John Bensko: Perceptive Heart

IMG_1916I am quickly finding that the most common thread among contemporary poets, but especially our southern ones, is their potent sense of place that they champion, and John Bensko is no exception. This poet has resided in many southern states before calling Tennessee his home, and he has particularly highlighted his Alabama birthplace through his book Iron City: PoemsWith an impressive string of degrees, teaching positions at Rhodes College and the University of Alicante, Spain as a Fulbright Professor, and celebrations such as the Yale Younger Poet Series winner for his book Green Soldiers, I am pleased to feature John Bensko’s poem found in my spanking new copy of The Southern Poetry Anthology, Vol. 6: Tennessee.  

A Broken Ode to Snow

A winter day cannot avoid its snow.

Can I accept that I do not belong to myself?

 

On the street at night a flurry of shadows falls

across the light, Can I think that I will not be?

 

My feet leave impressions

that the snow itself cannot remove.

 

Things melt. Hair grows gray, then white.

Disappearing, can I think those I love will be gone too?

 

I love snow, when it falls fast and thick,

when the wind takes it and throws it up against itself.

 

To explain me to me. To know

exactly what I am, and am not.

 

Snow does not worry, does not toil.

Its only order is to fall and deepen.

 

When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt

in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?

 

I like to watch the snow melting leave the footprints. The icy

remainders where I’ve gone down the walk are the last to go.

 

People like to speak of the soul, and the soul’s awakening.

It drifts, it rises, and falls, it deepens.

 

Watching at night, I wonder how thick it will be by morning.

In the day, I hope it won’t stop before night.

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Bensko’s ode to snow is accompanied with an inescapable chill that your body and your mind cannot seem to shake long after you’ve read the piece and shut the book. His simple language, quiet repetition, and drivingly introspective questions build throughout the poem just like piles of its cold, white subject matter. Bensko starts the poem by reminding his readers that just as a “winter day cannot avoid its snow,” one cannot necessarily escape the heavy thoughts of personal existence during one’s life of many seasons. In a steady pattern of alternating between descriptions of snow to asking questions about the soul’s transience—“things melt”—, Bensko beautifully crafts this connectedness. But he also contrasts the lightness of the snow, saying that it “does not worry, does not toil,” with the weightier matters of the soul –though they both “fall and deepen.” Three-quarters of the way through the poem, the eighth couplet snagged at my spirit: “When we unbecome ourselves, when we melt/ in moments we cannot bear, who do we become?” Each of us knows those instances where we helplessly dissolve into our circumstances, but I don’t think I’m ready to answer Benkso’s final question. Yet, here’s to continuing to ask myself the heavier questions and learning to live in gratitude, no matter what season my soul finds itself.

To read more of John Bensko’s work, invest in a copy of Vol. 6 of The Southern Poetry Anthology: Tennessee, or any of his books: Green Soliders, The Waterman’s Children, The Iron City: Poems. And for some insight into his poetic practices and thoughts, click on Poetry Net’s feature of Bensko.

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A Celebration of the Written Word

SFOBposter3_small finalWith just two more days between you and the weekend, I hope you’ve planned accordingly for the 25th annual Southern Festival of Books this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday!

This Nashville literary event boasts around 200 authors and as many as 30,000 lovers of the written word. This past week, The Tennessean ran a feature on the past twenty-four years of the festival with pictures and posters spanning the growth of this truly noteworthy endeavor.

The Humanities Tennessee site has a detailed schedule if you would rather map out your day than amble around. To keep up with the goings-on this weekend, you can find the Southern Festival of Books on Facebook and Twitter.

See you there!

TJ Jarrett: Stronger Than The Storm

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I am astounded by Ms. Jarrett; although Jarrett works in the technical realm of software development, she possesses an uncanny ability to wield words in such a fashion that the reader is left with a sweet ache around their soul. A Nashville native, TJ Jarrett was blessed into a family headed by a professor and a pastor. She has since received scholarships from Colrain Manuscript Conference and Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Her debut book of poems, Ain’t No Grave, was published a mere two weeks ago, while her forthcoming book, Zion, will be available in the autumn of 2014.

When the Sun Nears the Earth

in the West

we chase it.  The ghosts follow, followed then
by the dark.  It has come to my attention that it is possible,

due to recent technological advances, to live only
in sun.  You could fuel mid-air if you like; you could simply

quit the earth.  Someone could do that.  That someone
could be you.  You could read this and nod, yes, yes.  Take me to a

place without darkness.  It would be unwriterly for me to do so.
Worse— Irresponsible.  Uncharitable.  Let me tell you how

to withstand the dark: The dark will go on only as long
as you let it.  You must forgive the dark.  It never takes you

into account.  Forgive the earth that bears the dark
on its back.  Forgive then, the ghosts you carry.  Touch them

on the cheek tenderly, each one, and send them on ahead
of you.  Forgive the stars their disinterested twinkling.  Forgive the

air and trees.  You will experience weightlessness.  Forgive
the gravity that holds you.  Behold the spinning earth.  Choose.
———————————————————————————————

As Jean Valentine remarked in a blurb about Jarrett’s Ain’t No Grave, I too can now agree: “I was more lonely before I heard this voice.” For me, Jarrett’s works fill a new place in my poet-soul: a place that is as wise as it is fresh, and as lovely as it is upsetting. Her language is direct and modern, but the words quickly move the reader to “nod” when prompted and to breathe forgiveness when given the choice. In a moment as simple as a sunset, Jarrett first prods the reader to consider if one believes that technology can relieve burdens. But then she soothingly reminds the reader that the choice “to live only/ in sun,” can be found within one’s self and the ability to extend grace to the specific occurrences of the days. In between the perceptive lines, I hear her whispering, “Don’t fear the difficulty, don’t fear the darkness, don’t fear the pain–because you are already free. Just choose.”

To experience Jarrett’s readings in person, carve out time to see her at the Downtown Nashville Southern Festival of Books in two weeks or in the intimate setting of Poet’s Corner at the Scarritt-Bennett Center on October 24th @ 7pm. For poems, interviews, and praise try these links, and for Jarrett’s quips, you can find the poet on Twitter.

David Till: Seer

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This week I am featuring David Till, one of the older voices in the contemporary poet community. Till is the emeritus professor at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, TN, and he has taught literature and poetry at this institution since 1971. A few years later in conjunction with the university, Till founded and became the editor of APSU’s literary journal, Zone 3, a nationally recognized magazine dedicated to highlighting native poets and nonfiction writers. The journal happily reached its 25th year in 2010 and continues to grow in talent and influence. Though he accumulated degrees from universities across the midwest, he has settled in Tennessee, and we are glad to claim him as one of our own.

Oval

I had been looking for my fatherʹs face,

not the one, with its little whiskers, rubbed

against mine before I was ʺoldʺ‐‐that face

made me loved.

 

And not the one, of course,

in the photograph‐‐any one. Which face,

then? I think the one I surprised in the toolshed

before he knew I was there‐‐Iʹd come so quietly

through shadows of late afternoon.

 

It was

thoughtful, and sad.

 

Behind the shed, the river

went by gathering light it carried along.

My father raised his hand to salute, or dismiss,

or wave farewell to a random idea he had,

and then he turned, maybe, to where I was,

and what I saw was no face at all, was an oval

of dusky light the shape of a face that had gone

where the river goes. That one.

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The first time I encountered this piece, I heard myself breathe in sharply as I read the last line. I wasn’t prepared for the concluding feeling that stopped my thoughts so abruptly. In the brief number of lines which Till moves the reader through so smoothly, he is both recounting a single moment and touching on different stages of his father’s life. When he searches his memory for a look his father had left him with, he remembers the moment that preceded the look–one that is crystalized in the enjambment of, “It was/ thoughtful, and sad.” Because I am a watcher of people, faces, and, consequently, a little bit of their souls, I know the instance that Till has described very well. I believe I have even exhibited such an oval to those around me before. This blank look is an expression of the moment when you lose yourself in the quietness of your surroundings and in the noise of your thoughts, however heavy or light they might be. The simplicity of Till’s language flows and allows him to pull the reader through the short poem effortlessly and, then, with a two-word sentence, “That one,” the reader is suspended, halted, and standing next to a river in the light of the afternoon. As readers, we stop because we know–we know that we too have seen this look, if we have ever observed someone long enough to catch a glimpse of them lost in thought.

To purchase a copy of David Till’s gracious book of poems titled, Oval, try here for options on Amazon.

Because.

I desire this blog to introduce and showcase contemporary Tennessee poets– because poetry is a language the modern populace needs to hear and speak more often. Because carefully placed words can form a new thought that my soul says “Yes” to. Because when I drive Tennessee’s country roads for hours every day, I can’t help but write lines about their beauty. Because these voices deserve to be heard.

In addition, some of the posts will highlight two major events in Nashville: The Southern Festival of Books (Oct. 11-13) and local poetry readings at The Scarritt-Bennett Center (every fourth Thursday night of the month) by featuring authors who will be speaking at the fast-approaching festival and specific poets that will grace the stage at Poet’s Corner. Each week I will recognize a poet from my beloved state by describing their connection to Tennessee, introducing their work through a selected poem, providing a balanced analysis of the piece, and finishing with my personal response.

I am thrilled to put my hand to this new project. It is my great hope that many of you will join me in this endeavor to acknowledge and celebrate the hearts and labors of my fellow Tennessee writers.