Monday, December 04, 2023

andrea bennett, the berry takes the shape of the bloom



When people said stay hungry I thought they
meant it literally, stay hungry because that was
the price of being thin. When they said salad
days I thought it meant the days when we were
young enough to be always hungry and only
eating salad. I can tell you how many calories
are in an apple and how many calories make
up a pound. I can tell you how many pounds
my mother weighs and how old I was when
I surpassed her weight. The only time I was
thin the thinness came because I was sick and
couldn’t eat. When the sickness lifted I felt relief
and sadness. When people say unhealthy they
mean fat. When people say unhealthy they do
not mean what unhealthy has done to my brain.

The latest from British Columbia poet, writer and editor andrea bennett is the poetry title the berry takes the shape of the bloom (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2023), a book-length lyric suite comprised of untitled, accumulated fragments that cohere into a loose kind of narrative arc. Following bennett’s full-length debut Canoodlers (Gibsons BC: Nightwood Editions, 2014) [see my review of such here] and more recent essay collection, Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2020), there is something about bennett’s lyric, bennett’s line, that refuses to remain static. “I had a temper so hot it could fry an egg.” they write, early on in the collection. “Like a / key breaking off inside a rusted U-lock. Like an / unanchored bookshelf in an earthquake. Like a / crow picking a fight with an eagle.” Offering a blend of lyric bend and first-person memoir, these poems rush and run electric across a collection that originated, as the back cover offers, “as a gesture towards optimism after loss, pain, difficulty, and fear. It began as a linear narrative, offering a window into one trans person’s life after they felt contented and secure. But in the end these poems, which capture particular moments in time, may recur in any given present: sometimes what surfaces is anxiety or anger, sometimes love or eagerness.”

I dreamed we abandoned our anxious life for a
different one in Phoenix. I imagined a campus
of new buildings, trying to look old. We lived
together in a concrete single: one bed, two desks,
and a hot plate. Where is the library? The dream
was supposed ot mean we could leave, but it also
meant we could never start over. I palmed the
concrete hallway and got stuck in its pores.

“I forget what poetics are.” bennett writes, towards the end of the collection. “I forget the word for / the study of knowledge. I need a phrase when / the word is a thing unto itself, a special ornate / thing in itself. I work in the kitchen, where I / make the food.” Deeply personal and exploratory, bennett composes a book-length meditative thread that examines a variety of shifts of being from within, writing partners and ex-partners, pregnancy and mothering, all of which are enormous enough shifts on their own, but all through the lens of becoming the person they were meant to become: opening up as transgender, and the shift, as Mercedes Eng writes on one of the blurbs on the back cover, “from daughter to not-daughter,” and the difficulties of the author’s mother, a character unwilling to adapt, and perhaps, frustratingly, best left behind. There’s a lot going on within the bounds of this book-length poem, writing anger and acceptance, witness and loss, running the gamut from wild uncertainty and rage to acceptance and clear confidence.

My mother haunts the margins of my life.
My mother said I always, I never, I always. My
mother got angry like the sky changes before
a summer storm. My mother bought clothing
four sizes too small for a daughter she didn’t
have. My mother said be grateful. My mother
said what you don’t know. My mother said I
was difficult. My mother said I was just like my
father. My mother slept with my best friend’s
father, my mother said I couldn’t stop working
at my best friend’s father’s store, my mother
slapped me across the face. My aunt said please
stop writing about your mother and the next day
I read aloud, at a festival, all the worst poems I’d
ever written about my mother.

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