Sunday, May 15, 2011
"Whose Cries Are Not Music," A Review and Interview with Linda Benninghoff
“Whose Cries Are Not Music” by Linda Benninghoff , Trade Paper, 6X9 . Lummox Press (PO Box 5301 San Pedro, CA 90733-5301) 108 pages; ISBN: 978-1-929878-95-6 Publishing Date: Feb. 2011 TO ORDER: SEE VERY END OF THIS ARTICLE
In Linda Benninghgoff’s first major collection, “Whose Cries Are Not Music,” we find a collection of poems cohesively assembled from experience, spanning time and mortality as if a wide bridge of song. I found myself reading each section and not wanting to stop, to be led into her rooms of picturesque silence, cries of warning and fear, and finally, to be unhinged by poetry that relates on many levels.
If I had to typify these poems, I’d say they try to elevate the mystery of our finitude through shared events in both nature and human experience, a kind of confrontation that only poetry does best, and well-aided by her unadorned speech which carries enough heat to power through this tough territory. There is little doubt Benninghoff’s poems aim to bring the abstract into focus, as though a human eye were trying to understand what only a bird can see.
In the book’s opening section there are poems about her mother, going for chemo, deer, rest vs. unrest, rain , sickness, the sea, and so on. And throughout these early poems, we find a palpable sorrow that comes from the speaker’s awareness of mortality. This is culminated in the poem ‘Do The Dead?” which is really a cleverly-constructed series of open-ended questions. “Do the dead stop and rest, or do they continue?” the speaker asks, as figuratively posed as it is honest and blunt. And I find this to be a general theme in the book, one that seems to progress throughout the book: from sorrow and pain through acceptance, and then finally hope. This is typified in the spare poem, “Rain” which begins:
Count rain on my fingers?
It is too fine,
like each column of pain-
and ends with a superb image of a swan on a lake, coming up after a dunk, ‘her neck arched/orange bill shining,’ as if to say, how effortless and beautiful is this overcoming.
Benninghoff draws on a rich, yet otherwise ‘ordinary’ vocabulary in her descriptions (read this as compliment!). She doesn’t overwrite, and she doesn’t over-describe. Yet she places the reader in the midst of a scene and then allows the logistics and parameters of the images to speak further into her developing themes of sorrow and isolation. There is considerable coverage in this collection given to past episodes, impressions and life-stories which are no doubt told in autobiographical form. Nowhere is this more evident than in the poems devoted to her father, and one entitled “Evening With My Father" especially impressed me with its dichotomy presented: the quest for love and belonging, alongside the stark reality of separation. The poem begins:
Last Tuesday I played tennis with him.
We slapped balls easily.
His voice sounded friendly,
As if we had done more
than face each other
strangers across newspapers...
Here is a familiar theme which Benninghoff develops not as an argument for advancing communication or sensitivity-training, but as a catalyst for yearning and remembrance. Thus, the ambiguity of the situation is supplanted by the stark images contrasting through time, and the poem succeeds in providing an underpinning for love and regard in the midst of bewilderment, typified in this taught stanza:
We were not quite friends that night,
but I thought of the blue room,
where I was six or seven
and my father told me stories
of salmon caught in California rivers
and bear fur left on trees...
For Benninghoff, loss is seen as something not to be ignored. Not stoicism, but an opportunity to observe and remember. To take in what has transpired for what it is, and to take on the difficult task of sorting out the collateral damage.
But alongside grappling with conflict comes insight and understanding, a finer focus which these poems seem to provide. In the title-poem, “Whose Cries Are Not Music,” we find the speaker giving ear to the sounds of geese,
the cry of wild birds
who can make only one sound
and put into that sound
wing-beat, empty marshes
clouds and their quest
But the poem develops and slightly turns, as the speaker remarks on these evocative sounds which remind her of a child who has no words, just an inconsolable cry, ‘as if everything must begin in pain.” And the poem then becomes confessional in an unpretentious way, and we are led into a solemn recognition of the value of pain, insofar as it can enlighten:
I can spend my whole life
but find in the end
that love itself contains pain
though I do not give up feeling it…
The poems in this collection, though varied and presenting a wide spectrum of impressions and images, nevertheless point the reader toward a common theme. Thus Benninghoff, in a book which contains some poems written many years ago and herewith reworked, makes her case for the solemnity of life, the value in living well and the beauty, if not triumph, of dying well.
From “In Dying” referring to the ‘piebald hills’ where only birds sing praise, we find this made plain:
“Don’t I always turn back
To you when I am ill
Like a dancer remembering
The Husk comes away from the seeed.
Don’t we in dying
Reveal who we are.
Linda Benninghoff’’s “Whose Cries Are Not Music” is not only a collection of poems that will offer comfort to the bereaved and a connection to anyone who has suffered through a great loss, but perhaps also raise up the spirit of the most inured amongst us to look beyond darkness into flickering light.
A FEW QUESTIONS FOR LINDA:
1. What do you like to do when you’re not writing poems? What interests you? What delights you?
I live in back of a state park and I like walking through there, noticing the wildlife, the chipmunks, rabbits, deer and birds. I like to feed the birds in winter, and learned the names for the different birds that came to the feeder: the junco, the tufted titmouse, the chickadee, the cardinal, the jay. We also have hummingbirds. I love rabbits, and when they start coming to my yard in spring, I feel in the presence of something wonderful, something spiritual.
I walk, I swim. I used to go windsurfing before I had a hernia operation and I used to go sailing. Being part of the ocean is important for me. Currently I live near the Long Island Sound. When I lived in Baltimore I sought out the Chesapeake to go swimming in. I delight in nature. I like to do nature photography, though I haven’t gotten that many great photos. I have photos of deer and photos of a chipmunk—but the chipmunk is too small to see.
2. When did you start writing poetry? When did you feel it was something you wanted to do seriously, and what went into that equation?
I started writing poetry at about age 17 or 18 when I was introduced to free verse. At this time I took a course with Jean Valentine, who introduced me to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, and poets in the anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us. I had written rhyme before but now began writing free verse prolifically. I didn’t try to get published. I was really interested in writing fiction. I spent many years writing novels and short stories. I didn’t feel they were good enough to publish. I didn’t get good feedback on the fiction from teachers and professors and friends, as I did on the poetry. I began publishing some poetry and fiction in a small magazine in Philadelphia when I was close to 40 years old. Then I began attending the Long Island Poetry Collective and sending my poems out.
The feedback I was getting on my poetry turned me around—it was so much better than what I got on my fiction. I sent to The Missouri Review and the online editor there told me they were talking of nothing but my poetry. I didn’t have a problem publishing poetry, not like with the fiction. It was then, with the encouragement of some friends, that I went into poetry seriously, although I’d been writing it most of my life.
3. What kind of poetry do you read? Which poets set you on fire?
My favorite poet is Theodore Roethke, a teacher introduced me to him when I was 14. At that age I was too young to appreciate him, but when I grew older I appreciated the language, the imagination and feeling. My favorite poem was “The Lost Son.” I also, for a period, read Emily Dickinson regularly every night. I review contemporary poets and have come across some I really love: Penelope Schott, whose skill with language is amazing. I also love Julie L. Moore, for her appreciation of nature and her insight into the human spirit. I also like Karynna McGlynn—I think I spelled her name properly. Her language is something I strive to reach but can’t.
4. How do you write a poem?
I write my poetry mostly haphazardly. I will sit down and begin to write without knowing what I am going to write about. A word or a phrase comes into my mind. Often the words are about the reverence I have for nature. Sometimes they are about my close friend Mary. I don’t know really know where I’m going with the poems, but, almost magically, they come out well. Sometimes my family and the people closest to me don’t understand them, but sometimes they do. The hardest ones get published, despite my family’s criticisms. I want to emphasize that this not a deliberate, planned, conscious method of creation. It is totally unconscious.
5. What do you want your poetry to accomplish?
I didn't plan to accomplish anything with my book; I was just
writing poetry to express my feelings. Maybe I wanted to immortalize
some moments, some places in nature and some people. I think I wanted to provide some understanding of what it is to feel lonely or to suffer a loss. Poets have done this before. Thomas Hardy did it, in a great way. Yet every poet is different. Hardy is melancholy. I am not--nor self-pitying. In the last section of the book I look at death as a sort of crossing over. This is the "dream" we are living, and death is the "dream" to come.
6. Tell us a little about the effort that went into this book? How long did it take to put the manuscript together? What were areas of difficulty for you in the process? Areas of fulfillment?
My initial manuscript was not clear and got rejected. A poet I knew read the manuscript and pointed out the sections of the manuscript that were not clear and suggested adding poems and changing section headings. Now it is so clear that even a person who does not read a lot of poetry can understand it. I think making it clear so even the average reader could understand it was the most fulfilling part of the venture for me.
7. This is a collection of poems full of feeling, and many of the poems riff off of elements of the senses and derivative impulses from nature, perceptions of cold, the sea, the snow, birds, and of course, death. Tell us a little about what you’re trying to do here, how allusion to the physical points toward and elicits feelings of pain, loss, loneliness, suffering.
I have always felt my thoughts echoed in nature, when I am walking or sitting by a window looking at the trees and the yard. I think this is a notion common to Romantic poetry—the idea that nature reflects our feelings—but I, a modern poet, have carried it on. The poem “Canada Geese” has been characterized by some of my friends as a poem about depression. Other of my poems about the physical world offer hope: “Whose Cries Are Not Music” offers hope. Many of my early poems were very hopeful, but as I grew older the poems began to voice loss. The physical world is still there accompanying, beside me. Rabbits seem to be emissaries from a better world, bearing good tidings. The deer bring beauty, but as I grow older and begin to write about them, it is endangered beauty.
8. The book opens with a magnificent poem entitled, “Snowy Winter,” where the speaker talks with an unidentified person wherein a confidence and trust has obviously been sewn. The poem deals with the longing for underpinnings, rest, and I suppose, a way to identify with one’s own struggles as well as enter in to the difficulties of those we love. In the poem we find the following lovely closing stanza:
The creamy snow extends even to the water,
Where there are wrinkles and marks
from Lloyd to Cold Spring Harbor.
The curving gulls
keep saying the words you spoke,
yet there is no food for them here.
They rest in the empty air
hungry like me,
as I search
for the prints of winter birds.
What interests me in this poem is the playing out of personal pathos in the context of a dialog, or at least, the poem deliberately wants to include the un-named party as a participant or witness in the speaker’s travail. Please tell us what you mean by, ‘The curving gulls keep saying the words you spoke, yet there is no food for them here.” Do the ‘words’ refer back to an early statement in the poem about ‘worrying about the future,’ and how much of the poem and the book turns on this notion of trying to sort out and prepare for what is to come?
Yes, the words about my friend taking care of me, both in a physical and emotional sense, that gave me such a sense of security so that I didn’t have to worry about the future, are spoken by the curving gulls when I am separated from her. I keep trying to return to that moment of trust, but life has carried us away from each other. It is portrayed in the poem as neither of our fault, just something that happened. The gulls are hungry for food, I am hungry for the closeness I had with that person, my friend. This is a poem about loss and also loneliness. I think I made the speaker’s loneliness palpable with the snow that extends even to the water—the coldness of nature in this case, which reflects the speaker’s own inner emptiness. And the gulls rest in “empty air.”
9. Are you working on another collection of poems? Do you have a theme for your next manuscript?
I started working on a chapbook with poems that I did from Molly Fisk’s poem a day class. A lot of these are poems about the seasons, winter going into spring, and spring actually happening. People have told me the new poems are lighter, and I think they end with more hope than Whose Cries Are Not Music. That is one of the reasons that I want to put them out, because they provide some hope that answers some of the questions raised by the longer book. They do not go into as much depth, however, and are mainly nature poems.
10. If you could give any advice to young, aspiring poets, what would it be?
Write for yourself and read. A lot of my friends who want to write don’t read, and that is the most important thing. If you don’t like the poetry you are reading, find poems that help you find yourself. If you write to express your feelings: that’s okay, that’s like me; if you write to paint a situation, an injustice, or a history, that’s okay too. Write as often as you can and don’t lose the habit. Write a lot before you try to publish.
HOW TO ORDER LINDA'S BOOK:
Just click on this direct link to her order page at Lummox Press:
LUMMOX PRESS ORDER PAGE