Review of Joe Benevento’s Expecting Songbirds, Selected Poems 1983-2015 (Purple Flag Press, $15) by Clarence Wolfshohl
I do not believe that Joe Benevento is a schlep, no matter how he tries to convince us in his new Expecting Songbirds, Selected Poems 1983-2015 (Purple Flag Press), which selects from his four previous books of poetry plus ten more recent poems that have not appeared in book form. Although at times his persona is that of the inept lover or the contemporary sit-com father who does little right, Benevento’s poetic voice is that of Everyman accumulating his good deeds and knowledge for the final critique.
Throughout the collection, Sylvia, the poet’s Puerto Rican version of Petrarch’s Laura, appears. She is a teenage siren, “her silver shorts rasping with each rhythmic step.” Even in “liquid lust” of youth, however, the poet has a sense of balance, for Sylvia
. . . desires me
To help write her history paper. (“Protection”)
In “Oh, Sylvia,” midway through the book, she returns to Puerto Rico, but the island can never have all of Sylvia, the poet says, as long as her life
continues glowing here, in mine,
fragrant, warm, alluring, sounding
through seasons: death, life,
In the last section, which mainly traverses the territory of middle-aged parenthood, Sylvia appears as a nostalgic moment with a humorous sense of fate. In “After I Couldn’t Grind with Sylvia Ramos,” Benevento conjures the memory of his ninth-grade self at a party dancing with Sylvia. He realized that he had “fanned the at-bat” and that she would be “forbidden to me forever.”
But with the loss of Sylvia came the life as husband, father, college professor, Everyman celebrated in most of the other poems. With this life comes the opportunity for knowledge and good deeds. In “Sunset in Iowa” (from his first book Holding On), he begins to note the give-and-take of life: annoying delay in travel may lead to beauty.
We would have missed the clouds on fire,
the way the horizon rode red and purple
against the snow-covered, lifeless earth,
a promise of distant bounty.
In the title poem, he gains experience as a parent and perhaps learns a lesson from his son who waits for songbirds to come to the feeder.
I bring him his favorite, soft, pale-blue
blanket, his lady-bug pillow,
understanding I have to comfort
such faith for as long as it takes,
for as long as it lasts.
Sometimes the knowledge gained is worrisome or deflating. In “My Wife Laughs in Her Sleep,” the poet imagines his wife dreaming “so full of her control” while he dreams of “her betrayals, and the casual way /she miniskirts blame.” He concludes:
It doesn’t help to awake
from such dreams to the sound
of her laughter ringing
its warning in the unbroken darkness:
how I had better be aware
of her every waking moment.
A storm that uproots trees in the yard reveal his “chronic incompetence” in “After Discovering I Was the Only One in My Neighborhood Not To Own a Chainsaw.”
Perhaps that “chronic incompetence” is just the feeling of the outsider. His yearning for Sylvia is intensified when he tells us of being an Italian kid in a Puerto Rican neighborhood. The power he feels in the poetry reading in “Driving to a Poetry Reading in My Father-in-Law’s Pick-Up Truck” is related to his being a native New Yorker in small town Missouri.
But we are all outsiders, or, at least, we readers of poetry are. We read to belong to the world of words and thoughts if not to the world of conviction and action, and we search for the knowledge to be judged passing in the final critique. Let us thank Joe Benevento for providing us with a metaphorical manual in that search. Against his confessed incompetence and mistakes, none of which is in the craft of his poetry, he pits his loves, his kindnesses, and his self-knowledge. His final poem in the collection is “After All,” in which he lists what he deems his flaws, and he ends with a wish we all may have:
. . . I will long
to believe my children
will figure me out sufficiently to make
fewer of these mistakes which are not
inevitable, while still maintaining sympathy
enough to keep loving at least
some silver haired vestige of my golden intent.
Reviewed by Clarence Wolfshohl
Clarence Wolfshohl lives with his writing, a dog and one cat in a nine-acre woods outside of Fulton, Missouri. In late 2014, his chapbook Equus Essence was published online by Right Hand Pointing ), and most recently his print chapbook Chupacabra by El Grito del Lobo Press (2015).