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Friday, 22 July 2011

James Womack on Sheri Benning's 'The song that goes'

That song that goes by Sheri Benning

           For no reason I can name
I look away from the book and see
the moon deepen into golds and reds.
Eastern sky a sodden blue. Spring
dusk is something to breathe deeply –
wet dirt, stubble, last year’s leaves.
And like a dream that comes back
only when unasked for, I recall
his hands from when I was a child –
rough wood, tobacco, metal of earth.
A friend tells me of early grey mornings
at his kitchen table. There was tea,
the beginnings of a wood-fire, his wife,
bread. And the winter river-bed, the long,
slow ache I carry inside, briefly fills
with the singing of Spring melt.
Memory is that song the heart hums
along with. The one without
thinking, beneath breath.

from New Poetries V © Sheri Benning

In Embassytown, his recent novel about language and semiotics (and giant chitinous mantises, sentient factories and psychic twins), China Miéville invents a race of aliens who cannot lie. The closest some of them can get to telling untruths is to make statements whose final clauses they say, as it were, only under their breath, so that what is heard seems to be false: the unarguable statement 'before the humans came we didn't speak so much of certain things' is redacted into 'before the humans came we didn't speak'. Amongst other things, this is a poetic technique: to create a phrase which, as it were, stands next to its echo. A phrase which ends before you think it will, leaving you with a blank your mind unwittingly completes.
There's this kind of mild shock in the title of Ms. Benning's poem, where the chatty ('do you know that song that goes like this?') is suggested even as the title itself moves towards the transitory, the elegaic: a fading music. That song that goes. The twists, the momentary confusions, continue; helped by the large indent at the beginning of the poem proper, we are tricked (again) into reading the opening line as continuous with the title : 'That song that goes // For no reason I can name'. It is appropriate for a poem that, as it turns out, will be about a particular kind of departure, that the word 'goes' is given so much subtle work to do.
After the dislocation at the beginning, the body of the poem gets us back to specifics: 'wet dirt, stubble, last year's leaves'; 'rough wood, tobacco, metal of earth'. The syntactic parallel between description of the spring dusk and that of the dedicatee's hands connects 'him' (we see him as some kind of relation or longstanding family acquaintance) to nature and in particular the earth, a connection which becomes logical as we realise that this is, of course, an elegy. After the details, more dislocation: 'Memory is the song the heart hums' turns into 'Memory is the song the heart hums / along with': two parallel statements, one that allows the heart to sing, one that forces the heart to listen, and follow. More confusion: I realise that we don't know if 'he' is loved or not.

1 comment:

  1. Just finding her because of Thomas D'Evelyn ( And just finding your wonderful post. Thank you all.