Reviewed by Michelle Miller
Sheri Benning’s 2007 collection Thin Moon Psalm (Brick Books) contains some hauntingly beautiful language. Most of the poems take place in her home of Saskatchewan, a province I have visited for only the briefest time. Her ability to use sensory details to take me there with her is laudable. I should admit that, generally, my favourite poems have little to do with nature and more to do with people, but due to her lovely and lyrical language, I was captivated from very early on.
These are hard-work, small-town poems, about people for whom the seasons and weather have a huge bearing on the way life is lived. The characters here (many of the same characters appear throughout and are cast as the family of the speaker) work with their hands: men birth calves, women bake bread. They carry strong smells of smoke, whisky, cloves. In the first poem, “Listen,” it is autumn, which Bennings calls “The season of listening for what we must let go.” Here, great blue herons rise every morning. A man—the father of the speaker, who is a “you” here, as in many of the poems—carries the “scars / of smoke, work, whisky.” He wears rubber boots. There is manure and “steaming birth.” This is a lifestyle that few modern city folk are familiar with, and Benning uses this poem to set the stage for the world inside. This is a lifestyle featuring many kinds of pain, and we are told in the final stanza that “Listening has made your heart a bruise.” And yet, she admonishes us to “Please. Just listen” (11). Listening is what the reader does throughout this collection; the language is so lilting and beautiful, with strong oral and sensory details. For example, in “What it tastes like (Frost),” she tells us of the
Kitchen window weeping
the beet soup loam, sweat
of someone you love. (12)
There is no question from the first poems that the reader is in for a story with a wondrous setting, fantastic details and beautiful word choice.
Benning frequently personifies the natural world in a way that helps readers unfamiliar with her landscape to visualize it. In “What Passes Through,” the ice is “scabbed” (15). In the exquisite “unsent letter #47, “elms are old men sitting on the porch of the local hotel. Cartilage- / worn, they hum country songs of bone on bone” (77). In the same poem, the colour of the sky is related to an “old blue t-shirt,” and then later we are told that “sky wears a t-shirt rubbed butterfly-thin by so many slow / Saturday mornings, coffee and a newspaper, sleep-thick limbs” (77). In “Bread, Water,” a “river wearing an elbow-worn coat / of last season’s shells and leaves” (69) heads for the ocean. In a similar way to the personification of nature, the body is frequently described in natural terms. In “unsent letter #28,” the character Sarah is told to “Remember, our bones are sated light” (63). In “Hysterectomy,” Benning describes “my mother’s uterus, full / of dried bees” (68).
One of the most important themes in these poems is memory. Benning is constantly telling us how memory is always something different and lovely. In some places it seems that the poet herself is trying to understand the nature of memory, and in others it seems she is collecting and dispensing definitions like a wise alchemist. In “Bread, Water,” she tells us that
Words, like water, are shaped by gravity if
you can think of gravity as another way of saying
In “Amber,” the understanding of memory changes. At first she tells us
I thought memory was
an aphid hover over garden that descends
or does not. I was wrong. (76)
And then later she corrects this: “Memory pulses / until meaning is found” (76). In “That song that goes,”
Memory is that song the heart hums
along with. The one without
thinking, beneath breath. (78)
No matter which understanding of memory is correct, these are lovely representations, which make the reader contemplate his or her own understanding of memory.
In “Lastochka: May 9, 2002” Benning discusses the 1941 Nazi siege of St. Petersburg, Russia, which lasted until 1944. This story mentions many paintings, places, novels, and my favourite: music. She describes watching musicians on the street:
Mandel’stam believes something as fine as a flute can pull us from our prisons,can piece together disarticulated days,but these men strum furiously, their fingers inflamed wicks.with vein-bulging intensity they shout their songs – all of the cocked triggersof all the executions during the siege.
Much later, Benning refers to telling stories “the way they never were, / how we wished they could be” (28). This poem feels distinctly like her doing this: bringing something beautiful to such a scar of history. In this poem, memory doesn’t meander. It is urgent.
My favourite thing about the pieces in Thin Moon Psalm is the timeless quality Benning brings to the world she creates. In “Legato,” she tells us
I think I’ve known him for at least a hundred years.
His song, honey-toned unction. I think I’ve known him
for at least two thousand years. (73)
The way she tells these stories, the reader doesn’t doubt that time frame. That stretch of time seems lovely and plausible. In “Thin Moon Psalm,”
You go to bed thirsty. Blood hunched
and staggering up mountain-path veins.
You dream of licking grandfather cliffs,
tongue undoing water that locks stone – (41)
This out-of-time-ness is such a wonderful way to look at the world that mentions of snowmobiles in “Bird-bones” and airports in “Sleeping Blue” seem out of place in this collection, even though I’m not thrown off by orange Doc Martens in “Lastochka.” So it might just be me.
Overall, this is a lovely, slow collection with some breathtaking images and stunning word choice. Whether a reader is a die-hard prairie lover or a city slicker living in Toronto, I think this is a really enjoyable read. I’d say it’s meant for a cold day in November, dressed in a blanket and drinking hot tea. But you’ll probably like it the rest of the year as well.
Michelle Miller is a queer-feminist writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Ontario, Michelle is trying to get used to life on the west coast, which is easy in the sun and impossible in the rain.