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.
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.