Anne Elvey reviews phosphene by Tamryn Bennett

Tamryn Bennett, phosphene. Rabbit Poetry Series, 4. Rabbit Poetry Journal, 2016. ISBN 978-0-9942733-6-9

 

Anne Elvey

 

Tamryn Bennett’s phosphene is incantational poetry, delicate and evocative. As she writes in the introduction, the short poems are ‘votive offerings’ in response to a series of places and their histories. Bennett joins other Australian poets, such as Peter Boyle and Stuart Cooke, whose interests span continents – between Australia and the Americas south of the United States, in Bennett’s case: Mexico. Popular culture informed by Catholic imagery and immersion in place, wayside shrines, statues, offerings, and their intimations of grace and peril, inform the images in phosphene.

The poems themselves are haiku-like gathered into sequences. They are interspersed with the beautiful evocative drawings of Jacqueline Cavallaro, suggestive of interior life. Spanish translations by Guillermo Batiz and the whimsical insertion of characters, such as ^ > -, scattered like dust motes over the pages, contribute to a layout that makes the book itself a poem, an artwork that is also an offering.

In part due to the layout, and in part because of the sparsity of the words and the sharpness of the imagery, phosphene has a meditative feel. Titled ‘at the temple of letters’, the first sequence suggests the possibility of words/poems as sacraments. The poet writes:

 

at the temple of letters

en el templo de letras

the owl finds you

el búho te encuentra

“___________

“an omen”

“un presajio”

(4)

The owl will return toward the end of the book.

 

Careful imagery requires thought:

two thousand stone steps

into cloud

shifts toward

the mountain

comes undone

(6)

The poem moves from a powerful image of steps lost in cloud toward the mountain dissolving, not only in the immersing cloud but as if some ancient solidity is unsettled by the poet’s gaze. It is hard not to hear an undoing in the speaker as she gazes upward.

Religious imagery appears at a slant. Where in the Catholic calendar All Souls Day follows All Saints Day, here the poet writes ‘all sins, all saints’ before

your broken mouth

the confession box

(8)

suggesting a woundedness, if not also violence, in this religiosity. This continues in ‘poor little virgins / nailed to the porch’ who are ‘dressed in roses and sulphur / stale bread at their feet’ (9). Household shrines and offerings hold deeper resonances of perdition.

For an English-speaking reader, the Spanish translations function as echoes on the page, especially toward the end of the first sequence with its repetition of ‘here’ (‘aquí’) and the reference to ‘an echo’:

a breath,

an echo,

a trace

un respire,

un eco,

un trazo

(11)

The second sequence, ‘tumbleweeds’, draws the reader into imagery of destruction – ‘tumbleweeds of hair / and teeth’, ‘the routine of ruined hymns’ (18) – where we are reminded that in bull fighting there are ‘no tears for sequined beasts // cheered to death / on Sunday afternoon’ (19). In this dispensation, ‘dahlias shoot / from wounds’ (20). The delicacy of Bennett’s writing is deceptive; violence is interwoven with beauty. The tendril of a plant may be a gunshot.

The third sequence, ‘the invisible’, is haunted by grief, chance and death. But the dead are presences, the invisible who live on (31). Together with startlingly evocative images like ‘in the wardrobe / your breath sprouts wings’ (29) are playful allusions to children’s tropes ‘things that go bump in the night’ (33) and their lurking fears.

The ‘owl returns’ (43) with an invocation ‘call in the comets’. The section closes with ‘chants of code / and chance’ (43).

The title of the final section, ‘a river grows’, suggests both hope and danger. The speaker is getting ready to welcome the spirits with food, plants and decorations because ‘the souls are coming’ (44). These spirits ‘come to dance’ and to welcome them is to risk the uncanny:

glue streamers

to the swallows,

(46)

to find

lilac knots

of language lost

(47)

Is the growing river refreshment or flood or both? The volume closes with the lines:

 – a river grows

from ritual

(52)

Ritual, the votive offerings of these poems and the religiosity to which they refer and which they respectfully and lovingly mimic, is fertile and fearsome, life-affirming and perilous. It shapes cultural communal experience and inner life. Tamryn Bennett’s poems themselves, the translations, the layout and the accompanying drawings by Jacqueline Cavallaro, offer a revisioning of ritual: both in the practice of writing and gifting poems in place which elicited the book and in the book itself as a material artefact carrying on that gift.

 

Anne Elvey is author of White on White (Cordite 2018), and Kin (FIP 2014), co-author with Massimo D’Arcangelo and Helen Moore of Intatto (La Vita Felice, 2017), and editor of hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani. She is managing editor of Plumwood Mountain: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics.

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