Three collections of poems, by Gwendolyn Cash, Boyd W. Benson, and Lisa Galloway, each numbering something over 20 pages, comprise the first volume of Lost Horse Press’s New Poets / Short Books series under the editorship of renowned poet Marvin Bell, who connects the present undertaking with the Scribner series, Poets of Today, edited by John Hall Wheelock between 1954 and 1962. In his introductory comments Bell indicates that the “3-in-1 series” is “intended to sample a range of poets who have yet to publish a book,” and he adds that “It will not be run as a contest, nor will it accept submissions.”
Bell aptly describes the competition to get a first book of poems into print as “ferocious,” and he might have extended that adjective to cover a second and third as well. So it is perhaps even more difficult for poets to get noticed than anyone might suppose, even though, as William Carlos Williams’s famous quotation presently taped on my door reminds passersby, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.” Marvin Bell concludes his introduction with an equally quotable observation: “Poetry, like philosophy, is a survival skill.”
Quite coincidentally I began reading Boyd W. Benson’s poems as the twin-engine Horizon Airlines plane I’d taken from Spokane, where Gwendolyn Cash was born, circled Portland, where Indiana-born Lisa Galloway currently lives. Benson, a “lifelong Washingtonian,” presently lives in Clarkston and teaches at Washington State University. I’d like to say something poetic and regional, like “below me the green Willamette slugged along and the freeways bristled with traffic,” but that would not provide a very apt segue into the book, inasmuch as virtually none of the 50 poems in this book could be described as “regional.”
Each of the three poets has offered a paragraph telling just a bit about herself or himself and revealing something of what they are striving for in their poems. Gwendolyn Cash, for example, whose poems are titled after her 10-part “Acts of Contrition,” describes herself as “an external recorder of human behavior and emotion.” In “recording in poetry the world of ordinary people,” she focuses on “things that make me love and hate them” and “things I don’t understand.” The object of her hatred, or at least of her anger, in the long title poem is her mother, and the supposed contrition turns out to be nothing of the sort. The poem reads more like an accusation: “Maybe I am the devil, Get over it.” Later she tells us, “It has been five minutes since these words appeared / on the page, / five minutes since I started a fire, / but I doubt I can conjure enough warmth to save us.” Of course, given that her opening poem, set in prose form, is entitled “Lies” and begins, “Today, I’m going to lie about everything,” we might conclude that Cash is simply assuming a persona of sorts, the mask of the confessional poet in the Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton tradition, but I suspect not.
The first-person viewpoint also dominates the 21 poems by the youngest poet in the book, 29-year-old Lisa Galloway, who believes “poetry should be a shock to the senses.” “Good poetry, Galloway maintains, “like whiskey writhes, romances, and with white-knuckled fists fights the within out of.” Disdaining “trees or birds,” she declares, “the crazy things that people do is where it’s at.” Not surprisingly, perhaps, the opening poem of her section, Liminal: A Life of Cleavage, is entitled “I Want to Shake You.” But if you can get past the opening four lines of the comical take on lesbian lovemaking in “What She Wouldn’t Tell You”—c learly Galloway’s most intentionally “transgressive” poem—then hers is the voice for you:
She wanted to buy a dildo—a big, jelly, pink dong—
eight inches to strap on and thrust.
Her hips moved to meet her hands,
arms bent to illustrate faux fucking.
And if you cannot get past those lines, then hers is not the voice for you: over-the-top crude and raw, sexually and comically vulgar.
Perhaps the question one asks oneself sooner or later about this book is, which of these poems merit a second or third reading? For me, most of those would come from Boyd W. Benson’s 20 poems entitled The Owl’s Ears. “In my heart,” Benson writes, “there is a little old lady,” a spinster, a sort of spider-lady, but “deep down,” he tells us, “she’s as wild as the sparrowgrass.”
Benson tends to favor the surreal (á la André Breton) or “deep” image. In “While You Were Gone” we encounter a “blindfolded swan in the bathtub” and “seven boiled starlings in the kitchen.” In “The Opener of Doors” the “solitary man” who darts through the trees has a face that is “that of the weather / or a field of lilies—or an apple orchard.” In “The Silent Comedians” we are advised to look for them “in the thistles, / behind rusty keyholes, / in the sleep of lions and lilies, in snow and ice, / in the footprints of the ocean.” To read such poems successfully (if that’s the right word), we must be willing to suspend our disbelief, as Coleridge advised. The comedians in the last stanza of that poem wave at us with “frail hands / and the helpless logic of gravel.” Unpredictable and to some extent unfathomable tropes and images recur throughout Benson’s poems, keeping the language fresh and new and forcing us as readers to pay attention and to resist the impulse to reduce every line to simple understanding.
This is not to say, however, that Benson’s poems are impenetrable. The free-form sonnet, “After the War,” for example, while showing signs of the surreal impulse, yields to ready reading enjoyment: “Someone made a hat and tossed it in the air, / a new motto waved its flag . . . .” The lines quoted on the back cover lead into the conclusion:
It was a beautiful hollow sound the bones made.
Too beautiful for us. Nobody cared to listen.
One man played Taps and it had a jazzy
new snap to it. O we could throw a parade
in those days. We could make a fine hat.
And Benson’s other hat poem, “Hats,” is also accessible and is lots of fun to read.
While Lost Horse Press has published a handsome book here, I would like to suggest some closer editing in the future, perhaps of the sort that might help the poets avoid errors that may well be of their own making. In “Holding Weight,” for example, Lisa Galloway refers to “a vortices of chaos.” The singular “vortex” might be intended here, or else the plural “vortices” minus the singular article “a.” On the first page of her title poem, “Acts of Contrition,” Gwendolyn Cash offers “to ring your little prophecy by the neck.” Assuming she does not intend the “neck” of a bell, the infinitive should come out “wring.” And in the last line of “The Janitors Next Door,” Boyd W. Benson has them dealing “a hand of seven-card flush.” As a long-time poker player, assuming that I’m not missing a pun of some sort, I’m guessing the last word of that poem should be “stud.” Poets make errors just like the rest of us, but good editors owe it to the poets, to the book, and to themselves to correct them.
— Ron McFarland, Professor of English, University of Idaho