Here Is My Street, This Tree I Planted
Published by ECW
56 pages, 2004
Sketching With A Steady Hand
Reviewed by Margaret Gunning
Poetry is the deepest, the most personal and most rigorously economical verbal form: whole worlds compressed into a single verse, or even a solitary line. Mastery of the form can take a lifetime, or spring up whole in the surprisingly young. Such is the case with the Port Hope, Ontario-based writer Jonathan Bennett, whose inspired short story collection, Verandah People, exudes the very air of Australia, redolent of man-sweat and eucalyptus and rent with the screeches of exotic birds.
When I spoke with Bennett for January Magazine, I was impressed not just with his soft-spoken yet self-assured manner but by his inner certainty: the sense of steering himself by his own unique creative compass. Poets often seem to feel the need to turn out a novel to gain a kind of literary cachet, not to mention a larger readership (since sales of poetry books are almost always lamentably small). But Bennett already has a well-received novel and a great book of short stories out. Why poetry? Why now? Because, he seemed to be telling me, it was the next thing: the thing that tugged at him to be written, and so, with typical integrity and inner poise, poetry is what he wrote. We are all the richer for it.
Certain themes haunt Bennett's work: his emotional dual citizenship in Australia and Canada; the terrifying abyss of the outback and its tendency to swallow the uninitiated and unprepared; the rape of wilderness by urban aggression, man-made ugliness thrusting its way into the midst of natural purity. All these ideas are vividly demonstrated in tightly-written poems so compressed, so chock-full of vibrant imagery and sense impressions that they evoke the powerful, timeless works of Dylan Thomas.
Inspired by a painter who has influenced his work, "After Hopper's Early Sunday Morning" seems to begin in the middle, or perhaps in mid-thought: "And so you begin/to populate the town like this,/force stories through each curtain slit,/shove lives into the idea of rooms." Edward Hopper's landscape is both general and particular, an anytown, everytown, yet unique as a fingerprint: "This idea of town, at dawn,/surrendering to the flawless vacancy of it,/romanced by the depressive era dust -- ". The glimpse is an intimate one, with "citizens yawning in curtained apartments/above, considering coffee, or bathing,/or church" -- so everyday, so mundane, yet in its absolute fidelity to the real, extraordinary.
"Gunnamatta Bay" is a juicy chunk of Australia, all about a bunch of blokes gone fishing on an old trawler, "our early manhood ripening like/the garden's blood and bone" -- and suddenly we're right there on deck, smelling the catch as it rolls in: "tip 'em up on the rolling deck,/the scene spilling alive with gasping,/fine-toothed mouths screaming/out their guts."
Bennett can take something particular, something intimate and ordinary, and do wonders with it, as in "The Geopolitics of School Shoes":
Shackled square-toed submission
If these awful hobbling school shoes represent the repression of the classroom and the relentless tyranny of the adults, other footgear bespeaks freedom, not to mention a kind of culture shock:
And so, the day they arrived
A great many of these poems are sketches taken from nature, full of dizzyingly beautiful lines like this summery swooner from "Small Canadian Bay": "carrying the faint, gorgeous memory/of warm rock on the browning skin of your back." But urban horrors intrude on this paradise, as in "Where Seagulls Are Local": "The Plant glows green, toxic, a monotonous thrum/leaches out a throaty set of resolved atmospherics." Natural loveliness is starkly juxtaposed with artificial ugliness in "Via the Mine": "Then sun breaks up a cloud, paradise anew/as a turquoise gauze of postcard sky heals/what was lanced, let, and a weeping eyesore."
So much with so little: this is the poet's art, and some of Bennett's best lines are shiveringly pleasurable: "the fair-haired hay", "corn advances/ears to the sky in concentrated march", "the distant eucalyptus and bitumen gleam", "oh the girl with orange-crush lips, forever," "the grizzly whorls of a drunk's yellow, unclipped beard."
Small snatches of life, these poems, as in the title entry, which sketches a whole relationship in a few lines: "Remember when we swung on that tyre/over the flooded river and you made me/a fool in front of your sister. Damn you!"
Ending this deeply satisfying collection is perhaps the strongest of the lot, "Last Stand of the Wollemi Pine," perfectly contrasting Gaia's richness with the sterility of human intervention:
Thousands of tiny Wollemi pines
Such acute awareness, married to a rich verbal gift, yields works that grab hard at gut level, evoking a very particular and intimate universe that manages to include us all. | May 2004
Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She is the author of the novel Better Than Life, published in 2003 by NeWest Press. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.