WINTERGREEN by CHARLES BENNETT Headland Publications, 2002
Published in Galatea Resurrects, Spring 2006
In my hand I hold a slim green volume of poetry.WINTERGREEN by CHARLES BENNETT Headland Publications, 2002
Published in Galatea Resurrects, Spring 2006
In my hand I hold a slim green volume of poetry. On the cover is an amazingly ethereal painting by Giovanni Segantini entitled “The Punishment of Lust” in which we see bare-breasted women floating through an icy channel against a backdrop of snow covered mountains. It is titled Wintergreen, by Dr. Charles Bennett.
Dr. Bennett lives and works in and about the U.K. where he runs the Ledbury Poetry Festival, “the best poetry festival in the country” according to Andrew Motion. Several years ago I was lucky enough to hear him read during Writers Week at the University of California, Riverside, near my home.
Throughout this debut, a collection of startlingly fresh lyric poems, Dr. Bennett employs language that is evocative, revelatory, and steeped in folklore that acts as mythical sinew, connecting these poems to the bone of a narrative structure that draws us through a landscape bristling with the mystery of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The title poem evokes the bright flavor of wintergreen with crisp imagery, then seamlessly turns from the literal to the metaphorical beginning at the fourth couplet, ending the poem with:
Somewhere close at hand you are hiding until I find you:
a remedy for solitude a prickle of white in the wood.
These poems, saturated with a longing the reader can almost taste, seek to satiate that longing with searching. Most are oblique love poems, addressed to an un-named “you” as though letting us in on a private conversation. In “The Unicorn Diaries” the speaker claims:
I have put you together from pentagrams of sugar and salt, from the bones of eleven mice
This invokes, in this reader’s mind, not just a snippet of pagan ritual, but the desire to create that which cannot easily be obtained. When the speaker says:
I wondered if the smell was viburnum or phosphorus, if the feathers
were swans or doves, if the dimpled sheets of your bed were the toad’s pale underbelly ,
or fallen hawthorn blossom,
the text seems imbued with a glow, a sweetness; a softness. The swans and doves and hawthorn blossoms, symbolic of monogamy and fidelity, are countered in the penultimate couplet by the unicorn’s slow dismembering of a wedding dress. She then runs off, leaving a bath full of milk, a trail of hoof-prints in the snow.
In another poem, “The Mermaid Room,” written in the voice of a mermaid, the speaker states:
I am the voyage you will make alone in a small, unstable, open boat for the rest of your life...
further reenforcing one of the major themes of this work: the deeply human quest for all that eludes us. We find ourselves adrift, almost floating from one page to the next, until we reach the final section: a series of linked poems titled “Lost.” Here, on a Wednesday night, we find the speaker wanting to learn how to spell abracadabra -- a conundrum, of course, because as he is spelling out this desire, he is spelling out the word.
This is the trick that is played as we read these simple and elegant and mysterious poems: in searching out a remedy for our own solitude, we find that we’ve had it in our hands all along. ...more
Alex Grant is a native Scot currently living in North Carolina. His manuscript, Chains & Mirrors, won the 2006 Randell Jarrell/Harperprints poetry contest and was recently awarded the Oscar Arnold Young Award by the Poetry Council of North Carolina for most outstanding book of poetry published that year. He has been the recipient of a Pavel Srut Poetry Fellowship, first place winner of the 2006 Kakalak Carolina Poets Anthology contest, and was selected for inclusion in this year's Best New Poets Anthology (University of Virginia Press).
A slender, perfect-bound volume containing twenty-one poems, two thirds of the poems collected here were either finalists or honorable mentions for some noteworthy poetry awards such as the Discovery/The Nation (2005 and 2006), Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize (2005), and the Arts & Letters Rumi Poetry Prize (2006).
Chains & Mirrors takes as its epigraph a stanza from the Robert Penn Warren poem, Tell Me a Story. It reads:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
Tell me a story of deep delight.
In the acknowledgments Grant thanks Warren for this "posthumous thunderbolt," for this is the thread upon which the book is constructed. Each of the poems here tell a story, drawing inspiration primarily from historical and religious subjects. Included among them are poems about Jesus, Neruda, Emperor Qinshihuang, Gilles de la Tourette, Li Po, and Lillian Gish. Though varying in approach from poem to poem, the collection is unified by a consistent tone, a developed voice that is even and measured, clean, precise diction, and lines that are not padded with unnecessary words.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines doggerel as "crudely or irregularly fashioned verse". Far from being crude or irregular, these poems are meticulously crafted: lean, sturdy, and interesting, and at times mysterious, almost mystical.
The book is divided into two sections: Bones & Confetti and Bodies & Water. The first opens with the poem Black Moon:
I watch him drag the boat across the scree, over the dry doggerel of mackerel scales and filament
of a season ended, to the water. The sand flays the last flakes of paint from the boat's hull,
splash and crack at the confluence of stone and water, and he is out beyond the waves, where fishbones
glint like small suns in a black mirror, and the splay of the Pelican's wing stitches the sea to the sky. Brine-
bleached hands haul the sodden creel above the gunwales, and there again is the gaping child-shaped hole,
sawn by the snapping-turtle's teeth, ragged-cut and impossible to mend. Did I say that the turtle is guided
by ambient moonlight? So, the wolf howls. The waves gnaw at the shore. Bones and light are mixed with water.
Bones and light mixed with water. This is the heart of the collection: the appropriation of artifacts, their reconstitution into poetic form, the result being the illumination of the present through resurrection of the past.
Grant writes poetry that is rhythmically astute, equally at ease hammering along an iambic line or in free verse. Additionally, he displays an interest in the work of the Haiku Masters. In His Holiness the Abbot is Shitting in the Withered Fields, he incorporates Haiku both by including it as the title--after Haiku by Buson--and by inserting Haiku into the body of the poem:
So, 7 days bereaved, Issa made his father's death poem: "A bath when you're born, a bath when you die--how stupid."
Ekphrastic works are also included in the collection, but because of Grant's penchant for history they transcend mere description. In one, an ekphrasis after the 1936 photograph by Brassai, The Steps of Montmartre, Grant weaves a dozen or so references that locate the photograph in proper historical context:
.... Through the tunnel formed by the parting trees, battalions of lamp-posts advance and retreat in the morning mizzle clamp chain-link handrails hard into sunwashed cobbles. In less than a year, the corpseless heads on Nanking's walls will coalesce with Guernica's ruined heart, mal du siecle will become Weltschmerz, and the irresistible symmetry of a million clacking bootheels will deafen half a continent. The red brush never dries -
The majority of the poems in Chains & Mirrors are indeed chained to, and mirroring, the past. But the present is not without representation here, as exampled by the amusing, satirical Poetry Final, which takes aim at academic workshop culture in a series of faux writing prompts.
Part five of this poem asks that the poet: Establish a seamless association between the following: an executioner's birthday party, fractal geometry, attention deficit disorder. Result must be tacitly non-judgmental, and be suitable for a sixth grade audience.
The poem culminates in a bonus section that requests that you "substantiate your findings".
Though this collection is indeed chapbook length, it is not insubstantial. Image-rich, leavened with parceled out wit, these poems have been carefully chosen to form a cohesive whole rather than a random sampling of a poet's best work.
On the back cover of the book there is a blurb by Thomas Lux: "Chains & Mirrors is a powerful and stunningly imaginative book that announces a hell of a good new poet!"
Alex Grant’s Fear of Moving Water is structurReview of Fear of Moving Water Cati Porter
Published in Smartish Pace, Winter 2009
Wind Publications 2009 15
Alex Grant’s Fear of Moving Water is structured in four sections, and while there is no listing for this in the table of contents, each is preceded by a brief prose poem that serves as an introduction to the section. The collection moves deftly between the serious, the sublime, and the silly, sometimes melding all three into something shining and whole. Take, for example, this passage, which serves as an epigraph to the first section of poems, titled Bones & Confetti:
So we come here, to this haberdashery of words, apothecary for the faintly damaged. Well, Wounded Elk, walk this way -- follow the voice leading you toward something, anything other than that damned catechism of caterwauling you’ve suffered through the shrinking years of bones and confetti -- The lights will go down and the yellow spotlight of the moon will pull your body upward from the slow riptide of the world.
Bones and confetti are two words you do not ordinarily find in the same sentence, but it is an astute observation that directly references both the solemn and the celebratory components of our lives. In this poem, the bone as a structural object, as a remnant of the body, takes on a figurative significance that speaks to the transitory nature of our lives. The confetti also speaks to this state, in that the bright bits become more than simple scraps of paper, symbolic not just of life’s celebrations but also of the traces we leave behind after the party is over. But Grant is not without a sense of humor. There is of course the pun -- the “shrinking years” that immediately precedes the word “bones”; and the tone, which is slightly cheeky, a tad over-confident, welcoming us in where we will be dressed in words and given a tonic to lift us out of our own skin and into another’s.
Grant is a skillful story teller. His poems draw the reader in through the particulars of the image, then through those particulars we are given a glimpse of something larger in a sort of microscope/telescope effect. In many of these poems he directs our gaze toward an object, then draws us up and out of the poem to contemplate the implications of history on our understanding of that object. Here is his poem “The Gardens of Pompeii”:
The Gardens of Pompeii
In the gardens of Pompeii, where fields of asphodel once dropped white petals and the grass grinds
beneath your feet, where glass trees clink in the wind and winter never comes, the streets where children
ran with barking dogs are empty -- the clacking cobblestones wrapped in centuries of ash --
like black olives petrified in withered vine-leaves.
Here Grant has excavated a world that no longer exists, resurrected the fields of asphodel, the barking dogs, and the children . . . . Through his imagery Grant is able to insert us into a history that is no longer visible on the surface. The lightness of the asphodel, the clinking of the glass, juxtaposed against that last solemn line, lend this poem gravitas.
Grant seems to know his history and revels in the retelling, but is not one to shy away from the absurd when it suits him, in much the same way one might use humor to deflect terror. In “Captain Scott’s Lost Diary” we are presented with a few passages from this “lost diary” in which we learn a lot about Captain Scott, as well as (the very obviously fictionalized) Captain Oates. For those not familiar with the story, Captain Scott led an expedition to the South Pole. Captain Oates allegedly died in an honorable suicide by stepping out into a blizzard when it became obvious that his ill health threatened to compromise the health of the others on the expedition. Grant, however, posits an alternative reason for Oates’ departure:
Six weeks in this tent, and we are all close to breaking-point. Captain Oates masturbates constantly - even during dinner – he claims it’s simply a mechanism to keep his body temperature up - though we all have our doubts. I no longer feel comfortable shaking hands with him, and last night he told me that he wants me to have his babies. .................................................................................. ...............The wind is unrelenting, the cold bites at every nerve, and Oates has threatened that if we don’t go to dinner soon, he’ll go alone - and that he may be gone for quite some time.
Grant’s use of personae in poems is admirable. He uses these masks to great effect, allowing the reader into a frame that would otherwise be un-enterable. To quote Grant, speaking on his use of personae:
. . . [T]he use of persona in a poem frees the poet to inhabit a world outside of the individual personality – I imagine it’s a little like wearing a chinese mask – it allows the writer to take on a foreign personality, to say something that might otherwise sound inauthentic or affected if it were spoken directly. It also allows me to repeatedly make staggering, unauthenticated claims of fact – a very appealing notion!
There is certainly something appealing in stepping out of one’s skin. It hints at a drama that can only be enacted by allowing oneself to step away from one’s self. But of course one can never truly do that; one is, at all times, writing from a point within.
Alex Grant is an accomplished poet, the recipient of numerous awards including the Randall Jarrell Poetry Prize, the Oscar Arnold Young Award, the Kakalak Anthology of Carolina Poets Prize, and far too many finalist and semi-finalist nods to name here, but most notably The Felix Pollak and Brittingham Prizes, Tupelo Press’ Dorset Prize, the Pablo Neruda Prize, Discovery/The Nation, and The Arts & Letters Poetry Prize. Despite that fact, it is surprising to realize that Fear of Moving Water is his first full-length collection.
Fear of Moving Water could almost serve as an Alex Grant retrospective, as a kind of “selected works”, because, of the thirty-nine poems included here, at least twenty-two of these appear in either of his two previous chapbook-length collections. But rather than stitch these prior collections together at the seams, Grant has ripped them apart, reconfigured them, and through bones and confetti, bodies and water, chains and mirrors, Grant has painstakingly curated a representative selection of his finest work to date, work that is both cocked and benedictive, perpetually at the ready, offering an invocation of divine blessing for all who pass through....more