Today I am just mushing the Shines, Stumbles & Echoes into one critical rumpuss because I can; it’s my blog 🙂
Let’s start with the back cover blurbs. There is a reason these little nuggets of gush are getting a bad (or maybe have always had) a negative reputation. Quite simply, they should not be used to over-praise a book, and certainly not a first book, to the paradisial realms, but instead to provide a precis of what one might find within, so with a quick glance one might more readily determine whether or not to select said text for purchase/borrowing. Not this: “Astonishing accomplishment….for any book….absolute authenticity and honesty….Nobody else does this…a new place for the expression of emotion…A thrilling new voice in poetry.” And that’s just the worst of the spewing three. Who can live up to these types of encomiums? Terrifying, really. One is set up to expect genius, epiphany, complete world overturning and thus instead gets lacklustre, ho-hum, falls-flat tedium.
The second issue here is that, mostly, these are not poems per se. They are anecdotes, skimpy-prose tales of this creep and that lesbo, this dog and that marshmallow. Nothing wrong with that; writers like Billeh Nickerson, Dina Del Bucchia and Dave McGimpsey have proven (no less Frank O’Hara et al), with smaller or larger skill sets, that these types of snippets can be funny, sardonic, ironic, cutting, deadly entrees into pop psychology, gender concerns and the landscape of the everyday. But there is a dearth here of much beyond a personal listing of familiar-quirky characters like neurotic nana, Larry the lech, the blithe ex, the ditzy mom, and Hot Nikki the dyke. I like when Bennett becomes punchy with her language or daring with her metaphors: “Beak deep in the red-purple…Eyes like a tooth-crack chunk” (Crow Comes Through), “the spider plant, evangelizing shoots” (The ideal poem), or even this colourful, contrasting moment-image of two girls outside “a wetland crowded/condensed as milk. Pitcher plants/down moths and mosquitoes/as we roast spiderdogs, popping pink/and turquoise jet-puffeds” (Singing Sands) – though I do wish it weren’t the essential entirety of the poem.
I just don’t appreciate the feeling I receive from so many pieces that they are a mere sketch towards something Bennett couldn’t be bothered to think/hear through. To be generous, two clues to this sketch-mode being her planned modus operandi however do exist. The first is in the title poem where she describes canoodling as an intimacy that is “fresh, thin, easy to break.” The latter two descriptors are definitely accurate for many of the anecdotes in this book. We could deduce that this is because much of the material is about the tenuous, whether with relations, in sexuality, or throughout friendships. Thus, the mode of composition is equivalent to the fragile or superficial content. I mean when your mom defriends you on Facebook and this means you are “cut out of the family” (In #2K 11), it does’t get more 21st century absurd-glib than that.
The other bit of evidence as to intent is in the opening poem called Epigraph whose totality is: “You have a poetic sensibility,/my father says. Maybe/when you clean your room,/you will find it.” Bennett could just be scouring her memory’s domicile in Canoodlers, tipping out the scraps of gunk and preparing for a renewed excursion into vaster, deeper realms of poetry. I hope so. Because the super-flop endings of many pieces: “off we’d go, in search of more eggs”, “Drunk, he will look for my mother”, “What would you be if you were not a stick at all?”, the confused similes (legs thin as gulls, teeth that should have a “grip on the earth more like the hobbit’s feet” and clouds full as “milk-filled breasts”), along with the bland cliche-yuks: “bellies full to bursting” or “If you were a crow, I’d be a crow too. And then, when we/got together, it’d be a murder,” sure wore me out as a reader with regular sighing.
When Bennett hones her recollections with form as in the litany Because the Juices Run Pink: “Because of saturation points. Be-/cause of satiation. Because you have to open yourself up, expose your/organs to a hand” her voice powers up. When she envisions insects taking over the world and a “giant vacuum, schlumping it all skyward” my imagination-sensors are tickled. And when she elaborates a narrative over several pages as in A Week in the House of What Repute, utilizing repetition and wham-bam verbs to make us care about what Karl & Natalie are doing, then intrigue and engagement rises. And she has an astute ear for dialogue. I sense the influence of wonderful prose stylists like Heather O’Neill in Lullabies for Little Criminals or early Annabel Lyon in her Oxygen days.
So, there’s something here. But certainly not the “extraordinary” as one of her MFA teachers yodels out.
Yes, this is MFA writing for the most part, daylight stuff.
But I have hope 🙂 And the cover is superb with its bright hues, swallows, pillars. Even the contents page is aesthetically pleasing. I won’t apologize for being demanding. Poetry is pretty much everything to me.