PoetryReviews.ca

Brick Books - May 21, 2009 - 23 Comments

Thin Moon Psalm

Thin Moon Psalm by Sheri Benning

Reviewed by Michelle Miller

Sheri Benning’s 2007 collection Thin Moon Psalm (Brick Books) contains some hauntingly beautiful language. Most of the poems take place in her home of Saskatchewan, a province I have visited for only the briefest time. Her ability to use sensory details to take me there with her is laudable. I should admit that, generally, my favourite poems have little to do with nature and more to do with people, but due to her lovely and lyrical language, I was captivated from very early on.

These are hard-work, small-town poems, about people for whom the seasons and weather have a huge bearing on the way life is lived. The characters here (many of the same characters appear throughout and are cast as the family of the speaker) work with their hands: men birth calves, women bake bread. They carry strong smells of smoke, whisky, cloves. In the first poem, “Listen,” it is autumn, which Bennings calls “The season of listening for what we must let go.” Here, great blue herons rise every morning. A man—the father of the speaker, who is a “you” here, as in many of the poems—carries the “scars / of smoke, work, whisky.” He wears rubber boots. There is manure and “steaming birth.” This is a lifestyle that few modern city folk are familiar with, and Benning uses this poem to set the stage for the world inside. This is a lifestyle featuring many kinds of pain, and we are told in the final stanza that “Listening has made your heart a bruise.” And yet, she admonishes us to “Please. Just listen” (11). Listening is what the reader does throughout this collection; the language is so lilting and beautiful, with strong oral and sensory details. For example, in “What it tastes like (Frost),” she tells us of the

Kitchen window weeping
the beet soup loam, sweat
of someone you love. (12)

There is no question from the first poems that the reader is in for a story with a wondrous setting, fantastic details and beautiful word choice.

Benning frequently personifies the natural world in a way that helps readers unfamiliar with her landscape to visualize it. In “What Passes Through,” the ice is “scabbed” (15). In the exquisite “unsent letter #47, “elms are old men sitting on the porch of the local hotel. Cartilage- / worn, they hum country songs of bone on bone” (77). In the same poem, the colour of the sky is related to an “old blue t-shirt,” and then later we are told that “sky wears a t-shirt rubbed butterfly-thin by so many slow / Saturday mornings, coffee and a newspaper, sleep-thick limbs” (77).  In “Bread, Water,” a “river wearing an elbow-worn coat / of last season’s shells and leaves” (69) heads for the ocean. In a similar way to the personification of nature, the body is frequently described in natural terms. In “unsent letter #28,” the character Sarah is told to “Remember, our bones are sated light” (63). In “Hysterectomy,” Benning describes “my mother’s uterus, full / of dried bees” (68).

One of the most important themes in these poems is memory. Benning is constantly telling us how memory is always something different and lovely. In some places it seems that the poet herself is trying to understand the nature of memory, and in others it seems she is collecting and dispensing definitions like a wise alchemist. In “Bread, Water,” she tells us that

Words, like water, are shaped by gravity if
you can think of gravity as another way of saying

memory. (69)

In “Amber,” the understanding of memory changes. At first she tells us

I thought memory was

an aphid hover over garden that descends
or does not. I was wrong. (76)

And then later she corrects this: “Memory pulses / until meaning is found” (76). In “That song that goes,”

Memory is that song the heart hums
along with. The one without
thinking, beneath breath. (78)

No matter which understanding of memory is correct, these are lovely representations, which make the reader contemplate his or her own understanding of memory.

In “Lastochka: May 9, 2002” Benning discusses the 1941 Nazi siege of St. Petersburg, Russia, which lasted until 1944. This story mentions many paintings, places, novels, and my favourite: music. She describes watching musicians on the street:

Mandel’stam believes something as fine as
                                                                      a flute can pull us from our prisons,
can piece together disarticulated days,

but these men strum furiously, their fingers inflamed wicks.
with vein-bulging intensity they shout their songs – 
						                      all of the cocked triggers
of all the executions during the siege.
(22)

Much later, Benning refers to telling stories “the way they never were, / how we wished they could be” (28). This poem feels distinctly like her doing this: bringing something beautiful to such a scar of history. In this poem, memory doesn’t meander. It is urgent.

My favourite thing about the pieces in Thin Moon Psalm is the timeless quality Benning brings to the world she creates. In “Legato,” she tells us

I think I’ve known him for at least a hundred years.
His song, honey-toned unction. I think I’ve known him
for at least two thousand years. (73)

The way she tells these stories, the reader doesn’t doubt that time frame. That stretch of time seems lovely and plausible. In “Thin Moon Psalm,”

You go to bed thirsty. Blood hunched
and staggering up mountain-path veins.
You dream of licking grandfather cliffs,
tongue undoing water that locks stone –  (41)

This out-of-time-ness is such a wonderful way to look at the world that mentions of snowmobiles in “Bird-bones” and airports in “Sleeping Blue” seem out of place in this collection, even though I’m not thrown off by orange Doc Martens in “Lastochka.” So it might just be me.

Overall, this is a lovely, slow collection with some breathtaking images and stunning word choice. Whether a reader is a die-hard prairie lover or a city slicker living in Toronto, I think this is a really enjoyable read. I’d say it’s meant for a cold day in November, dressed in a blanket and drinking hot tea.  But you’ll probably like it the rest of the year as well.

Michelle Miller is a queer-feminist writer of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Born and raised in Ontario, Michelle is trying to get used to life on the west coast, which is easy in the sun and impossible in the rain.

Add a Comment

Name:

Email:

Remember my personal information.
Notify me of follow-up comments?

We don't know if you're a human. Confirm below:

What genre of books do we review here? (6 character(s) required)

  • it’s really great that your website has so much interesting stuff to read. Come visit mine: flexa plus
    said TomD on May 02, 2016
    about The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane edited by Jeanette Lynes
  • It’s a nice and very informative website and post too.You can benefited all others cosmetica industries as well. cosmetica groothandel …
    said acosmetica groothandel on January 02, 2016
    about Pendas Productions
  • Very very thanks for like this poetry.I am proud after looked on poetry.Ian LeTourneau’s reviewed poetry have given me many many …
    said cosmetica groothandel on December 30, 2015
    about The Crisp Day Closing on My Hand: The Poetry of M. Travis Lane edited by Jeanette Lynes
  • Wow it’s a hots poetry.So I lov,like this poetry.My need knowledge,which I have taken from The Mechanical Bird, Asa Boxer’s. cosmetica …
    said cosmetica groothandel on December 30, 2015
    about The Mechanical Bird by Asa Boxer
  • Wow what’s a nice poetry.I love like this poetry.I have read it and take some knowledge from Stone Sightings,Madeline Sonik. cosmetica …
    said cosmetica groothandel on December 30, 2015
    about Stone Sightings by Madeline Sonik
  • I am really happy After got this blog.g We seen abriel’s beach by the Neal McLeod. cosmetica groothandel
    said cosmetica groothandel on December 30, 2015
    about Gabriel’s Beach by Neal McLeod
  • I learn a lesson from you that ladies can do all the thing. cosmetica groothandel
    said acosmetica groothandel on December 28, 2015
    about Lady Godiva and Me by Liam Guilar
  • I love to hear always about MJ.In my life I wanted to be like MJ but I did not understand that …
    said Niamal Wakil on December 24, 2015
    about The Meaning of Michael Jackson
  • You made a most important point about poet.Without spectra poet has nothing.You may follow this link cosmetica grothandel for any cosmetic. …
    said Niamal Wakil on December 20, 2015
    about Nerve Language by Brian Henderson
  • After reading post I have read the poem of Gillian Sze.I feel the hit of this poet.It is really awesome that …
    said Niamal Wakil on December 17, 2015
    about Fish Bones by Gillian Sze