Book Reviews | Literary Arts

C. Wade Bentley’s Askew


C. Wade Bentley’s poetry chapbook Askew is appropriately titled because so many of its poems accentuate the way reality can be tilted through verse to expose bits of newness in the monotony of everyday life. Bentley’s poems are often narrative in that they tell a story in miniature, a small moment of loss, waste, or abandonment that becomes significant although couched in the pedestrian and commonplace. Like all good poets, Bentley sees stories in the trivial such as conversations over tea or in simple acts of neighborliness. He also sees the dismal reality so often concealed beneath ordinary living, and he captures the absurdity inherent in the mundane but still manages to instill it with emotion. It is the authenticity behind the emotion in his poems that disturbs at the same time that it persuades and satisfies.

Poetic satisfaction comes more from the teasing out of possibilities not fully realized—but tantalizing in the possibility of their realization—than from answering questions or from providing closure, and Bentley’s poems are pleasing because they create a palpable longing instead of contentment. In “Jack’s Mountain” the story told involves a rock monument or tombstone in memory of a two-year-old named Jack. How Jack died or why his “ashes have long ago mixed / into the mountain itself” is not revealed in the poem, but the imagery of sage and coyote tracks, a rusted mailbox full of notes for Jack, and the notes themselves are memorable for the wistfulness evoked by the scene. The notes say, “‘Great day /to be in the mountains, Jack!’ and ‘Jackie-boy, / can you see me waving?’” The only answer is the south wind that rattles the rusted mailbox flag. There is both a playfulness and an underlying longing in the poem, longing for youth and connection and longing to know the details of a story that are being enveloped back into the rocks and earth.

Longing is a recurring theme in Bentley’s poems—longing for innocence, for communion, for belief, for childhood, for liberation, and longing for people once vibrant and present but who have, in one way or another, left others behind. “Reckoning” is about one old man’s need to communicate and his longing to speak words that his senescence has reduced to “guttural / reductions of language, primal morphemes laced with pleading.” From the man’s mouth to a shadow behind his eyes, the need to speak builds in physical and emotional intensity. This is the kind of tension that is emotionally difficult to observe, but the poet watches and describes the helpless man, trapped in decrepit flesh, struggle “with a sound like dragon scales against cave walls” to either choke on “his own brine, / or foul him with the long trail of erratics he is dying to discharge.” To watch with the poet is painful, even terrifying, but the vivid verse makes the old man’s reckoning impossible to turn away from.

“Storytelling” is another poem about the need to be heard. Two girls chatter on their way to school when their companion, Jared, sees the body of a young woman floating in the river. The nonchalant conversation and headlong movement from teenage bantering to details of a naked body and how “the little ripples in this quiet section of water / would splash onto her right hip all purple and grey / shiny and taut” are grim but compelling, and instead of shocking, the story conveys the same sad need for communication as “Reckoning.” In one of the finest moments of the book, the imagined voice of the dead woman says:

tell the police your story now and play it up big
for your mates at school later but you won’t hear it
from me that story that love story that fantasy
I had hoped to tell had begun to tell has now moved
to mid-stream and will be out to sea sooner or later
where old couples who are even now walking
along the shore will pause from time to time
their faces into the wind, listening.

This is the amelioration of poetry that Bentley knows well: stories are told and words written to give voice to the dead or abandoned, even if the stories and words are only imaginary. Without histrionics or exploitation of the dead the poem asserts the power of telling stories and the need to make form out of the strange reality of living and dying. The need to be heard, to listen, and to witness is central to many of Bentley’s best poems.

Witnessing is also a core aspect of Bentley’s poems that confront belief, faith, and skepticism. “Second Sight” is a list of superstitious acts meant to induce faith, written in a sing-song internal rhyme that adds to the speaker’s cynical view of the talismanic: “Pray to your god? Gentian / root on the side? You say you’ve tried / all of these, plus crossing fingers, squinting, / snakeroot bark, wormwood, whistling in the dark?” The skepticism starts out whimsical but ends with an edge of coercion that detracts from the emotional intensity that Bentley’s other poetry provides. There is a bitterness in “Second Sight” that is not as becoming as the beleaguered resignation of Bentley’s more controlled poems that explore belief. “Negative Capability” embraces the paradox of rejecting a “world / that can account for ghosts” while at the same time acknowledging how real the uncertainties, mysteries, and ambiguities are that Keats revered—how inevitable and, ultimately, how beautiful they are. Bentley manages to expunge the fist-shaking frustration from this poem and, in “soothing, pallid tones,” to lay bare both the fear of faith and the regret of losing it.

Bentley tells stories of abandonment in his poems with simplicity and elegance and treats both the need to escape and the pain of rejection with equal compassion. “Gone” is a story of intimacy that flees even while the couple remains together and the contemplative surrender of that intimacy. “Some Days” deals with how memory may be used to retrieve the one who has escaped but also the sorrow that the retrieval is only imaginary. “Vacation Reel” scrutinizes the portent of a dissolved marriage in past family films, “because / we would so soon stop believing in such summers, / flickers of doubt finding their way / into your eyes, captured by a single frame or two.” The language of this poem, and of all Bentley’s poems, is accessible, mostly non-confrontational, and never embellished with the eccentric or grandiloquent—but always grounded in the commonplace. The commonplace of these poems is often about human foibles and emotional need; Bentley treats foibles and needs with gentle compassion, without being preachy, and is diligently watchful and curious about the human condition.

What is achieved in Askew is an emotional drawing out, and a sympathetic connection that links the poems with the reader without stooping to the sentimental or trite. Bentley succeeds in dealing with the dislocation and alienation of the twenty-first century by locating proportion in poetry and by using language to retrieve meaning. “Things I Know” expresses the anxiety of living in a rapidly changing society and the fear of continual loss of people and “creatures” that is an inevitable part of aging:

and it’s some kind of fear that follows,
as if someone with a giant push

Broom is sweeping up the very world
behind me: the stone statues, the trees,
pure laughter, even the idea of a park
in a city near someplace like home.

There is a slight sense of the misanthropic here, as there is in a couple of Bentley’s other poems, but mostly it is just a quiet sadness that what is familiar recedes into the past and what acquaints us to our reality is so readily replaced with the new and sometimes distasteful. The closing metaphor makes the common lament fresh and sums up the need for figuration to counter the fear and reality of loss. The emotional integrity of Bentley’s poems makes the sorrow and regret behind the stories palpable, and his poetic figuration provides complexity and variety to the simple stories he tells.


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