantly experiences dualism, and the forms of these poems assume dualism, too: in twin pillars, they can be read column-by-column and row-by-row. As such, each poem in the suite is actually two poems, which makes for some incredible perspectives. “The Stereoscopic Man’s Last Will and Testament,” for instance, can be read as, “To my heirs I leave my right / to what is left of me” and as, “To my heirs my right is left / I leave to what of me.”

Beer opens the collection with a Björk quote, and the suite is the collection’s Björkiest segment, namely the scientific engagement, love, and life one finds in Björk’s Biophilia or Homogenic. Here we finally come upon another poem reeking of the sea, “The Stereoscopic Man Dreams of Beluga Whales.” (You didn’t forget about “Frost on the Octopus,” did you?) Beluga whales, like all cetaceans, rest only half their brain at once. Their brains, like ours, are hemispheric, two halves fused together by a central street of flesh. The poem reads: “with its periscope propped up / to the world / the body swaying / like a loose crescent moon / each dream / twitching a fluke / waving to itself / a mirror on the other / side of an unsafe bridge.” I am on an iceberg in the shape of a puzzle piece at night; the moon reflecting off the cold, Prussian blue water; sapient creatures resting beside me, half-waking, half-dreaming; mechanical, animal, divine, artificial. I can think of no better metaphor for the collection.

And all that I can think to say is, wonderful. Thank you.

If what she says in “Taxidermied Calf” isn’t a joke, and Beer is wondering if she’s still as good as she used to be, then the answer is yes. Emphatically.

Playful and severe, beautiful and tacky, sometimes messy and precise, and past and present, Real Phonies and Genuine Fakes is a stereoscopic jewel. As though it is a holographic sunset over mountains: some real, and some illusory, but always two by two.

BRADY ALEXANDER is a writer with obsessive-compulsive disorder, a contributing editor of Miracle Monocle, a fiction editor at the tiny journal, and an intern at Exposition Review. Their work is published in The White Squirrel, Miracle Monocle, and ThinkIR, and they’re looking for an agent for their novel/novella, Þ.