Book Review

Years ago when most of us had that unit on mythology in our high school literature class we learned the names of the Greek and Roman gods that wound their way into the history of western literatures, shaping allusions and metaphor. Even years later when Nietzsche disputed the value of the Apollonian over the Dionysian, it was still that Mediterranean heritage that crept into our thinking and our poetry. But even in the days of Eurocentric literature there was always another mythology that hovered in the background, the Norse. Unlike Greek thought in which the lives of mankind stretch out in endless possibility, the gods of the north, saw, in the cold land that they inhabited, that in the end, they were fated to go down in defeat. Benninghoff’s first full-sized book of poetry, Whose Cries are Not Music inhabits the land, not of the Greek, but of the Norse gods.

The first poem of the book, "Snow Winter," sets the tone for the entire collection. Benninghoff writes,

I live in a place where
the ice closes in on me
in winters which are like a world shutting down.

As one might expect in such a land, images of cold, ice, flights of geese, moose, and snow predominate, but so, interestingly, do words like praying and stars, and it is the tension between such images that makes Benninghoff’s poetry interesting and not a mere dirge.

Echoing Eliot, she says,

I fear the winter but the spring more.
The first crocus bloom is
terrible under the March sun.
I feel the dim shoots of change,
pushing from underneath, the soil
growing moist instead of caked and hard.

The poems work on several levels. Knowing that life ultimately ends in death and annihilation could lead to a philosophical position that makes one want to enjoy life all that much more. (See the review of Barbara Crooker’s More in this issue.) But in Norse country, it is stoicism, not joie de vie, that is called for. Of course, the metaphor also works on an emotional level. Letting oneself entertain the possibility of emotional growth and fulfillment when not believing in its possibility causes pain.

As a result the poet says,

I want to sleep
of everything,
even the single
deaf tree
left from winter

Stark stuff.

By no stretch of the imagination are the poems in Whose Words are Not Music, merely nature poems. The first section of the book, "Do the Dead?" introduces several characters who populate the book, making recurring appearances. These include her father, mother, and a former significant other, perhaps a husband.

In the second section of the book, "The Street Where I Was a Child" these relationships develop further, or at least appear more prominently, especially the poet’s relationship with her father. This relationship is one in which father and daughter never quite connect. Even in "Evening with My Father," the closest thing to a hopeful poem on this topic, one in which they play tennis together and "his voice sounded friendly," there is a feeling of unbridgeablility. Unlike feminist writers such as Olds and Glück whose issues with their father are Freudian, however, Benninghoff’s are merely symptomatic a more generalized human condition.

While there is a greater focus on her family and the people that impacted upon her in this section, the landscape of the first part of the book carries through as well, developing itself through some of the more particularized settings of the town where she was raised. The ice, gulls, geese and snow all still abide. Perhaps the title of one poem sums up the poets early years, "There is No Childhood." It may well be that it is during this time that the poet begins to identify with the geese, the subject of the title poem (included in this section), and to develop a nascent sense of the direction her poetry would take.

It cannot be an accident that the graphic of geese flying cuneiform that appears on the cover of Whose Cries Are Not Music is placed above the title of section three of the book as well. Despite this, the poems in this section seem to take a detour – not in style or tone, but in narrative content. As the title, "For Mary," indicates, they center, around one particular person, a person who died yet provided the most emotionally significant relationship of the poet’s life. Though death was a significant theme in the first two parts of the book, it now seems to become a concern around which many of her thoughts pivot. It also seems to freeze her life somewhere in the past.

I wonder if the dead can hear us?
Does your spirit, Mary, find the old places—
dead leaves clumped in a pile
where the trail forked,

and again,

I wonder where all those futures are—
we talked of many that day, but never lived one.
In this sparse place they are a brightness
just out of reach, like the flowers we saw,
yellow against concrete,
then flattened, dried, altered.

Perhaps it is this experience that leads Benninghoff to one of the poems that may connect this section to the next, "Leave This House."

"St. Paul Street", the fourth section of the book, is one of the strongest. Images shift from those of ice, snow and geese to more urban images, but the sense of oppressive cold and fatalism continues. The initial poem, "Departures" leads the reader to imagine that the narrator has left the home of her childhood and ended up on St. Paul Street in a boarding house of sorts.

So many of us who came
to this red row house on St. Paul Street
lay in bed at night
looking out the window at the stars.
We ached with the darkness,
wanting all we could not have.
Leaving home and family,
we came here to recover
from depression, mixed up lives.

As the reader eventually finds out in, "To Margaret" the city is Baltimore. The girls there spend time together, drinking, walking the streets and looking for men, but never in any true sense become friends or find the emotional connection that they seem to have left home to find and are still lacking. The characters who populate these poems – John, James, Margaret, Michael - seem as transient and ill-fated as the wayfarers in Nordic Eddas.

The final short section of the book, "After Death," is, fittingly, almost a coda. The words dead, death and dying have pervaded the book. One wonders how life after death could be worse since those who are living seem to inhabit a kind of Niflheim as it is. The final poem of the book, "In Dying" ends,

The husk comes away from the seed.
Don’t we in dying
Reveal who we are?

This is a rather curious ending to the book. Throughout whose songs are not music, there have been intimations of something beyond the grave. Benninghoff has described the dead as those who are blocked off from us, yet able in some fashion to be communicated with. Too, at various point in the book angels have flitted in, but these angels seem much like the being in Stephen Dunn’s "Retarded Angel", beings whose very presence shows us how lost we are. People in Benninghoff’s world do pray occasionally, but the prayers seem desperate anachronisms. Is the poet telling us that our lives until now have been nothing and we have yet to actually be planted, or is it that we now at the moment of our annihilation have to look back and define ourselves by how we have dealt with the gift of life we have been given?

One of the most laudable aspects of Benninghoff’s work is that, despite the author’s being diagnosed with depression and Chris. Youbi-polar disorder, she does not use the word "depression" even once. What she has done, instead, through the use of language is to draw a reader into the world she occupies. More than just a description of how it feels to be in that state, the poet recreates that landscape by surrounding the reader with concrete images that, through their repetition, become symbols. If one thinks they have escaped the geese or the gulls, they have only to wait a few poems and these harbingers will return, even in a poem that seems to glimmer some chance of hope or comfort. It is this sense of inescapability that imbues the landscape Benninghoff portrays with a sense of fatalism that is existential and not merely personal.

Another technique that Benninghoff uses to bridge the personal and the universal condition is the invocation of other poets. "Reply to Rilke" certainly accomplishes this as does the previous reference to Eliot, but perhaps her most effective effort is that of recalling of Wallace Steven’s emotionally chilling "Snowman" when she writes in "My Hands",

And I have said
nothing and known nothing
just as the tree says nothing
and knows nothing
but feels the wind
move about
through leaves, branches.

In mooring herself to Rilke and Stevens, Benninghoff assures her readers that she is no mere poet of surface appearances.

Disability poetry continues to need poets who are unafraid to write about the unconventional body in concrete and cliché-free way, but it also needs poets who chart psychological and emotional terrain that is labeled by the medical industry as abnormal. While it is true canonical figures such as Plath and Sexton immediately spring to mind, not all or even most individuals who live with depression experience the internal rage that one associates with those writers. That is why works like Benninghoff’s Whose Cries Are Not Music are needed. Benninghoff’s poems are not pieces that are likely to find their way into a marriage celebration, but they do portray lived experiences. Readers should walk in this Norse country for a while, if only vicariously. Whose Cries Are Not Music was published in February 2011 by Lummox Press.