Book Review

Molly Bendall’s Watchful, her fifth poetry collection, is an elegant addition to the field of ecopoetics. Her subject is animals, but she shows them blurred, like glimpses of the legs of Eadweard Muybridge’s running horses in his well-known nineteenth-century The Horse in Motion. Animals are extraordinary creatures from whom we are separated by gulfs of ignorance. The result of human, often willful, misunderstanding is the threatened survival of many species in a time widely regarded as the sixth great extinction. Bendall’s fragmented gaze protects its objects, the shimmer of the language concealing the entire creature. At the same time she suggests that familiarity, disrupted, makes possible a more intense and authentic vision by allowing freedom from complacent, destructive narratives.

While the root of Bendall’s poetics is found in modernist fragmentation, her strategies of interruption and dislocation of subject, narrative, and syntactic position are part of the contemporary literary conversation. She also owes her style and themes to a feminist poetics fueled by a sense of exclusion from culture and nature, appropriate to feminist readings of Emily Dickinson, who feels present when we encounter such words as “amplitude” and “circumference.” It’s a reference you embrace in these poems of multivalent allusiveness which offer possibilities of vantage point. Other Dickinsonian gestures include prismatically economical phrasing and physical detail. The poem “The Sixth Wave,” for example, refers to the poet’s method as “Violet and zero / Knowing twat.” The same poem conflates by color reference two possibilities of seeing, the literal and the numinous:

Tell it to the three-toed
With scars taut
            And trembling
A red gash—
            That’s vermilion to some.

A poem’s directions blur between representation and abstraction, freed from conventions of literalness. Instead of relying on adequate beauties of full description, style is a vehicle of thematic expression, as in “Far Shine in the Park’s Pond,” where the poet will not “cling to the empty / spaces as the old logic / does.” Instead, she will “slide netting / over my face . . . trick the lookers and forfeit / the clouds that pearl / and shift their bundles.” As Carl Phillips writes in The Art of Daring, “To see a thing only for what it physically is, is its own distortion.”

Vital to Bendall’s poetics is the choice of animals as these poems’ subjects. Methods of interruption and dislocation ask for speedier, intuitive readings. Animals anciently functioned as oracles and instruments of divination. In “Season of Perpetrators,” Bendall underscores this relationship, writing that “their pompadours are a tangle of magic straw. / . . . as their pink tongues / stab the black air, rank and sinew steadfast.” She adopts their “splendid interiority,” finding in “Animal Radiance” that “fur can glare, even hurt.” If part of writing a poem is the understanding of feeling, the attentive reader can re-create the poet’s process of discovery, finding intense resonance and communicative potential in what is observed piecemeal. For Bendall, these oblique—though felt—poems don’t seem to be rallying cries, but elegies on the death of the infallibility of rationality.

Her anguished perceptions are never lost to tonal control. Dazzling as the images and sudden reaches of the poems are, Bendall makes light of them. “Here’s your bell, here’s / your dusty bolero” strikes a jaunty note in “Far Shine.” This tone is useful as the poet’s “I” accepts her own blame for the coming extinction, but at the same time takes a bead on those responsible on a systemic scale. In “The Sixth Wave” she writes, “I’ve been a silent / Partner / In the deal.” She’s wasted time with “this / Shady guild / Synonymous with bestow”—identified by its wealth and quasi military coloration:

Largely relaxing
            At the great landed
Estates in their
            And details galore
About their
Habits for the citizens
Truly they sag
But have a metal

Bendall’s aesthetic of incompletion asserts that conventions of language make us incapable of seeing the world as anything other than extensions of ourselves, feelingly pointing to limits of that perspective. Dazzling and intuitive poetry may not save us, but many who face coming loss turn to language’s transformational illusion. The poem “Spectacle” offers “the big chrysanthemum flirt with death inside,” a rewarding tonal swerve that leaves us knowing there is something to grieve, while, at the same time, not only being instructed by but also enjoying the inventive and unpredictable chronicle of demise.

About the Reviewer

Karen Kevorkian has published two poetry collections and recently published poems in Denver Quarterly, Antioch Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Volt. She teaches poetry writing at UCLA.