John Forth reviews a recent collection by Judi Benson and a new chapbook from Peter Kenny

rockingham_-_hole_in_the_wallthe-nightwork-cover-reveal Hole in the Wall by Judi Benson
Rockingham, 2013
ISBN 9781 90485 1509   72pp         £9.99

 

The Nightwork by Peter Kenny
Telltale Press, 2014
ISBN 9780-9928555-1-2   20pp         £4

 

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If word and phrase had not been so battered, I’d want to say that Judi Benson’s transparent poems go straight for the heart; and might say it anyway. Roy Fisher called them ‘talking poems’, which is just right. The moving heart of her recent collection contains musings about time and poems of grieving for her husband, Ken Smith. Some probe the art of poetry, while often pretending to probe elsewhere, into other situations she encountered in her two years as writer-in-residence at Dumfries Royal Infirmary, in oncology and palliative care. That idle day when the ‘Phlebotomist’ applied to begin her career there might actually be anyone’s beginning anywhere: She didn’t lie in her bed at night as a wee lassie, / stroking her arms, trying to find veins in the dark. Nor did she follow any path of inevitability that led to her expertise in finding gold slivers of veins, where were none. She is a part of ‘The Set-Up’, a collage of stuff said in hospital which also grimly includes a doctor’s assessment:

You’ll find another language is spoken here…
Don’t try to learn it or else you’ll forget your own.
Eat all the apples you like, we’ll still come.

At times, life itself on the wards feels like a war-zone. The poem ‘Mistaken’ painstakingly lists all the things she isn’t; she brings only Little Ladders of meaning / basket weaving where no rushes go. Paradox takes over in ‘Message to Joe’ – Joe being a patient who spends Seven years coming here to gain two…killing the time it takes to buy some more. The speaker seeks ways to avoid defeat, but ‘The Changing Room’, a tribute to the nurses, is enough on its own to justify having a writer residing.

Poems addressed to Ken tackle the will to carry on and to leave grief precisely as and where it is, especially in ‘Dear Diary’ which confronts a need to share small things when one is no longer able to: How much Ken’s ears have been spared / though he’d have tuned out… then ends with an exploration and re-enactment of something close to Prufrock’s ragged claws. Two of several ‘one-word-sonnets’, playfully presented as thin lists on the page, conclude ‘The Dreich Elephant Speaks’:

It took me two years to dry out, wringe this heart thru the Mangle
life had become. And still I say, blessed be the rain, all our dead.

A tube ride ‘In the Dark’ is an example of an echo-chamber she uses cleverly and often: The last of the light has lost your way / and there is No Way Out. She also has a deceptively easy manner in speaking for the many when appearing to be specific, and she can wield an irony in ‘Taxing Times’:

I don’t earn but I work hard at proving it.
Here’s the proof of my failings,
how I’ve lived my life all wrong.

The big poem in six sections, ‘Long Division’, comes near the end, poised between staying or coming home: One of ours is always missing … No place is neutral. Simple saws with immense freight are smuggled in time after time, but: It’s the little choices we make that change our lives; / not turning the light on, missing the last step (‘Transition’). Her work with ‘Green Gym’ in East London informs the opening poem; a graveyard near a motorway is referred to as, our bit of wilderness to tend:

But whatever greyness we come with, whatever angst,
we leave a little rosier, subdued and silent for a moment.

The hole in the wall of the book’s title is primarily a Dumfries bar, but other things too, including the hospital itself, and, as Leonard Cohen’s epigraph says, anything that lets light in. The book has many operations, mainly those you don’t realise are being performed on you.

 

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I used to wonder whether some poets have a hot-line to the unconscious or are merely adept at making it seem that way. Now I save time and ask what’s in it for me. Peter Kenny’s work is fun of a serious kind. He’s been published at Guernsey airport and on the island’s bus fleet, and most of his trips to a hinterland of waking dream in this pamphlet will do his reputation no harm.

‘A Sparrow at 30,000 ft’ leans on the riddle of a bird darting through the fire-lit mead-hall and out again into dark. It’s Life, of course, but in this case also a fine evocation of shuddering turbulence on a passenger flight, where There is nothing to fear/ for we share the same journey/ and the crew seems certain/ we’ll get there. Playing on light and dark throughout, it’s a clever ride, and we’ve all been there. In ‘An Adumbration of the Light Age’, our own time, seen from a later one, is reigned over by a squinting hominid with a language ill-equipped to describe the many kinds of light or dark. Its omniscient scientist concludes:

Their light is gone, thank God: a static crackle that passed
once, at dark speed, into the vast pale voids between stars.

From here on it gets darker, and difficult. Creatures of myth such as the Minotaur and Ophelia’s lover (or would-be killer?) speak our language, and in ‘Ernstophilia’, an avid collector buys the last print for the one gap on his Ernst walls, at the expense of a descent in which he’ll: lock the bedroom door, catch/ my seahorse face in the mirror…/ reach for a spear/ and the blue-tack.

On the downside, ‘Headstone’ is a mix of punctuation and its absence that needed some unraveling; and one or two poems feel rather compressed. Conversely, a potentially striking elegy, ‘Postcard from Ithaca’, might benefit from a little more compression to prevent its beautifully drunken imagery sailing to a loose end. But if, as seems likely, this pamphlet begins an invasion of the mainland, it’s a welcome one.

 

John Forth was born in Bethnal Green and recently retired from teaching English after thirty-odd years. He has published four poetry collections (Malcontents in 1994, A Ladder & Some Glasses in 1998 and The Demon’s Phenomenal Filmshow in 2013 when a collection of early work, Spirits of Another Sort, also appeared). A New & Selected is due next year from Rockingham. He has reviewed new poetry for London Magazine and his poems have appeared in a number of journals.