Saturday, April 03, 2010

Steve Benson, Roaring Spring (Zasterle Press, 1998)

Steve Benson is becoming one of the most important writers for me. I’ve read his work in bits, here and there, for over a decade, but it’s only in the last year that it’s seemed so crucial, singular, unlike anything else (and barely even like itself). For Benson, writing is a practice of vulnerability, of finding all kinds of ways to throw himself off-balance, to see what happens when there’s a real risk of falling. This practice is ethical as much as, or more than, aesthetic, a self-questioning whose relentlessness doesn’t make it any less gentle in its peculiar ways.

What makes me, as a writer, feel like I need to really study Steve Benson’s work is that he seems utterly unconcerned—no, that’s not right—he seems to aim at being unconcerned with writing a good poem (or making a good performance, since so much of his work is in his own unique varieties of partly-improvised speech). This is not to say that the poems are bad—they certainly are not—but the ways in which they’re good have, usually, little to do with criteria for aesthetic success operative in the discourses of traditional or avant-garde writing. What Benson does is to set up situations, and anything might get caught up in those situations. It’s hard not to be vague here, especially since I’m still very much in the process of discovering his work, so I’ll save the general comments for another writing.

Roaring Spring is written in very brief sections divided from one another by dates (usually just the number of the day, say “27”), beginning on 2/11/96 and ending on 3/17/97. Most days have an entry. Most of the utterances are syntactically incomplete, with almost no capital letters or periods. As with much of his work, Benson uses a very simple form in wonderful ways. The stanzas can seem like independent, compressed poems, varying from the observational to the highly abstract. On the other hand, the end of one stanza might be continued syntactically by the beginning of the next. The numbers that separate the stanzas from one another (with no additional carriage returns) make just enough of a division (and not too much of one) to allow for every possible degree of distinctness or connection. This sounds awfully simple, and it is—but it’s one of the big risks of the writing: that its dailiness, its unrestricted nature with regard to content and kinds of writing, will become a mess in this structure that does little structuring, that does the little it does in such a blunt way. The bluntness has beautiful results. The method solves a great problem, by giving very short poems the opportunity to stand on their own without requiring that each poem be “strong” or self-contained enough to do so.

Where George Albon (see yesterday’s post), in “Empire Life,” incorporates dailiness through a careful, disciplined formal sculpting of impressions into motivically linked arrangements of stanzas (each a quite crafted poem in itself), Benson’s method is more a somewhat meditative allowing-in of whatever might come along—in tension, here, with the constraint of the very short poem.

I don’t have a general argument to pursue. I’ll end with a few randomly chosen sequences, and follow them up with my daily “imitation,” to which I’ll add a stanza a day for at least the month of April.

dried grass and
the uneven ends of
different meanings
from the wetlands
belief systems
hollering into an
imaginary forest
suspend crashes
hurried downhill
cantilevered stress
confound variables
man overboard
I want to read
wind fear love stone
one way I
space geology

you have to leave
early cancellations
or they may be
thrown aloft
turned inward
cloud envelope
opens juices
explode all over
a crazy quilt
I wonder what
I did with that

fresh air or intrigue
the path includes
being here and away
always and right now
anyway, my swollen
eye or eyelid
sketching last night
a tear rolling
across the disheveled
frame of inference
picked up where I left off
a cool blue light
behind the socks
the scenes unfold
and take turns
raising and lowering


long message
all the tunes spring
first off on
a photo show
with no
new york
beers in length
shadows in log
a trick
was planted
for a bad start
you can't see
that pain
you can see
the room
and envy
I'm here
in the rain
not at a schmoozefest


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