Review by Terry Lucas
While I agree with the blurbs on the back cover of Five Sextillion Atoms about its merits of “formal compression…taut and acute imagery…epigrammatic closings,” none speak to an equally pervasive element of these poems—their musicality. The interior chiming and half-rhymes, judiciously spaced and preparing the reader for the occasional end-rhyme—often bringing the poem to a close like the final unison note of intertwining melodies—pair with the aforementioned leanness of narrative to create a language both gorgeous and, today, quite rare for a book written at the height of a poet’s powers, much less as her debut collection. It is that many-times forgotten element of sound work to which I draw attention in Benjulian’s proem, “Kaddish.”
In the attic deep enough for twenty
childhoods, an autograph book,
Oak School No. 3, resplendent in gold,
zipper teeth around pastel sheets,
Mother’s signature shaky cursive.
Bundled in blankets, smaller than
a ten-year-old, fingers cold,
she felt awkward holding the pen.
A hurricane will blow tiles off the roof,
room will freeze, mouth open drinking rain.
You will always be, she wrote—
the rest will wash away.
Among other repeated vowels in this Kaddish, the long “o” sound is made prominent with “Oak,” “gold, “old,” “cold,” “blow,” “open,” and “wrote.” Whether chosen for a merely random musical effect, or whether this specific open-throated vowel was intentionally inserted to echo the Shema, perhaps the most readily recognized of all Jewish prayers (beginning “Hear, O Israel”), the resulting lines appear finely wrought, forging together the elements of image and sound in a way that enhances the poem’s effect on the reader.
If this were the only instance in Five Sextillion Atoms where the sound work of a poem seems to amplify its meaning, I might not have paid particular attention to what vowels and voiced consonants Benjulian chose to echo over and over again in poem after poem. In “Garden,” for example, it cannot be coincidental that there is a sense of a continual hum throughout the poem with the repetition of “n” and “m” sounds, enacting the content of the poem when it states (referring to “the angel”): “No one remembers / her words, exactly…”
Benjulian is equally adept at setting a darker tone with her sound work, as in “Marine Incident” where the short “ahh” sound mimics a distress from the “Mother in life jacket [that] opens her mouth,” and the “k” sounds read aloud in the concluding two stanzas are almost a catch in the throat:
…He and his date
light a candle for the bar mitzvah boy.
Rhinestones around her wrist,
she twists with cousin Dick.
But outside, the boy catches snowflakes
on his eyelids, someone bends to kiss his face,
her pearl earrings against his cheek.
Although Benjulian clearly understands how to complement content with sound, it would do her work a disservice not to mention other elements of poetry that she uses with success. Narrative and dialogue, as has been previously pointed out, are both written with the compression that distinguishes poetry from prose. In “Ophelia,” where Benjulian not only reminds reader’s of the story of Hamlet’s wife, she hypothesizes what difference it would have made to the story if “Ophelia” had been the protagonist:
Had he been a woman, Hamlet would wonder:
to feel or not to feel, whether to walk
ramparts in the dead of night,
is it safe.
Benjulian’s virtuosity shines through in multiple poems that follow by intimating not only the original story of Ophelia that ends, of course, in her tragic drowning, but also in alluding to the variation above. In “August, Maine,” for example, we see a farmer’s “daughter near the pond, / imagining, stream turning up // its volume” and in “Ode To Billy & Brenda:” “Does pond water eradicate nail polish? / Or did our ducks fail to acclimate?” Other intimations are made with mere titles of poems, such as “Pond” and “Current” that are enough to bring to mind Ophelia’s watery grave.
Regardless of one’s personal taste relative to image, music, and narrative, Benjulian’s readers are never confused about what they are reading—this first collection of her work decidedly falls on the side of lyrical narrative poetry, rather than blurring across genres. Five Sextillion Atoms’ compact, heightened language sings, in a voice we soon learn to trust, stories of people we now know better, in order to better know ourselves and in the process produces poetry of the highest order.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 19, Issue 1.
See all items about Terry Lucas