by Lee Slonimsky
Joe Benevento. Expecting Songbirds. Purple Flag Press 2015. 108pp.
Joe Benevento is a fascinating and original poet, a master of, among several varieties of poetry, the poem that tells a story. Benevento’s recently published Selected Poems: 1983—2015 from Purple Flag Press gives the reader an opportunity to sample the multiple strengths of his work in depth. There is considerable autobiographical content in Benevento’s work – from an ethnically diverse experience growing up in a working class neighborhood in Queens, NY – but the content is not at all the self pitying inner scrutiny of so called “confessional” poetry. The introspection consists of wry and self-deprecating humor, honest emotion, and highly intelligent observation. And it’s accompanied by a refreshing and insightful focus on others: vividly drawn characters, not just the narrative voice that, from a less skilled and authentic poet, can lapse into self-absorption.
“My Puerto Rican Past,” for one example, with its lists of women like Sylvia Ramos (“just mentioning your names brings me/to the brink of irredeemable loss”) and counterpart “boys” (“now just men who do not know where I am”) is emphatic in the interest it expresses in others, and in fact another culture, not his own Italian-American one. This is a colorful, flavorful poem, with its reminiscent longing for “the aroma of arroz con habichuelas,” “the blaring sounds of salsa,” and “…how beautiful Sylvia Ramos/ looked, like love, on an endless August evening/in working-class Queens.”
The second stanza of “My Puerto Rican Past,” with its intellectual passion for Spanish language and literature that Benevento in “real life” went on to study, relates to another distinctive aspect of Benevento’s poetry: he is an academic poet in the best sense of the word. Not a dry, or technique-dominated, or excessively abstract or rhetorical poet but (quite the contrary): a poet whose passion for the highest values in literature (characterization, specifically) informs his work in a compelling way. Benevento, who wrote a Ph. D dissertation on a quite original pairing of writers (Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges), and who is the author of a scholarly article with the title, “Walt Whitman and Jorge Luis Borges: The Open Road and Its Forking Paths,” seems to suggest in “My Puerto Rican Past” that this bicultural literary passion is related to his bicultural youth in Queens. And even if this is not the case, the numerous poems of striking yet concise characterization in this excellent collection (vivid examples include “Work Song,” “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work,” and “Frankie”) feature humanity as a subject in a way that is not always the case in contemporary poetry. “The Banker Does Not Smile on the Way to Work” is focused on what the poet can glean of the banker’s psyche based on the man scowling at slush on his dress shoes, but the poet also brings in sympathy for the banker’s perceived general frustration. A kind of mini Sherwood Anderson sketch, it’s a great example of the human connectedness of the author.
Thematic focus should not omit reference to the quality of Benevento’s language, imagery, and music, all of which are woven with abundant beauty throughout. The range of imagery and metaphor includes moments like “…the clouds on fire,/ the way the horizon rode red and purple/against the snow-covered, lifeless earth” (“Sunset in Iowa”) and “Night Break”’s “A silver white moon, wider than doubt/stayed whole in the early light/of an all blue sky.” No quote or poem marks the reverential luminescence and insight of this collection better than “May 31, 1989,” with its array of memorable lines related to Walt Whitman:
“It’s Walt Whitman’s birthday
so I should write a poem.
…I like to believe I cannot sing a song myself
without him hearing it,
cannot cross into Brooklyn
or remember Rockaway Beach
is part of Paumanok, that fish-
shaped Long Island without
conjuring him up as real as
any phantom on these
crowded streets, still, sandy beaches.”
…What a comfort, to believe eternity
need not dismantle death to maintain
its own integrity…”
The profundity of the last three lines seems to me a modern equivalent of the passion of John Donne’s “Death Be Not Proud,” lines that could only have been written by a poet of deep seriousness as well as self-deprecating humor. Times and culture have changed dramatically but Benevento’s contemplative and idiomatic humanism, his voice coming from learning and experience, is as clear and committed as that voice of Donne T. S. Eliot so admired.
It’s a voice that should be heard and read by all readers interested in distinctive poetry, with deft and compelling characterization of people, regions, and experiences.