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Review: 'Symphony for Heart and Stone', Stefanie Bennett

(Cochon Collective and Golden Hill) 70pp paperback

Stefanie Bennett is one of Australia’s 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 Bennett’s poetry is the fact that it’s 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 poem’s 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 Jesuit’s 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 "Author’s 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 Bennett’s 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 gone."

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."

"Encyclopedia of 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 Bennett’s 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 ‘a’s 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 stanza’s syntax and denotative meaning that the reader at first doesn’t realise where the power of the lines is coming from.

Beyond Bennett’s 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 Mansell’s Mortifications and Lies, Peter Minter’s 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 book’s 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 you’ve 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:

Gone are the days

When poets, under heaven’s gaze,
Saved cities.

This book presents strong evidence that that might not be the case, and that Stefanie Bennett might be one of those poets. If ever my city needed saving, she would be one of the first I’d call on.