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"Navigating the Distances: Poems New and Selected" by Bruce Bennett

Navigating the Distances:
Poems New and Selected
by Bruce Bennett 












by Beth Houston







            Whenever I see Collected or even Selected in a poetry book title, I assume that the book contains a large sampling of the poet's opus, including poems that may have been published in a journal somewhere but that the poet nonetheless would never, or should never, feel occasion to brag about, but also including, if the book is a good one, at least a handful of zingers.   Such is the case with Bruce Bennett's hefty Navigating the Distances, Poems New & Selected.
            I tend to read a poetry book straight through before giving poems a closer study.  But I had to read the introductory sonnet, "Calligraphy," three times before dipping into the rest of the book, not because the poem is obtuse it's quite clear — but because I was impressed.  It deserved my fullest engagement, and I wanted to continue the pleasure of allowing it to open up and impress me further.  And as a poet I wanted to know why it was so effectively moving me.


                                    Ad Majorem Gloriam

                    He peered with pleasure at the tiny sign,
                    a skill it took him all those years to learn.
                    Noted its graceful curve, the way the line
                    wavered, but then grew strong at its return.
                    He wondered whether he too would grow strong
                    and finish with a flourish, work well done,
                    God's good and faithful servant. What went wrong?
                    Why couldn't he simply labor with the sun,
                    the way he once did, then call it a day?
                    Why was he subject now to stabs of doubt,
                    unanswerable questions? Who could say?
                    He scrutinized his work again. Without
                    it, nothing mattered; that alone he knew.
                    Through it he lived, whatever else was true.

              Part of satisfaction of this opening ars poetica stems from its faithful adherence to the Elizabethan sonnet form.  The rhyme scheme is strict, and the exceptions to the iambic pentameter are appropriate — the inverted "Noted," for instance, which gives emphasis to the meaning of that word, and "wavered," which wavers as the line of calligraphy does, and as does the narrator himself.  Even the extra syllable in "Why couldn't he simply labor with the sun," which transgresses the strict sonnet form, reinforces the emotional charge of the narrator's inability to stay within the confines of natural laws.  He simply must take one step beyond them into the chaos beyond his, or anyone's ("Who could say?" — no one), understanding and control.  Having glimpsed the infinite realm of the unmanifested, he can only feel self-conscious doubt about everything finite, including his work, which is his life's (his self's) articulation. 
            But when he scrutinizes his work, both the product and the process, he knows that it is intimately involved in the meaning(fulness) of everything else.  It is not only the work itself that is important but its close scrutiny, the focused mindfulness to the meaning of the gesture of work as work and to the meaning that percolates up through his work, revealing the meaning of himself to himself, perhaps even in spite of himself.  But that one step beyond, that chaos, is the only place where true creativity (including scrutinizing interpretation) occurs.  Through it (from one end of it to another), and through it (because of it), he lived.  "Whatever else is true" produces uncomfortable tension by meaning both in spite of whatever else is true and in addition to whatever else is true. 
            "He peered with pleasure."  He didn't glance, he didn't gaze abstractly.  His act of focused peering and the object of his peering together give him pleasure.  Aristotle argued that knowledge — the wisdom of the "wisest of the wise" — gives us the liveliest pleasure, and much later Freud agreed that the "pleasure principle" alone motivates our actions.  It is a "tiny sign" that gives him pleasure — a simple line of the alphabet letters written with the trained calligrapher's skill, yes, but more than that it is an otherworldly message — sign: wisdom given symbolically — received only through his own practice of calligraphy.  Of course he is speaking about poetry writing, and because calligraphy is the most elegant form of handwriting, and because the poem itself is a sonnet, it appears to refer most specifically to the writing of formal poetry.  Regardless, to metaphorically equate any poetry, the revered afflatus of the gods and the personal ego, to calligraphy is to demystified it down to its most elemental form, the mere, though skillful, letters laid down on the page.  If the writing of poetry is a skill like calligraphy, isn't it then more like being one's own, or something else's, devoted secretary rather than being truly creative?  The letter's graceful curve, the line's wavering, then growing strong at its return, representing the uneveness of his, or anyone's, poetic outpouring and life in general, suggests that despite his doubt, despite his lack of understanding, the narrator does grow strong, does finish with a flourish, God's good and faithful servant, in the end.  But being a servant here does not mean being a passive doormat secretary.  Rather he is servant to the grueling active discipline he inherited in being created in the image of the Creator.  The parent's hand guides the child's hand to teach it to write letters, then the child prints on his own, copies words, sentences, whole works on his own.  Then he creates.  Our ability to create is a quantum leap forward that most of us take for granted, if we do not doubt it. 
            "What went wrong?"  Ironically, it is that very wavering that allows him to grow strong through its return.  The straying beyond the confines of the sun's natural limitations, the doubts in the face of unanswerable questions, are exactly those things, when closely scrutinized, that give his work and his life meaning.  Creation that goes beyond mere copying, that goes beyond the given, like a mutation going "wrong," propels his personal evolution.  That is the only truth he can know.  Faith in that wisdom that cannot be grasped intellectually but that can only be known through the willful experience of being that, makes him in the end God's good and faithful servant — the servant of the truth of meaning that transcends mechanistic (the sun's) facts. 
            As the book's opening poem, "Calligraphy," which seems at times almost a disclaimer, is a tenuously confident assertion of the poet's faith in his own work (both process and product) and in his personal poetic aesthetic.  Its honest, accurate validation of the doubt any creator thinks and feels after years of creation — Why am I doing this? Is it any good? Does it matter? — gives the poem its emotional power.  The ability to blatantly convey that anxiety we feel while at the same time deeply communicating with the source of meaning, with ourselves and our own work, and with each other (and each other's work), gives the poem its sense of Ad  Majorem Glorium, its godlike truthfulness, intensity, and hope.
            The book's final poem, another ars poetica sonnet, playfully pokes fun at itself, or perhaps at anyone who can't appreciate the elegance of the "reined in" sonnet.

                    REINED IN

                    The problem of the sonnet, as I see it,
                    is, you must move in lock step with the form.
                    However footloose you might like to be, it
                    creeps back, tail tucked, ears flattened, to the norm.
                    You sense it all beforehand; know its turnings,
                    the way it's going to soothe you with a rhyme;
                    a steady, safe account, with solid earnings,
                    performance you can bank on anytime,
                    but wouldn't you like to sometime hit a homer?
                    Surprise yourself? Go bonkers, haywire, ape?
                    Astonish others? Shatter that misnomer
                    they know you as? Find life a different shape?
                    You're hot to chuck it all? Break out? Burst free?
                    The cozy sonnet's not your cup of tea.

            Now he tells us, after we've just finished a whole book thick with the darn things — sonnets, villanelles, ballads, re-visions of classic myths and traditional fairy tales….
            Is the message serious, ironic, sardonic?  The stance, certainly, is playful, since the poem begins as a criticism of the very form the poem is written in.  Part of the tension of this poem is its ambivalence: Is the sonnet a problem or not?  True, the sonnet form limits while allowing the security of a steady, safe account, with solid earnings.  And the narrator does seem to condone the breaking free from that cozy confinement.  But the message isn’t that cut-and-dry.  The homer is appealing, as is the surprising oneself.  The shattering of the persona that isn’t really one’s true self, yes, this would be an experience and a kind of writing that on the surface seems more akin to inspiration than the usual dripping perfume of perspiration.  But is someone going bonkers, haywire, ape, someone out of control, someone entirely in the grip of a lower, more primitive level better off, or even capable of creating art, with its higher demands of deliberate craft?  Certainly the last line, being the conclusion of a sonnet, after all, pokes fun at that impulse to chuck it all.  By the time I reach the end of the poem, the opening problem with the sonnet seems almost a rationalization, a kind of excuse to not write a sonnet, and the sonnet itself becomes the rebuttal of the original claim.  The irony is that the sonnet’s “problem” is overcome by the very working through of the process of creating the sonnet.  The result is not confinement, but a wonderful piece of formal poetry.
            The poem is even more playful juxtaposed against the more self-conscious "Calligraphy."  Bennett’s entire book itself is reined in, all its poems stacked between these two bookend-solid sonnets.  
            Bennett is at his best in his formal poems.  Wisely he uses the villanelle form to drive home his themes of entrapment in repetitions, like memories, obsession, the alienating steps of a dance, the futility in always getting “it” wrong, the refusal to change while being haunted by the truth of a slight, being caught in unending loops until becoming in the end the weave of their cumulative patterns.


                    It’s not the liquid spreading on the floor,
                    A half a minute’s labor with the mop;
                    It’s everything you’ve ever spilled, and more.

                    The stupid broken spout that wouldn’t pour;
                    The nasty little salesman in the shop.
                    It’s not the liquid spreading on the floor,

                    A stain perhaps, a new, unwelcome chore,
                    But scarcely cause for sobs that will not stop.
                    It’s everything you’ve ever spilled, and more.

                    It’s the disease for which there is no cure,
                    The starving child, the taunting brutal cop.
                    It’s not the liquid spreading on the floor

                    But through a planet, rotten to the core,
                    Where things grow old, get spoiled, snap off, or drop.
                    It’s everything you’ve ever spilled, and more:

                    This vision of yourself you can’t ignore,
                    Poor wretched extra clinging to a prop!
                    It’s not the liquid spreading on the floor.
                    It’s everything you’ve ever spilled, and more.

            The villanelle form reinforces the piling up of life's tragedies —  the incurable disease, the starving child, the taunting brutal cop —  heaped in with those perpetual "little" things —  the broken spout, the nasty salesman.... Pile on top of that, the understanding that human rottenness is but a minute part of the immense substrata of existence perpetually growing old, spoiling, dying.... And it doesn't stop there; pile on the vision —  not a mere insight, but enlightenment that grasps the big picture so acutely it can't be ignored —  that we are an insignificant extra —  not even a real player pretending to be a real person, but one who might fill in at the last minute in the unlikely event that our performance is needed. And we cling —  we don't lean casually against, or grip confidently —  we cling to a mere prop —  not reality itself but a mere suggestion of it, which we hold not even in the illusion of the play on stage, but twice removed, in the wings. The overwhelming destructive force that renders everything powerless and insignificant spreads like liquid through our fingers, uncontrollably permeating the planet and all existence. 
            The sheer weight of this negative force, both its reality and our recognition of it, overwhelms. We sob uncontrollably, not over a spilled cup of juice, but over what it means cumulatively, symbolically.

            More successful is “Unkind Cut.”

                    That slight you thought would go away
                    when just a little time had passed|
                    is back. It’s clearly here to stay.

                    Give it, you told yourself, a day,
                    a week. Injustice cannot last.
                    A nuisance that will go away;

                     A bad line in a dreadful play
                    mal-acted by a dismal cast:  
                    nothing that had the power to stay,

                    To grow, to strip you bare and flay
                    again, again, as if the past
                    were present, future too, away

                    Only at intervals. Okay,  
                    you think, it’s possible the bas-
                    tard had a point. So what? I’ll stay  

                    Just as I am. You do. You may
                    even forget you know the nas-
                    ty slight you wish would go away
                    is true, God’s truth, and here to stay.

            Here the villanelle’s relentless repetition justly thorns under our skin, reinforcing the irony in the last “here to stay,” which is not the obsessive memory of the slight, but the stubborn refusal to relinquish one’s flaws.  Our demons are ourselves.
            I don’t know if Bennett intended it, but his villanelle Filling in the Blanks describes what a villanelle does fills in specific “blanks” with specified repeating lines, and fills in end rhymes in regimented order. 

                    FILLING IN THE BLANKS

                    Living consists of filling in the blanks.
                    At first, there’s empty space; no need at all
                    to pay it any mind or offer thanks.
                    You just connect the dots; engage in pranks;
                    someone attends you if you start to squall.
                    Living consists of filling in the blanks,
                    Till all too soon you’re hustled into ranks
                    of others just like you, who toss a ball,
                    recite their lessons, learn to utter thanks
                    For what, you’re not quite sure, until the spanks
                    the world delivers cause you to recall
                    a time when life was filling in the blanks,
                    Not paying bills, returning calls to banks,
                    telling your agent he’ll just have to stall,
                    putting the best face on it, growling thanks
                    For nothing. Meanwhile, streets fill up with tanks;
                    some government somewhere’s about to fall.
                    You’ve got the picture. There are no more blanks,
                    and no, you do not need a hand. But thanks.

            This poem repeats not whole lines but only end rhymes in a villanelle pattern, which mirrors the subject’s refusal to accept a hand, the heavy authoritarian hand of the strict villanelle form.  But because there are only two rhyme words, the effect is similar to the classic villanelle’s. 
            Bennett's best poems are his formal poems. I'm afraid I disagree with X. J. Kennedy's blurb comment that Bennett's shorter work often "compresses realms of wisdom into tight, economical packages... The epigrams in 'Mind Sets' are in themselves worth the price of admission." Though some of the Mind Set poems are perhaps clever, they fall short of conveying terse, aphoristic wisdom. A typical example:

                        Stark summing up is true, beyond a doubt.
                        But meaning, like life, is all in the fleshing out.

            This observation, obvious and devoid of interesting imagery, stands there with all the other stuffy professors of pontification.
            Much of Bennett's wisdom emerges through the classic formal poems, no doubt because of the more deeply engaged effort required by the form itself. Some of the book's other poems, though, are simple reflections that are too simplistic, too technically bland. An example:

                    MY FATHER’S COAT

                    Whenever I wear it
                    I feel like my father.
                    Walk like him.
                    Perhaps, look like him.
                    I’ve begun to think like him.
                    For a little while longer,
                    unlike him,
                    I can still take it off. 

            Not much there there, I'm afraid. This poem, like several of his other shorter poems, is not deceptively simple, like, say, the poems of Billy Collins, in which the ordinary manifests the extraordinary. Bennett's ordinary images, language, and observations are simply that: ordinary. And disappointing, especially because the many fine longer poems justify higher expectations.  
            The titles of Bennett’s series of spoofs of famous poems set us up for a good laugh:  Charles Simic Finds Himself Nowhere, Everywhere, All At Once; Mary Oliver Elects to Leave Her Kitchen; David Ignatow Examines His Motives; W.S. Merwin Meditates on a Cloud; The Passionate Businessman to His Love.  But few of the poems live up to their titles.  A few exceptions are the following take-offs on Stevens, Frost, and Shakespeare.



                    In the whole piazza
                    the only bulging thing
                    is the purse of the pigeon-man.


                    They bob and waddle and strut.
                    They perch on your hand and your head.
                    They shit on your shirt.


                    I was of no mind,
                    like a piazza full of pigeons
                    when there aren’t any people.


                    A child and a pigeon
                    are two.
                    A child and a pigeon and corn
                    are a seething mass
                    of pigeons.


                    O stout man from McAllen,
                    why don’t you watch where you’re going?
                    You almost trampled a pigeon.


                    At the sight of scrawny necks
                    and sooty feathers
                    even an ornithologist
                    would cry out in revulsion!


                    The pigeons’ eyes are dull.
                    The tourists must be flying.


                    I do not know which to prefer,
                    pigeons that are dead
                    or those that are merely absent.


                    I rode through Florence
                    in a crummy coach.
                    Once I had a hope
                    we’d stop at a spot
                    not yet encrusted by pigeons.


                    It was noisy all day.
                    It will be noisy tonight.
                    And tomorrow, smack, at dawn –
                    the goddam cooing of pigeons.

                    THE GARDEN

                    I’m going out to mash a slug or two.
                    They’re wasting my tomatoes, oozing slime
                    On everything I own.  I think it’s time
                    The bastards learned a lesson.  You come too.


                    “Let me not to the marriage of true minds
                    Admit impediments.”  But if I must,
                    For certain one would have to be the grinds
                    Of daily life. Another would be lust.

            The poems in the book’s opening chapter, The Storyteller, are short fables, myths, exemplums, and fairy tales, several of them re-visions of the classics.  Though mildly interesting, few of the poems give us much more than a hip and occasionally amusing twist.  The sonnet, “The True Story of Snow White,” is by far the most powerful exception.

                    Almost before the Princess had grown cold
                    Upon the floor beside the bitten fruit,
                    The Queen gave orders to her men to shoot
                    The dwarfs, and thereby clinched her iron hold
                    Upon the state. Her mirror learned to lie,
                    And no one dared speak ill of her for fear
                    She might through her devices overhear.
                    So, in this manner, many years passed by,
                    And now today not even children weep
                    When someone whispers how, for her beauty’s sake,
                    A child was harried once into a grove
                    And doomed, because her heart was full of love,
                    To lie forever in unlovely sleep
                    Which not a prince on earth has power to break.

            This poem achieves what Bennett’s other re-visions attempt; it gives us an even more gruesomely realistic version than the original fairy tale.  The tight form’s accurate construction and the vividly blunt language intensify the tale’s hard-hitting truth.  If the vanity of superficial beauty is the root of all evil here, then it almost seems poetically just that the beautiful Princess, whose appeal was for any prince the same beauty as the jealous Queen’s, would suffer an unlovely end.  Yet the Princess was a child with a heart full of love.  Today even children are so caught up in the Queen’s power (the seductive power of the Hollywood Queen/Super Model) they can’t even relate to, much less weep for, the tragedy of their own sacrificed innocence.  At the broader level of the state, the real culprit is ultimately the egomaniac’s (mirror’s) power to destroy everything innocent, alive, and truly beautiful.  Because the sacrifice takes place in the classic sacred grove, the implication is that this power is a violation of the sacred, a kind of black Sabbath.  This particular drama represents our ultimate universal condition.  Not only death itself, but the destructive thrust of egotism that drives history is the power that cannot be broken. 
            Bruce Bennett’s achievement in Navigating the Distances is substantial.  If all the weak poems had been pruned out and only the very best collected together here, this book would be a major success.  But the weak dilute the impact of the strong.  My hope is that Bennett will continue to craft those tough formal poems through which his gifts are fully realized.  A handful of great poems is worth infinitely more than volumes of lesser ones.




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