Sarabande Books, 2019. 91 pages.
Reviewed by Aza Pace
In selecting Chad Bennett’s debut poetry collection for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry, Ocean Vuong calls the book an “ark of queer embodiment and thought” that insists “a writer’s most tenable lineage is one he must make for himself.” The deceptively quiet poems in Your New Feeling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era playfully invite a wide cast of characters into the same room, nimbly connecting literary and pop culture figures like Shirley Temple, Roland Barthes, Gertrude Stein, and Patsy Cline. At once daring, humorous, and tender, these poems show the mind at work exploring what it means to live in the body, to desire and be desired. As they forge their own literary tradition and reach out toward an absent “you” that evolves in meaning throughout the collection, these poems maintain, “What we have is small / and strange. But true.” (Full disclosure: Chad Bennett is a former professor of mine.)
The book is organized into three main sections, with stand-alone poems as bookends. Each section investigates a different kind of relationship: the first considers an understanding of self in which the “body is an archive” of experience and expectation; the second is a single long poem addressed to an absent “you” the speaker longs to reach; and the third explores intimate connections with others.
As though turning a delicate object in his fingers, Bennett examines these subjects from multiple angles, making room for play and experimentation with form and subject matter. Time after time, these poems skillfully dramatize the collision and bending of genre and form. Bennett creates a structure and a poetic world where smart phones, Lauren Bacall, and Achilles’ armor can co-create alongside country music, villanelles, and prose poems packed with curse words. In this way, Bennett creates a poetics of collage that revels in multiplicity and is highly self-aware in its poetic interventions. As his prose poem “Theory of the Lyric” puts it, “You want to feel that the thing, as you say, has clicked…You want to distort far beyond appearances in order to recapture it.” These poems not only seek out new ways to combine disparate aspects of historical and modern experience, but also to think through what it means to queer and question the lyric tradition.
The poem “How That Bird Sings,” which opens the book’s first section, exemplifies Bennett’s skill for moving and thinking in several directions at once. Four lines repeat throughout the poem, creating new meanings each time they appear in relationship to the poem’s ten discreet lines. “How That Bird Sings” turns on desire and suspicion, focusing in on the intimate details of a lover’s body: “How do you doubt your bird was untrue? Think / Where the wide turn of hair thins at his thigh / How the trivial fucks with the divine.” The first line implies both the desire to doubt betrayal (surely my beloved was true after all) and the more jaded assumption that there is no room for doubt (of course my beloved was untrue). In either case, the poem argues, understanding this “bird” depends on attention to physical detail, as if the truth of the beloved’s infidelity will appear written on his body. At the same time, the poem’s invocation of Emily Dickinson’s “The Split Lark” invites a reading of “How That Bird Sings” as a reflection on poetry itself, in which the collection’s overarching interest in bringing together ostensibly contrasting elements—like the trivial and the divine—is already manifest.
Many of Bennett’s poems are curious about such moments of juxtaposition, the collision of form and content. In each example flickers the threat of ruin or disaster, as if the speaker fears the experiment will fail, but these are often the most productive, wild, and imaginative moments in the collection. For instance, the poem “I am Odious (As it Turns Out). I Am Monstrous Glad” takes as its starting point a writing prompt from Bernadette Mayer, in which one sentence is repeated continuously in a column until it clicks:
Traditionally poetic and metaphorical language describing the moon and sky as strangely embodied brushes up against conversational declarative sentences, suggesting that perhaps there are limits to what each kind of diction can communicate. The consistent anaphora, in which “I guess” begins almost half of the poem’s lines, also implies the limitations of perception or understanding: the speaker learns and changes his mind as the lines alter. The poem deftly shifts, a word at a time, from being, to being perceived, to performing, to understanding. The poem insists on the potential monstrosity of both people and language, closing with the assertion that a poem “is just an imagined world / Where everything hoped for turns out wrong.” Yet the poem’s structure holds monstrosity up for poetic inspection in much the same way that it takes up a familiar poetic subject—the moon in the sky—and renders it surprising because silent and feathered. Repetition here serves to make the familiar strange so that we might re-envision and re-encounter it. Thus, this poem responds to its own concepts of the monstrous with tenderness and a quiet acknowledgment of beauty. As the title implies, the monstrous and the beautiful are not so dissimilar, and it is perfectly possible to be “monstrous glad.”
Your New Feeling is the Artifact of a Bygone Era is full of mystery: poems often operate in sentence fragments, or point to an undefined “it” or “that,” and the distant “you” whom many of the poems address is tantalizingly difficult to pin down. Yet, somewhat counterintuitively, this feeling of mystery, of teetering on the cusp of understanding, helps hold the collection together as the poems draw us in as if beckoning from around a corner. For instance, in “Silver Springs,” which constitutes the book’s middle section, the fact that the “you” remains mysterious reinforces the poem’s meditation on the distance between the speaker and the other. It is about the struggle to communicate and therefore cannot spell everything out. Rather than try to explain or idealize, this poem “wants just to say things to you.”
The title poem, which closes the collection, preserves this elusive quality, but it also turns a critical eye on the uncomfortable closeness of poetry, beauty, and violence, admitting in the same breath than none of these is a purely “new feeling”:
This poem calls to mind the myth of Philomela, who transforms into a nightingale, but without offering straightforward judgments or absolutes. Is the “it” a feeling, as suggested by the title? It has a body that can feel harm, but it becomes birdsong, not a bird. Does poetry make suffering beautiful, and is this good or bad? As the title suggests, there may be nothing new or innocent about embodiment and desire, or about artistic representation, but there are new experiences of it, new ways of seeing and thinking that demand our attention. Ultimately, these are new ways of being together.
Aza Pace‘s poems appear in The Southern Review, Copper Nickel, Mudlark, South Dakota Review, and elsewhere. She is the winner of an Inprint Donald Barthelme Prize in Poetry, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and Best New Poets. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Houston and is currently a second-year PhD in poetry at UNT.