Lay Mirrors in the Street / Bring Heaven Down to Earth: On Jen Benka’s Pinko
In the light of what’s been going on in the world, in the light of Occupy Wall Street and discussion of alternative political economies, Jen Benka’s book Pinko, out recently from Hanging Loose Press, revisits the richness of the lefty-pinko tradition with a nuanced music that refuses to believe in, yet accepts the existence of, the commodity as an object of love and perusal. The book starts out talking about the end of things, a common theme in poetry but one that Benka’s book makes sense of in a Marxist way––in her inaugurating poem, she writes:
we will store things here we need
and when the siren sounds
lay mirrors in the street
bring heaven down to earth
I think about Theses on Feuerbach and their insistence that life doesn’t happen “up high” but within earth’s material forms and places, within the working world. Benka’s book weaves these earthly concerns in and around the flowering of some sort of springtime that she finds in thought of revolution––always tempered by the realism of someone like Muriel Rukeyser or other Objectivist poets, she continues to press forward, with a sort of grittiness that also beckons spring to, well, stay. In “Flower Flower,” Benka writes of her experience in the Village, quotes Presidents, and makes statements about political participation that are estimable, that make claims for politics as a viable place to find one’s way in the world, to target what needs to be done outside of the presages of poetry that can sometimes feel too inclusive.
The second section of Benka’s Pinko is devoted to the syllabary of poems that are more interior and predicated on language a little bit more than her earlier pieces, but she has already made her claims, so we go along to find what we can find within this long section. There is within these poems, which begin with “Alpha” and end with “Zulu,” an admirable synthesis of the personal and the political, beginning with the lines “the atmosphere makes earth look blue. life started with one cell that somehow split in two” and weaving throughout to encompass poems peopled with historical characters, lush language, (see “Echo”) and always tenuously holding on to realism while still presaging (yes) hope, something that sees past what the desert of the real holds, as passing and fleeting as these glimpses of hope may sometimes seem.
In “Kilo,” for example, Benka writes:
oh say can they see. or so they say. o globe. and nothing is anything without economic value. and nothing is so the neighbors don’t know. and nothing is something to notice. o cosmos. nothing is everywhere. respiration and combustion. o this air this breath. o this lake is ocean. stay above water. hover above shadowy layers. aimless, directionless, a recognition of helplessness. you will meet land when the wind has carried you far enough
This short prose poem, ending on empty space instead of the usual period, makes sense of the tension between what we might think of as a sort of drifting and a happy youthful existentialism and the necessity of capital or economy. The tension lies in the surface of the poem as well, with its lowercase letters and small, h-less o’s, making sense of the words of the national anthem by drawing on what can’t be seen––sound.
In the book’s third section, there are more of these beautiful prose poems, and Benka also toys with the betweenness, the liminality, of spaces. “Between Island and Mainland” begins “everything is hanging / by ends dangling,” and the next poem, “Between Lost and Found,” begins “in the fallow field where sweet manure will grow corn tall. in the roadside ditch where wild lilacs bloom,” and then chronicles a series of sweet places where things might actually happen, ending on “snowdrift riverbed storage shed finally they find her.” It’s as if this picks up one of the book’s main themes, that of waiting for the end––somehow, yet always––on earth, as Marx’s famous Theses would have it. In the fourth section, the title poem “Pinko” continues the political claims of the first section, enveloping and completing the arc of poems presented by Benka. She writes: “accepting that I am not powerless / means studying geography and grieving / the people missing from this project,” a little bit of left-wing melancholy that is summarily brought to a halt in the ultimate stanzas of the book:
there is this and this is more than that was
and this is more than this was before
I imagine jumping from a plane
free falling onto the grid thinking
this is how fools drown
and what forgiveness feels like
This book explores the personal and the political in tandem, with aplomb and grace and style and everything wonderful that a book can do. Its refreshingly non-ironic and happy lush approach to everything from political––or, rather, social––experience to the interior in-between happy liminality that always brings one back to earth, eventually, is a nice anodyne, and one that will take you on a good ride, meant to last for a while, always posing questions that may (in the long run) leave you asking, What can I do to help?
Pinko is available from Small Press Distribution.