A Long Obedience to an Exacting Muse

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Just Another Day in Just Our Town: Poems New and Selected 2000-2016
By Bruce Bennett
Orchises, 214 pages, $24.95

What’s better than commitment to a fight That brings your best out, focused on what’s true? You have one purpose: Write it till it’s right. It might not take a lifetime. But it might.

Just Another Day in Just Our Town is Bruce Bennett’s tenth poetry collection, and that total does not include chapbooks and pamphlets. Bennet has faithfully obeyed his Muse’s voice for decades. This collection is a must-read for poetry aficionados, but more importantly this book is for those who assume they “don’t ‘get’ poetry.”

Over the 20th century, the general readership of poetry has declined. Poetry is now read mostly in classrooms by professors and students or in journals by poets, editors, and critics. Dana Gioia exposed this problem almost thirty years ago in his essay “Can Poetry Matter” and suggested steps toward bringing poetry back to a growing general readership. Since Gioia’s essay first appeared in The Atlantic in 1991, Poetry Outloud, a national recitation contest for high school students, Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, Poem in Your Pocket Day and other events have helped democratize the place of poetry.

And yet, when I tell people that I teach creative writing and a critical seminar in poetry at Colorado Christian University, I hear a variety of carefully measured responses: “I don’t ‘get’ poems.”; “I read poems in elementary school but not after that.”; “Does Shel Silverstein count as poetry?” These responses belie the assumption that poetry is obtuse and that reading poetry for pleasure ended with swinging on the playground. These children-now-adults, somehow wrongly believe that if a poem contains rhyme and rhythm, if its meaning is clear, if it is fun to read aloud, or if (God forbid) it makes them laugh, then it must not be authentic poetry. The poems in Just Another Day in Just Our Town do all that while addressing the fullness of life and the reality of death: the stuff of life on any day in your town and mine. In a 2017 interview with Tish Pearlman, Bennett says he aims to communicate “as clearly as possible” and these poems are “looking for answers not expecting to find them.” With compassion, wit, whimsy, and tremendous prosodical chops, Bennett’s collection bridges the gap between classroom and living room.

“Here and Now,” the first of the book’s six sections, tells tales of people and animals in “our town.” Bennett spins these stories with an observant, objective tone devoid of judgment. In fact, empathy abounds, even for “Indian John” who shot his co-worker.

And John was guilty certainly, but still there’s so much more that isn’t in the story. The part that I keep thinking of is this. What was it like for him to be alone here, all of that time, always as an outsider, hating his “brothers,” as he lived among them, so many years, just being “Indian John”?

Bennett looks deeper into the causes that might have led “Indian John”to murder. This poet even has a soft spot for a turtle, a one-eyed duck, and chipmunks: “That makes me sad. You want the chipmunks dead.”

In “Rage” the speaker moves from empathy to identification. A parked car has rolled into another parked car. The gently tapped car’s owner is furious; he rages against the speaker and calls the police. After the confrontation, the speaker addresses the reader: “Times in my life, I’ve been that other guy. // So me, yeah I was proud I kept my temper. // You don’t believe me, man, just ask my wife”.

Although his book is clearly written, it embraces difficult subject matter. Part two tackles existential questions of isolation, death, and the proverbial “why” of such things. “Swimming in a Watering Can” shows the speaker’s tenderness for a mouse, finding it drowned in a watering can. Sympathy turns to empathetic fear in the final lines of the blank verse sonnet:

………………………………………………It’s just that awful image: paddling in the water, helpless and desperate, nothing to catch hold of, feeling your strength fail, little by little by little, paddling and paddling, sinking, all alone.

The speaker allows himself to shiver, for a few lines, with that cold mouse, perhaps pondering his own future demise.

An even more deeply chilling (pun intended) poem, “Random” tries to make sense of a senseless beating experienced by a Japanese man who was waiting for the subway. The speaker, casting about for a reason, concludes:

He’s Japanese, but no one thinks it was a hate crime. It was nothing. Merely chance. The universe went crazy for an instant, and he was at the spot where it went crazy. Unless you think you’ve got some explanation.

This poem, and many others, expose the truth that on any day in “just our town,” a person may witness a myriad of sorrow and brokenness. Or even inexplicable terror at a random act of the universe. However, Bennett never leaves us in the mire.

Section three, “Loose Canon” reads like the sound track to an open mic at the town’s favorite bar. Imagine famous poets, past and present, gathered for drinks and a lightning round of verse with Bennett. In turn, the poets recite their poems and Bennett responds with one of his: in perfect imitation. This is the longest section of the book, including 57 of these delicious imitations. The reader familiar with the original reaps a double pleasure. Bennett’s imitations are highly accessible, but readers with no knowledge of the originals may be tempted to skip over poems. Trying not to spoil the fun of this section, I will mention only two poems. In 1889, Alfred, Lord Tennyson published “Crossing the Bar” a poignant 4-stanza poem that uses crossing a sand bar into the open sea as a metaphor for death. Bennett shifts the definition of “bar” and the tone of the poem in “Leaving the Bar”, simultaneously mimicking the form exactly.

Sunset and evening star, ……….It’s time to pack it in. And let there be no laughter at the bar ……….When I turn down a gin.

But such a sound as leads me to the door, ……….Dead set on home, Not tempted by Big Annie anymore ……….Winking through foam,

Not tempted by the clink of glass and ball, ……….The raucous cheer, My purpose holding firm that if I fall, ……….it won’t be here.

Preserve me from this Godforsaken place. ……….Propel me far. Don’t let me wake with vomit on my face ……….Back in this bar.

Bruce Bennett takes on life’s inexplicable tragedies, yet he can plant his tongue firmly in his cheek and make the reader laugh aloud (while reading alone at her desk).

Spoiler alert: one more from “Loose Canon.” William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” reads like a note on a refrigerator and alludes to a loving, intimate relationship. Bennett turns that upside-down:

……….This is just to confess I have eaten the maid who was in the kitchen

and whom you were probably planning to fire

Forgive me She was delicious far sweeter than you ever were

Perhaps a poet needs more courage to pen sarcasm of this ilk than to question the role of randomness in the universe? Allow me to tease you with two more titles from this section: “The Cult of Eating” (isn’t hard to master), and “The Donald Trump of the Republic.” Yes, Bennett is fearless.

Section four, “Pas de Deux” contains twenty-seven villanelles that speak of the passing of time and the writing life. Bennett’s versecraft is magnificent, whether subtle in blank verse or blatant in repeating forms such as villanelles and triolets, and in one villanelle he describes his relationship with form and structure. This dance for two, or “Pas de Deux,” is between the poet and the form, as Bennett explains:

The form is part of what I want to say. It makes a case for that right off the bat. It states itself, and then shows me the way.

He describes the magical surprise that a received form or metrical requirement sometimes offers a poet.

Even when I don’t know my lines. I may Not get them right. I may talk through my hat, But soon enough the form shows me the way

And we are back on track. Call it a day, I think, and do. When done, the thing seems pat. The form is part of what I want to say. It states itself, and then shows me the way.

It is crucial to call attention to Bennett’s relationship, or dance, with poetic form because in conjunction with astute observation, it the signature of his success.

“The Other Bruce Bennett,” the title of section five, derives its name from one of life’s situational ironies. According to the speaker in the poem (probably the poet himself), when he was an undergraduate there was indeed another student named Bruce Bennett. The speaker shares that “{he} would keep getting phone calls from girls.// …. “Hi,” I would say. Then hesitate,/ and ask, “Who are you?” // There would be a pause. // “Don’t you remember last night?” //…. The other Bruce Bennett had a lot, / a whole lot, of “last nights” with a whole / lot of different girls. // I kept wishing I could remember his “last nights.” (pp. 173-4). The other poems speak to identities: sexual, cultural, familial, etc., and to the truth which lies underneath our names and labels:

The loon has no idea that he’s a loon. He’s just another bird who has a tune.

We, as unique persons, are more alike than we often realize.

A minor drawback of this collection is the organization of the section of villanelles and the section of imitations. Each poem enticed me to continue reading, but when I finished the section I felt like I had eaten the whole carton of Haagen-Dazs at once. I was no longer tasting the individual flavors. These two sections could succeed printed on their own as chapbooks, read more slowly.

“Coda: Cleaning Up and Clearing Out,” the concluding section, addresses Bennett’s retirement from over forty years in the college classroom. Receiving a note from a student informing him that’s she’s a grandmother is disturbing enough, only to realize he has no idea who she is; finding a stone paper-weight underneath a pile of papers on his desk and not remembering where it came from; hearing a student say, “I’m a semi-hoarder myself”; and having difficulty eating a bowl of soup all contribute to a melancholy sense of finality at the end of this book. May this phase be a new beginning! To the poet I say, may retirement afford more time for dancing with the Muse. And to the reader, treat yourself to the pleasures of this book. And buy one for a friend who thinks he doesn’t get poetry, or put it in your dentist’s waiting room. Why not?