“leaving meaning on the banks”

Evenlode by Charles Bennett (Oversteps Books, £8)
reviewed by Russell Jones
Messages of Change[1]

“… By showing me what
I could never really know, it made me a scholar.” [‘Tortoise’]

Bennett’s Evenlode is primarily a collection of nature (or herbalist) poems with a near-mystical feel. A great many of its poems maintain the energy of a lazy river, picking up stark images that drop into its current en route. The amalgamation produces a sense of spellbinding, an almost-hypnotic quality in which the reader might lose themselves in the aural potency of Bennett’s language, leaving meaning on the banks, like lovers’ strewn clothes, for us to collect later on. All well and good! Take, for example, Bennett’s opening lines to the poem, ‘Tansy’:

If I left a trail of tansy –
pungent plebs of yellow calyx-stubs
in a trickle of sticky glimmers

Here, Bennett’s opening takes advantage of the alliterative ‘t’ (“If I left a trail of tansy”) and then the repeated ‘p’ of “pungent plebs” to build a sense of pace and rhythm, only for it to become “stub[bed]” and “sticky” as the trochaic pattern breaks down. This is a somewhat technical way of suggesting that the sound of his language often assists the meaning of the poem itself. And yet concrete meaning is something that is frequently avoided in Evenlode; indeed the ambiguity of language and the enigmatic nature of (mis)understanding are key focuses of this collection, a tension which often works but sometimes unravels in its own attempts at clarity.

The most affective and effective poems of Evenlode are those that bask in the pleasure of enigma, an attempt to “show … me what / I could never really know” through what is unsaid or purposefully missed out. It is this invigorating effect of ambiguity, the reader’s interpretation brought about through a poem’s indistinction, that fizzes in the ear and lingers on the mind:

And here in the cup of your hands
is a nest for rain        for a bird
of water to open its split wings

Here is a space where a song
might grow like a leaf        could fly
down summer to the fruit

[from ‘Birds Nesting in Dunsfold Orchard’]

We are drawn to fill in those white spaces, to construct the image in our own understanding of the world, in the “cup of your hands”, in the “space where a song / might grow”.

Those poems which are less successful unwittingly undo this ‘personalisation’ by unnecessary references and a predilection towards absolutes. ‘When Beowulf Flew’, for example, lengthily reminds the reader that it is referring to “the night of October 23rd 1731, when the library of medieval manuscripts owned by Sir Robert Cotton caught fire”. Meanwhile, several poems make allusions to other texts (sometimes with extensive footnotes), detracting from their emotional resonance by insisting on an academic understanding that potentially undermines the value of the reader’s perception.

Even so, Evenlode surprised me; the quality of Bennett’s ear is undeniable and transfers excellently to the page, whilst a subtle appreciation for visual experiment adds another layer for readers to swim through and enjoy at their leisure.

Russell Jones

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