There is an absolute Whitmanic generosity about Steve Benson’s latest work. It’s there in the title of his new book – Open Clothes – with its overlapping suggestions of availability, honesty, integrity and possible sexual frisson. It’s there in the first poem, ‘Until the Fall’, written a line at a time over a period of 13 months on a piece of paper Benson kept in his back pocket. It opens:
It is winter
Can I write a poem one sentence at a time?
I can do anything
Still I hope for more
I hope the sky will pop blue
In a moment, it has
‘I can do anything’ – and the apparently compliant sky – echoes, in a pleasingly down-to-earth fashion, the sublime self-confidence of ‘Song of Myself’: ‘Dazzling and tremendous how quick the sun-rise would kill me, / If I could not now and always send sun-rise out of me’. As with Whitman, the incessant ‘I’ here is not some flagging up of privileged individual integrity, but an inviting gesture of inclusion: we are meant to share this triumph: ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.
The generosity is there again in the notes that Benson usefully appends to the volume, explaining, again in a likably matter-of-fact way, how these poems came about:
The words in the texts in this book are, with extremely rare exceptions, just the same words as were written or spoken in the acts of composition described below. (The only significant changes are two ponderous words dropped from “Until the Fall” and a saggy clump of two or three sentences excised from “Am I just listening to myself think.”)
That admittance of revisions feels characteristic. Contra to the possible objection that such revisions go against the poems’ largely improvised nature, this reader at least finds it strangely reassuring that Benson is enough of a craftsman to want to remove ‘ponderous words’ and ‘saggy clumps’ of sentences while also being committed enough to his project of immediacy and openness to want to confess it. More generosity. . . .
Generosity that’s also there in the transcription of the Q&A that followed an improvised performance at the Kelly Writer’s House, February 11, 2003, presented alongside the poetic work so it can answer in advance many of the questions the reader may have about Benson’s techniques. Intrigued, for example, by how Benson’s improvisations do and do not compare to those of David Antin? Well, Benson has some considered, accurate and undogmatic thoughts on the subject to impart:
I think he tends to exercise a lot more effort toward channelling and controlling the audience’s attention. To me there’s a method akin to reading Plato’s dialogues, in that he’s really trying to channel how one’s going to think through a set of questions and problems. So there’s not necessarily more or less persona than I have but there’s more of an authoritarian or authoritative role, in some way. I don’t know, he seems to dominate more, in my experience.
In contrast to Antin’s famous comment on his calling – ‘if socrates is a poet ill consider it’ – Benson instead sees something pedagogical and, therefore, Platonic in Antin’s need for cumulative impact. It is tempting, in extension, to see Benson’s work, with its admittance of uncertainty and aporia, as more genuinely Socratic.
Mostly, however, this Socratic/Whitmanic generosity is there in the defining device of the volume: questions. After ‘Until the Fall’, the moving ‘From the Stars to the Common End’ (a wonderful poem that really requires a separate essay to itself in order to untangle the connections it makes between form and expressive purpose) and the state-of-the-nation travelogue ‘Crows Landing’, the remaining poems in the collection are made up entirely of questions. This focus suggests an immediate predecessor: Ron Silliman’s Sunset Debris, a prose poem also consisting entirely of questions (available to see online at http://www.ubu.com/ub/pdf/silliman_sunset.pdf). The differences between the two works, however, are more telling than the similarities.
Silliman’s poem is deliberately monolithic, a single prose chunk in which the questions come hard and fast:
Can you feel it? Does it hurt? Is this too soft? Do you like this? Is this how you like it? Is it airtight? Is he there? Is he breathing? Is it him? Is it near? Is it hard? Is it cold? Does it weigh much? Is it heavy? Do you have to carry it far? Are those the hills? Is this where we get off? Which one are you? Are we there yet?
This is deliberately abrasive, and the poem doesn’t let up for the rest of its 34 pages. The reader eventually (or quickly!) feels like he or she is being interrogated. Although, as the poem gets going, there is often no clear connection between a question and its preceding question, this disconnection itself quickly becomes an issue, something akin to a discombobulating torture technique. Silliman forces the reader to ponder questions of voice, authority, desire and privacy.
Benson, on the other hand, seems – initially at least – more laidback, amused and amusing:
Am I just listening to myself think? What makes you say that? Who do you think you are? Can you get something for me, as long as you’re up? How’d you get up there? When did you learn to walk on the ceiling? You know who ‘you’ is?
The idea of ‘questions’ having occurred to Benson we see him, via those useful notes, apply this idea to a series of different works – prose poems, diary-entry-like lyrics, verse meditations, improvised performances – over a period of three years. The formal choices relate to desired effect. Silliman goes for a solid wall of prose because it will eventually take on a vertigo-inducing sublimity once the reader starts noticing just how many questions he or she still has to face; Benson fits his questions into a variety of forms in order to vary the readers’ entry-points. Whereas Silliman’s work relies on its assured ventriloquism for its considerable political charge, Steve Benson himself seems the ultimate source of his many questions. This is compounded by the improvised events, in which Benson is willing to be the visible source as well.
To my mind, however, the most effective use of questions in Open Clothes is not the improvised performances, interesting as they are, but the diary-like sequence ‘Open Notebook’. Here, Benson juxtaposes a small handful of questions each entry, allowing line-breaks and layout to, in his words, ‘enhance readability’. The range of effects derived from this is impressive and surprising. Compare:
Do you buy the cat? What do you do if you want a cat?
Can I make anyone my own? Aren’t you and I the same
person? See the ball slip through the hoop? Do all the
questions seem to run together?
Who told me not to tell you?
What if the teacher always lied?
How are prayers answered? How can a person draw
the face of God? Don’t you? And when does night fall?
Can you empty your mind of thoughts? Please? Shall we
look together? Shall we try to put it into words or not?
What forest is this between me and the place I belong?
Will we meet again when I am 73
and you are 33 and fall in love
or realise we have been all along?
Will our world be in ruins? Will
you be training to go into outer
space? Will my heart skip a beat?
Can we wait? Is it already too
Late? When will this dream end?
All wondering about issues of identity, existence and interrelation, agreed, but with interesting and unpredictable varieties of tone and emphasis throughout. Benson seems to relish the results of odd discontinuity and odd continuity too.
This range highlights the potentially generous nature and power of the question as a form. As soon as it exists it is renegotiating the relationship between author and reader, speaker and auditor. The speaker needs something from you: information, an answer, maybe just a response. He or she wants you to become the speaker. This need can become demanding, overwhelming, as Silliman shows: we may not always be in a position to choose whether or not we answer. Steve Benson’s questions ask for no answer, and this is an act of notable generosity. Instead, he leaves to us the question of what questioning means:
And I, am I unable to disappear? Do you see, or do you hear?
Is one more subjective than the other? Really? Am I
on the edge of an invisible line between one way of looking
at things and another? Did you answer my question?
Open Clothes is a book of considerable philosophical, political and human interest. The only thing that remains is to recommend Benson’s most recent published sequence, The Ball // 30 Times in 2 Days (available at ubuweb: http://www.ubu.com/ubu/pdf/benson_ball.pdf) as a continuation (and arguably an intensification) of his work.
Come September 2006, Rob Stanton will be teaching at Fatih University, Istanbul. His poetry and critical works have appeared all over in print and online, including in Canadian Literature, Fascicle, Great Works, How2, Octopus, Shampoo and Shearsman. His blog-poem, Copy, is at http://www.sonofissue.blogspot.com