DRIVE BY: Shards and Poems

John Bennett
Lummox Press ($15)

by Stephan Delbos

In his poem “A Sick Child,” Randall Jarrell wrote, “If I can think of it, it isn’t what I want”—a line which should serve as a sterling example to young poets seeking words. John Bennett, who has published more than twenty-five collections of poetry since 1975, is not a young poet, but his latest book shows the fruits of a lifetime of observation and writing, and the best of the poems charge off the page with the urgency of immediate experience. Though some of the poems seem too easily arrived at, as if Bennett had wanted only what he could think of, they gather momentum en masse, and the collection picks up speed as one becomes familiar with the paths and destinations of Bennett’s aesthetic.

Anyone who has read the countless disciples of Charles Bukowski knows that life, no matter how adventurous and vice-strewn, does not always make good reading. Poets, therefore, often comb experience for lucid moments where past, present and future combine and shimmer with congruency. If his seemingly autobiographical work is any indication, Bennett has a long, eventful life to look back on, and some poems in Drive By exemplify an imaginative insight into personal experience which Bennett’s shaved-down language facilitates. “Crossing Over” is one in which Bennett achieves this sought after synthesis:

When I met her
she rode a bike
with one pedal
& hadn’t yet
turned twenty.

We lived together
six years & then
she went to college
& left me for
a boy who
studied Latin.

The last I heard
she had a
PhD, a baby
& was married
to a physicist
from the Ukraine.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

& I’ve crossed a line
where I’m
more one with
the night sky
than the
life I’ve led.

While highlighting the instability of “her” youth, the opening image also imbues the female with a kind of fractured grace. The second and third stanzas pile heartbreak for the narrator, and an element of uncanny humor is added with the mention of “the Ukraine.” Finally, the poem lifts to a wider scope as Bennett snaps us out of recollection into the present, providing a touching revelation of the narrator’s alienation from his own past and the course of his life.

This point of touching revelation is reached in many of the poems in Drive By, but less often than it is attempted. The most affective poems in this collection are those in which Bennett drops his tough guy persona of bar room brawls and unfiltered cigarettes—literary clichés even if they are accurate autobiography—for disarmed and disarming honesty. These are the poems of an aging man trying to come to terms with his past and the emerging present, with all its technological advances.

“Anita O’Day” is an example of what Bennett calls a “shard,” or what has been elsewhere termed “flash fiction.” In it, the narrator watches a film about the famous jazz singer with his teenage granddaughter, who is astounded by O’Day’s embodiment of her own voice. It is sufficient to quote the opening and closing:

There are lots of checkmates and fool’s mates and a good number of stalemates and forfeits in life, but no en passants. Once something passes you by, it’s gone forever.

My son went that route, marched right out of my life, but I wound up with his daughter, and chess has no name for second chances.

She’s staying with me now, healing from the road, but she has a deeper pain that no one can get to, so deep it turns physical, a knot in her stomach. . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Later I’m on the computer, tapped into some photos of crazy artists and poets from my past. I call her in and scroll through the photos, and when I’m done she says, “I want to have pictures like that.”

“You will,” I said. “You’re still young.”

“No,” she says. “People aren’t like that anymore,” and we both grow silent.

Hackneyed expressions such as “healing from the road,” moments where one feels Bennett isn’t reaching far enough into imagination and language to frame his description, mar this poem and others in Drive By. But what prevails is the sensibility of an aging man trying to make peace with himself and his past while seeking some kind of security, no matter how fleeting, for those he loves.

Bennett’s shards are most interesting for the questions they raise regarding what minimums are required for a coherent and resonant tale. Detractors of such attempts at stark brevity would call Bennett’s shards false starts, abandoned attempts at what could have been stories. Reading Drive By, however, one gets the sense that Bennett is doing just that: driving by without lingering long on any single moment; thus achieving effect through quantity. The result is a wide-cast net, a book of poems that manages to capture a lifetime of experience with an immediate, no-nonsense craft.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010