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 hai