Review: Symphony for Heart and Stone, Stefanie Bennett
(Cochon Collective and
Golden Hill) 70pp paperback
Stefanie Bennett is one of
Australias most underrated poets. Her seventeen books, published over four decades
during which she has also worked as a teacher, political activist and
writer-in-the-community, have received nowhere near the critical attention they deserve,
and she has been too rarely anthologised or invited to literary festivals. Despite what
might be seen as one long rebuff from the gatekeepers of Ozlit, she shows in her latest
collection, an Australian/American publication, that she has lost none of her
characteristic sharp edge, keen eye and straight-talking voice.
What I have always loved in
Bennetts poetry is the fact that its full of surprises. The poem
"Shot-gun Alley" in the first section of this book starts with the line,
"Once I was accused of bravery." That poems persona denies the accusation,
but it is not only in her preparedness to tackle more difficult public subjects that she
demonstrates her courage. It is also in her audacious similes and metaphors
("Stalagmites as big / As a Jesuits fist", "The soap-stone of
youth", "The jaded rooster struts / His psychological affairs.") and in her
daring to employ such techniques as repetition (in the beguiling yet chilling
"Perfidity" or the achingly tender "Thaw") which in the hands of a
less skilful writer could be in danger of appearing trite.
Bennett wears her heart on her
sleeve, as they say. And what a heart it is! Her "Authors Note" starts
with a mention of "Universal peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons
and her fierce concern for the land and for its inhabitants, particularly those whose
civilisations have lasted for millennia and still survive in the face of predation and
attempted genocide, is evident throughout the collection. Part Two of Symphony for
Heart and Stone is called "The Red Road" and through its poems such as
"Algonquin Radio", "Water Diary" and "Balance" the reader is
presented with a poetic exploration of Bennetts North American heritage. Tough and
unsentimental, these pieces incorporate regret for the destruction of the past with a
realistic appraisal of the present and a celebration of what has remained. A fisherman
described in "Water Diary" has "
the agility born / Of a race long
The high quality of the poems
in this book is fairly uniform throughout, but I do have a few personal favourites, poems
which cry out to be anthologised among the very best of contemporary Australian work.
"Rondon, 1953" begins as an evocation of childhood innocence: "It was
hopscotch there on high street", but gradually introduces hints, very subtle at first
("The muddied creek") of something darker which strengthen until we are hit with
the desolation of the final one-word line, "Unembraceable."
Sound" is another of my favourites. Its tone and diction are quite different from
those of most of the pieces in this book. Although, having said that, one must appreciate
the great variety of tones Bennett can pitch, as well as the accuracy with which she
pitches them. This poem has, on the surface at least, an almost conversational tone
short, simple words in short, simple sentences but, once again, there is an
impelling dynamic at work, moving the poem rapidly (it only has six three-line stanzas)
from the opening, "It was nothing" to the closing "
shovel / Of earth
wedged / In its mouth." The ability to pack such complexity into such simplicity is
surely one of the hallmarks of a very fine poet.
A particular skill of
Bennetts is her ability to depict a landscape. The first stanza of "Wheel"
demonstrates this and is worth quoting in full:
- In the saddened air hanging
- Blotting paper hints
- At being sky. Oceans
- Have been sponged up.
- Forests cling
- To this pulp ceiling.
Not only the lexical units but
the phonetic ones have been carefully and astutely marshalled to present this scene. The
distribution, for example, of s sounds, the pair of as in the
first line, the perfection of the sound of the word pulp in the final line, as
well as its connotations which so subtly take us beyond landscape to the potential
destruction of landscape, following on the urgency implicit in the shortness of the
preceding line: all these effects and many more are so felicitously embedded in the
stanzas syntax and denotative meaning that the reader at first doesnt realise
where the power of the lines is coming from.
Beyond Bennetts undoubted
technical skills, however, is the quality which elevates her to the top rank of Australian
poets. It is the way she effortlessly (well, apparently effortlessly ars celare
artis) enmeshes language and land, showing both to have value way beyond their
capacity for exploitation, showing how both are inextricable aspects of humanity and human
survival. In this, Symphony for Heart and Stone ranks with Chris Mansells Mortifications
and Lies, Peter Minters Blue Grass and John Kinsella's The New
Arcadia as a fine example of a kind of 21st century poetry that is not only
relevant but essential in a world, and especially a nation, where language, land and
humanity are consistently being abused.
The books final poem,
"Requiem", sums up such concerns, although to say that that is all it does would
be to sell it short as a fine poem in its own right. One of its lines is "The
partisan youve made of me", referring to a persona which is set forth as an
alternative identity to the "poet". But in fact with Stefanie Bennett you get
the partisan and the poet as indistinguishable. Another poem in the collection dedicated
to one of her role models, Cesar Vallejo, ends with the lines: