Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Jayne Benjulian's Five Sextillion Atoms

Book Review:

Five Sextillion Atoms by Jayne Benjulian, Saddle Road Press, 2016, $16.00 paper, ISBN 978-09969074-1-5

While the blurbs on the back cover of Five Sextillion Atoms praise the language in Jayne Benjulian’s debut collection for its restraint—“compression” is the word both David Wojahn and Daniel Tobin use; and “unadorned…while withholding all but essential narrative, ” is Martha Rhodes’s phrase—their descriptions of Benjulian’s work might just as easily be written about a collection of postcard stories. While these observations are spot-on, they do not speak to an equally pervasive element of this work—its musicality. Interior chimes and half-rhymes, judiciously spaced and preparatory for the occasional end-rhyme that often closes a poem like the final unison note that brings resolution to intertwining melodies, combine with the aforementioned leanness of narrative to create a language both gorgeous and, today, quite rare for a book written at the height of a poet’s powers, much less as her debut collection. It is that many-times unmentioned element of sound work to which I draw attention in Benjulian’s proem, “Kaddish.”

In the attic deep enough for twenty
childhoods, an autograph book,
Oak School No. 3, resplendent in gold,
zipper teeth around pastel sheets,

Mother’s signature shaky cursive.
Bundled in blankets, smaller than
a ten-year-old, fingers cold,
she felt awkward holding the pen.

A hurricane will blow tiles off the roof,
room will freeze, mouth open drinking rain.
You will always be, she wrote—
the rest will wash away.

Among other repeated vowels in this Kaddish, the long “o” sound is made prominent with “childhoods,” “book,” “Oak,” “gold, “old,” “cold,” “blow,” “roof,” “room,” “open,” and “wrote.” Whether chosen for a merely random musical effect, or whether this specific open-throated vowel (o), and its slightly more closed variation (oo), were intentionally inserted to echo the Shema, perhaps the most readily recognized of all Jewish prayers (beginning “Hear, O Israel”), the resulting lines appear finely wrought, forging together the elements of image and sound in a way that enhances the poem’s effect on the reader. In addition, the insistence of the “o” sound seems to balance the absence of vowels in the Hebrew language, exemplified in the strict adherence of not pronouncing the name of JHWH, but rather substituting the word Adonai, translated “Lord.”
            If this were the only instance in Five Sextillion Atoms where the sound work of a poem seems to amplify its meaning, I might not have paid particular attention to what vowels and voiced consonants Benjulian chose to echo over and over again. But, in “Garden,” for example, it cannot be coincidental that there is a continual hum throughout the poem with the repetition of “n” and “m” sounds, enacting the content of the poem when it states (referring to “the angel”): “No one remembers / her words, exactly…”

            On a breeze,
            The angel balances.

            No one remembers
            Her words exactly,

            A tone, white piano keys
            In the high range,

            A bow soothing its violin.
            Gate locked:

            When we look in,
            Starlight on stone.

Benjulian is equally adept at setting a darker tone with her sound work, as in “Marine Incident” where the short “ahh” sound mimics a distress call in the lines “Mother in life jacket opens her mouth, / white arms flapping like flags before // a storm, Father in his captain’s cap / picks up the ship-to-shore.” This effect is not limited to vowels, as demonstrated in “Pearls” where early on the conclusion of the poem is not only foreshadowed with its opening line “The odd thing is, my brother is missing,” but also intimated with the harsh “k” sounds of the following three lines of the same quatrain:

We lock arms in a semi-circle: cousins
            And friends, girls in their padded bras.
            Where am I? he asks.

It is almost as if there is a catch in the throat of the narrator with the repetition of the

same “k” sounds in the concluding two stanzas of the poem:

                                                                        …He and his date

            light a candle for the bar mitzvah boy.
            Rhinestones around her wrist,
            she twists with cousin Dick.

But outside, the boy catches snowflakes
on his eyelids, someone bends to kiss his face,
her pearl earrings against his cheek.

            Although Benjulian clearly understands how to complement content with appropriate sound, it would do her work a disservice not to mention other elements of poetry that she uses with success. There are characters in this book that seek narrative and dialogue. Both, as has been previously pointed out, are written with the compression that distinguishes poetry from prose. In addition, as in the case of Hamlet’s wife, Ophelia, Benjulian not only reminds readers of her story in the poem of the same name, she hypothesizes what difference it would have made to the story if “Ophelia” had been the protagonist:

Had he been a woman, Hamlet would wonder:
to feel or not to feel, whether to walk
            ramparts in the dead of night,
is it safe.

And then in the closing:
…Can you play the scene?
Invisible your watery exit, I’d have
liked to see you queened.

Benjulian’s virtuosity shines through in multiple poems that follow by intimating not only the original story of Ophelia that ends, of course, in her tragic drowning, but also in alluding to the variation above. In “August, Maine,” for example, we see a farmer’s “daughter near the pond, / imagining, stream turning up // its volume;” in “Marine Incident,” “Mother in life jacket open[ing] her mouth, / white arms flapping like flags before // a storm;” and in “Ode To Billy & Brenda,” these lines:

            Does pond water eradicate nail polish?
Or did our ducks fail to acclimate?
Oh, we had our last rites—toy chest coffin,
            steel camp trunk circa 1965

            topped with 2,4,5-T-infused farm dirt—
            but biters we marked & then abandoned,
            Billy, named after the neighbor who kissed

            my sister in the cow barn, Corona Park
            World’s Fair, Brenda, after nurse
            who painted Mother’s nails & clipped her hair.

Other intimations are made with mere titles of poems, such as “Pond” and “Current” that are enough to bring to mind Ophelia’s watery grave. Such restraint is admirable.
Although not primarily imagistic, throughout the book, Benjulian’s poems often drop a lively image as an anchor just before the shifting winds of abstraction turn into a storm of chaos. Returning to “Kaddish,” “the attic deep enough for twenty / childhoods” containing “an autograph book,” with “zipper teeth around pastel sheets” that holds the poem together. Other strong images include “Yellow farm house, / site of our decay,” contrasted with “deer bending in fog” in “Elegy”; “lunch boxes, kazoos, maps, // Encyclopedia Britannica,” and “a ten-foot human skeleton unfurled,” in “Jill”; “abandoned Hobbits on the shelf” in “Ode To Steven”; “fossils baking: arrowhead, / petrified fish embracing” in “Aubade”; the “Hem of her yellow apron ripple[ing],” and the “grey on a neglected table / caretaker blows away” from “Three Winds.” Although the above list does not exhaust the images that populate Five Sextillion Atoms, some readers may desire even more images like these to balance and meld with the exquisite music and narrative throughout.
Regardless of one’s personal taste relative to image, music, and narrative, Benjulian’s readers are never confused about what they are reading—this first collection of her work decidedly falls on the side of lyrical narrative poetry, rather than blurred or mixed genres. Five Sextillion Atoms’ compact, heightened language sings, in a voice we soon learn to trust, stories of people we now know better, in order to better know ourselves. The result is poetry of the highest order.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Larry Levis: Repetition of Imagery and Diction in Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze

The following post is primarily an amplification of my review published in the August issue of PoetryFlash, concerning the repetition of imagery and diction in Elegy and The Darkening Trapeze, the two posthumously published books of the poems found on his computer and in his notes after the untimely death of Larry Levis at age 49. A portion of the text can be found in my review published by PoetryFlash, but much of the material is new.

          David St. John chose to begin the second posthumously published collection of poems taken from Larry Levis’s computer and final papers discovered after his death in 1996 with a poem that extends the poem St. John selected as the final poem of The Selected Levis (University of Pittsburg Press, 2000), as if the first posthumously published collection (Elegy) did not exist. Except for one poem, the poems selected by Philip Levine for Elegy and those left to be assembled by St. John for The Darkening Trapeze, all came from the same uppermost stratum of the frozen landscape of Levis’s work that he left behind. The difference between these poems in The Darkening Trapeze from those selected by Levine is the same as the difference between the snow fallen and swept from the front door of Levis’ apartment and the snow drifted up against the back door—both bring to the mind of this reviewer Stafford’s “freezing snow / hesitating toward us from its gray heaven / falling not quite silently / and under [which] you and I still are walking” (Stafford, "Near"). 

            Be reminded, then, of the following final lines from “At the Grave of My Guardian Angel: St. Louis Cemetery, New Orleans” addressing “Nothing,” not as an absence but as a presence as real as anything:

           We’d better be getting on our way soon, sweet Nothing.

            I’ll buy you something pretty from the store.
            I’ll let you wear the flower in your hair even though you can only vanish
               entirely underneath its brown, implacable petals.
            Stop your sniveling. I can almost see the all night diner looming
            Up ahead, with its lights & its flashing sign a testimony to failure.
            I can almost see our little apartment under the freeway overpass, the cups on
               the mantle rattling continually—
            The Mojave one way; the Pacific the other.
            At least we’ll have each other’s company.
            And it’s not as if you held your one wing, tattered as it was, in contempt
            For being only one. It’s not as if you were frivolous.
            It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.
            Riding beside me, your seat belt around your invisible waist. Sweet Nothing.
            Sweet, sweet Nothing.

These lines could very well be the lines preceding the opening lines from The Darkening Spell in “Gossip in the Village,” either as a separate poem or in the same poem as a separate section:

            I told know one, but the snows came, anyway.

            They weren’t even serious about it, at first.
            Then, they seemed to say, if nothing happened,
            Snow could say that, & almost perfectly.

The village slept in the gunmetal of its evening,
            And there, through a thin dress once, I touched
            A body so alive & eager I thought it must be
            Someone else’s soul. And though I was mistaken,

            And though we parted, & the roads kept thawing between snows
            In the first spring sun, & it was all, like spring,
            Irrevocable, irony has made me thinner. Someday, weeks

            From now, I will wake alone. My fate, I will think,
            Will be to have no fate.

And with these opening lines, St. John pulls us back onto the dark road of Levis’s world where “Nothing,” is “riding beside [him]…seat belt around invisible waist,” with enough corporality to wear “something pretty from the store,” and where a sleeping village is as “alive and eager” as “someone else’s soul” beneath it “thin dress” of snow; a world where Nothing provides enough company on the journey to elicit affection, but where at the end of the journey, the reader arrives at a place where the poet’s fate is “to have no fate.”
This gesture of defining a thing with the absence of its core or the opposite of its chief characteristic is a signature move of Levis, brought into sharp focus with the poems left to St. John to assemble into The Darkening Trapeze. The “flesh that has stepped out of its flesh” in “La Strada;” “the light…the nothing all light is” in “A Singing in the Rocks;” “Even wailing / … / Was really a quiet” and “Everything became different / By staying just the same” in “Idle Companion;” “the home [one] enters [that] is not his home” in “The Necessary Angel;” “the café tables” in Threshold of the Oblivious Blossoming” “[that] Were empty because it was raining, / [and] The rain [that] was empty as well”—all sprinkled throughout the characteristic images of trees and snow and even a horse or two in an artful way to remind us, lest we grow too confident in the world of sensate experience, that if one digs deep enough, there is really nothing there at all.
            At the same time, many times in the same poems, Levis subverts our expectations by beginning a line in a way that will seem that it is headed toward its polar opposite, only to move laterally in a direction we could not have predicted, seemingly mocking previous lines and even the reader for loosing faith in everything, giving us just enough to believe in to seek some kind of progression in the next lines or the next poem. Levis uses double images, often in the closing lines to a poem, in this way. After fearing, for example, that our fate, like Levis’s, is to have no fate, we, like him, “feel suddenly hungry,” only to find that “The morning will be bright, & wrong.” In “Col Tempo” Levis ends the poem with “It seems so limitless, the litter in the streets, / The large families of the poor, the stars over it all.” In “The Necessary Angel” he closes the poem with a double-double—two images and two adjectives to describe them.

            As she goes home to her small apartment, living alone,
            The lights of the city glittering in the snowy air;
            Said so that it can never be unsaid, by the creaking
            Of his wife’s chair, by the ironic scraping of limbs
            Against a wall, until the two sounds are all there is—
            Filling the house with their brief & thoughtless triumph.

Levis readers will immediately think of the closing lines to “My Story in a Late Style of Fire:” “It is so American, fire. So like us. / Its desolation. And its eventual, brief triumph.”
            I agree for the most part with Peter Everwine, that Levis intentionally repeated images and phrases as “motifs or riffs to unify the collection”—the collection meaning the unpublished body of work he left on his computer and in his notebooks upon his death. I believe that the above two endings are an example of that. However, I also believe that sometimes Levis “cannibalize[ed] certain passages from some poems in order to heighten and enlarge other more ambitious poems,” or that he even used those passages as place holders for edits that he never had time to complete.
            Consider two lines from “La Strada,” a poem that Levine left out of Elegy, containing two lines seemingly lifted out of “Boy in Video Arcade” that made the grade for Levine because, presumably, these lines were more organically related to the latter poem. In Elegy “the scuffed linoleum floor” appears in the opening description of the boy:

            I see a sullen boy in a video arcade.
            He’s the only one there at this hour, shoulders slightly bent above a machine.
            I see the pimples on his chin, the scuffed linoleum on the floor [italics mine].
In “La Strada” this image appears as a memory when

            One day you get an earache. One day you can’t breathe.
            You notice the old nurse wears a girdle as she bends over you,

            You remember the smell of Spanish rice from childhood,
            An orphanage with scuffed linoleum on its floors.

The narrative arc of the poem is driven throughout by the repeated question “What happens next?” Each answer builds in intensity from “The clown is dead,” to the above passage, to “It’s a carnival,” actually “a pretty poor excuse for a carnival, torn tents, everything // Worn out.” The poem culminates with these final two lines:

           Worn out. But I guess it has to go on anyhow. And I guess
           Death will blow his little fucking trumpet.

          Perhaps Levis was using the line as a place-holder-ending to a poem that he never finished editing. And perhaps Levine was correct in his original assumption, and selected the more finished poem for Elegy, leaving this one behind. We will never know. What we do know is that David St. John has assembled this second set of Levis's final poems that make use of his familiar images of snow, trees, leaves, and even the occasional horse--poems that were not selected by Philip Levine for the first posthumously published collection, Elegy. And furthermore, we know that the same thing can be said of the relationships between the two sets of poems as the theologian, William Hendricks, said of the blessings of God: "[They] are not so much to be understood, as they are to be enjoyed."