72 pp., 5.5″ x 8.5″, pbk.
Reviewed by Julie Joosten
Cara Benson’s first full-length book, (made), is an active work of nouns. This collection of prose poems explores a mind at work and the way that mind opens out (into) the world. Benson’s poems deliberately inhabit a made world—a world of days, bayonets, apples, banks, cities, alphabets, roads, holidays, cars, and deserts, of glinting, surviving, shedding, holding, talking, approaching, and rushing. And they travel through that world as local inhabitants and as curious tourists engaged in its constructed contours. Exploring the possibilities of a book of definition, desire, and horizon, the poems’ titles appear below the poems in large, bold font. It is as if, moving through a poem, the reader experiences the process of arriving at a name: the title is both the poem’s destination and its production. But the titles also raise the question of perspective. Encountered horizontally, as well as vertically, the title appears in the foreground of the field of the page, and the poem unfolds in the cultivated distance behind it. Creating an archive of space, (made) insists on a multi-dimensionality that extends into the field of the reader’s body; Benson writes, “If this is in your hands, it is only here because you hold it” (55). The deictic “this” resonates as book, poem, word, and the reader’s body bears out the conditional, holding these made artifacts in her hands and mind, collaborating in a production that requires her participation for making’s resonance.
As a verb, the book’s title is in the past tense; it gestures to a completed, past making; as an adjective, it suggests something shaped in a particular way. Benson embeds “(made)” in a bold litany: “affect effect multiple handicap barn buster flipped tv dinner micro . . . cosm ready (made) meandering firefly abdomen plug caulk” (47). Parenthetically noting the process that brings this list together and that defines the items on it, Benson suggests the implicit, textured relation between made things and the act of making. The created landscapes, relations, and ideas (made) explores are constantly under construction. The book offers itself up as material of and for new makings. Thus, in (made), the present presses against the past, and a consciousness of the future anterior emerges: the poems create a future in which what will have been made is here in utero, in a present shared with a collaborating reader. A certain terror inheres in that future. In an interview with Bookthug, the book’s publisher, Benson describes (made) as “a pre-elegiac poem for the earth.”* I’m drawn to this account because it insists on the present of these poems as a necessary space of enunciation. And while pre-elegy presages elegy for a lost earth, the poems’ engagement with that present turns upon an earth that is not yet lost, that might not be lost. As Benson notes in “me-tooism,” “What the word will become cannot be known” (61); what the world will become cannot be known either. That is part of (made)’s power: it invites the reader to explore her world as the strange, beautiful, and often destructive combinations and re-workings of vibrant materials.
These materials move through time to a space of articulation. Charting an uncanny traveling, Benson writes: “Burned earth, the fire can travel through dry underground routes and spring up hundreds of feet from its source. Garden beseeched” (33). The address to “Burned earth” becomes movement through time and space: it spreads fire, shares grief. In “far, far away” Benson writes, “Premature night exposes her white teeth marks in the dark . . . A hug off the horizon while her face-mask covers desire too cold to be discovered. What she can’t hold she’ll havoc” (41). Benson draws on both the sound and meaning of “havoc” to create a sense that runs counter to the sentence’s semantic claim–“havoc” resonates as “have” and “disturbance.” The line thus suggests that disturbance is a mode of possession. Benson’s poems explore the possibility that making is both a creative and destructive act that possesses us. Her poems are plastique in the French sense of the term: they take form and destroy form. (made) explores how we and our making and made objects emerge from this paradoxical relation. In the book’s opening poem, “and the book begins,” Benson writes, “Bobbed sunflower head heavy from yearning fulfilled” (7). In a later poem, “café society,” a remaking occurs: “The kettle was boiling above and the baskets were underfilled. Yarn” (39). “Yearning fulfilled” becomes “underfilled. Yarn.” Linguistic making echoes in the poems’ deft soundwork that reworks a line or phrase, allowing sound to recreate sense.
Sound is a form of production in (made), and so is thought. Thinking is making in Benson’s work; it is a desire for understanding that is hospitable to startling perceptions and unconventional forms of knowing: “To steal a hole one must first have desire . . . Take whatever was forgotten now found in all the coat pockets of the world into your cupped hands which act as conduits into the hole” (15). (made) takes “the forgotten now found” and invites the reader into it; the book carries her along, stutters her progress, speeds her up, gives her away, recombines, and remakes her—and the world she inhabits. Benson’s poems create, from an encounter with the given world, a new world that is both dangerous and rapturous. And also, sometimes, peaceful. The poems in (made) create possibility “To enter, beside.” They offer the reader the objects of her everyday life as the materials that build a collective thought and care from the makings of a mind. Collective because of their hospitality to artifacts, objects, natural materials, animals, and weather, to readers, thinkers, empathizers, workers, armies, the outraged, the hopeful, the careful, the rigorous, the overlooked. Each and all are called in to the poems. And so to read (made) is to inhabit a radical openness that “Grant[s] light.” In Benson’s own words, “What travel will come. What standstill. Such ruckus amok. Such rendering” (26).
* “Interview with Cara Benson,” BookThug News, 3 Dec. 2010.