I can’t decide if Eduardo C. Corral’s “To the Angelbeast” is about beauty, or about death, or both.
The first time I read the poem, I thought it was beautiful. I could imagine the orchard with the grass unmown, two people there together but apart. One would lie in the grass and throw the dirt: “doe after doe of leaping,” the dust catching the light and “glitter[ing]” like music. The other person would stand farther back, waiting to see “a deer/break from the shadows,” perhaps the same leaping doe as created by person one. It’s like a love poem, but the distance turns it bittersweet.
The second time I read the poem, I thought it was menacing. I imagined that the “cello” at the end was really a gun, and the subject of the poem was a hunter, waiting for the deer to appear so he can take aim. After all, if “all that glitters isn’t music,” then perhaps this shining instrument is instead an instrument of destruction.
But who is the subject of the poem anyway? There’s two main ones, fighting for attention. There’s the Angelbeast, of course, to whom the poem is written, and whom I understand to be a sort of angel of death, powerful and quite literally breathtaking. There’s also Arthur Russell, for whom the poem is written (the distinction of who the poem is to and who it is for will become important). I made the mistake of ignoring the dedication at first. I assumed Arthur Russell was someone from Corral’s personal life and that his identity wouldn’t really affect the reader’s understanding of the poem. I had my whole commentary planned out for this poem before I finally bothered to just google the name.
It turns out Arthur Russell was a musician. A cellist, specifically. He was also a gay man who died at a young age from AIDS in 1992. The Poetry Foundation website lists “To the Angelbeast” under LGBTQ Pride Poems, in a category called “Queer Poets on Queer Poets.” Corral is also gay (he was recently awarded the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for gay poetry, in fact), and it’s not hard to make the connection between the two queer artists. So maybe in a way “To the Angelbeast” is a love poem, written for another version of Corral himself.
But still, the discovery of Arthur Russell sort of disrupted my original take on the poem. The cello at the end is really a cello, not a gun. To “watch a deer/break from the shadows” is not to destroy the deer, but to sense its beauty. To “[lift] a cello/out of its black case” is not to wield a weapon but to hold in your hands the potential for beauty, resurrected from out of the darkness, the shadows or the coffin-like case. The leaping does of dirt are “gold/curves. Gold scarves,” and Corral had already drawn a comparison between music and gold in his opening line, a twist on the classic aphorism “all that glitters is not gold.” So too with the deer emerging from the orchard: a metaphor for music, for something beautiful. The narrator, who “tossed fistfuls of dirt into the air,” is the one creating that beauty. I think that would be Russell. “You,” the subject, are the one observing the beauty.
But “you said it was nothing/but a trick of the light.” The dirt isn’t really gold, but dirt, and that’s made all the more true by ‘your’ saying so. And suddenly we’re back to the destruction of the beautiful. So “you” are the Angelbeast: death.
There’s included a brief explanation of “To the Angelbeast” in the back of the 2012 edition of The Best American Poetry, in which Eduardo C. Corral describes the impact of Russell’s music. Corral names some of Russell’s songs — which I’m actually listening to as I’m writing this — and says that “the cello becomes an animal-like presence that devours everything: melody, lyrics, voice. Everything but death.”
In the poem, Russell asks of the Angelbeast, “am I not your animal?” He is the animal-like presence he has created, but even the beauty of his music ultimately belongs to what it cannot devour. Death destroys beauty, not the other way around.
But that’s quite a morbid note to end on, so here’s something else: “To the Angelbeast” is a beautiful poem. It doesn’t conquer death, but it does face death. And where there could be a gun, there is a cello. The tension between death and beauty is present in every aspect of this poem, and also in my understanding of it. That’s true for real life, too. Maybe beauty is just “a trick of the light.” But it exists nonetheless.
Photo by Anusha Narang