This book marks the UK début of Canadian poet Sheri Benning, featuring new poems alongside work previously published in Canada. Benning’s early work draws on her strongly felt connection to her native landscape, rural Saskatchewan. In poems that couple sinew and roots, blood and sap, skin and stone, Benning explores an ecology of affiliation between humans and the natural world. The poems are also alive to the quiet intimacies between father and daughter, mother and child, between siblings and between lovers. Benning’s later work travels further afield – to Russia, New Mexico, Scotland – but always the physical landscape is entwined with memory, the landscapes of the mind.
|Publisher:||Carcanet Press, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.30(d)|
About the Author
Sheri Benning grew up on a small farm in Saskatchewan, Canada. She’s since travelled widely while attaining several academic degrees. She published two books of poetry in Canada, Thin Moon Psalm and Earth After Rain. Her poetry, essays and fiction have also appeared in Canadian literary journals and anthologies. At work on new poems and a novel, Benning divides her time between Glasgow, Scotland, and a farm near Manitou Lake, Saskatchewan.
Read an Excerpt
The Season's Vagrant Light
New and Selected Poems
By Sheri Benning
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2016 Carcanet Press Ltd
All rights reserved.
From Earth After Rain
Why I'm Afraid to Have Children
Because my bones are doors that enclose you and your arrival will unhinge me. I will dislocate, a tectonic shift.
Because my belly will distend and after I will be a hollow mollusk, streamed with seaweed.
Because your heart is a hummingbird in a nest of filament veins.
Because I might drop you on my scabby linoleum floor as when I dropped my grandmother's crystal vase, everywhere prismatic shards.
Because I am 22 I am 42 I am 35. Because I would rather give up my life than my self and you will demand no less.
Because a vampire, who teaches high school during the day, lives in the apartment below my boyfriend's. Late at night little girls file into his lair like animals facing slaughter. When I pass them in the hall, they cover their faces, their hands the colour of yellowing pearls.
Because the pain of your descent hovers like a wasp and my mother who told me I'll forget has been known to lie.
Because the river is veiled by iridescent skin that conceals a current. Because pregnant women's skin, which is said to glow, conceals what might drown them.
Because your fingertips are wild strawberries, crushable and then sweet bud-blood.
Because I heard that pregnant women in Nazi war camps had their legs tied together and I don't want to know how this could kill me.
Because while sunbathing on a beach last summer I saw a sail, small as your first tooth.
You're like that sail floating on an inland sea. The closer we get, the bigger you become –
Under the Noon Moon
Yesterday at the doctor's, my x-rayed hips, the cave we pass through, what lovers enter into, what I will look like after years in the earth.
Now, under the noon moon, a shed clover seed, dried blood of roseberries, blueberries, frost-split skins, speargrass goldenrod, sun stirred by poplars, molasses heat on my flannelled shoulders –
I stumble on pelvic-curled driftwood and remember my bone's glow sifting dirt. Squall of leaving geese, thousands of sun-white bellies jerking on the river's waves, comforts me the way a parent does a child and the child needs no proof.
Bear Letter #1
If I continue to walk this path of sinking light we will meet. Drawn by tides of shadow, a huffed poplar seed sucked by lake.
Wood asphodels, rooted constellations, guide me. The forest is thick with your dank gravity, a woman-weight moments before birth.
Sun, a wild rose rotting. Tendrils of last light tangled in twigs. Birds flit, heartbeats – poplar leaf shadows.
I wear your loamy incense: moss, sloughed poplar bark, blue undertones of moon and rain.
Bear, I don't know how this will end.
Bear Letter #2
I have never given birth, my womb a spring plum. But Bear, you teach me birth, your name a verb, muscles river-roll over your bones as you hunker. Your holler, guttural. Earth tears beneath your paws.
Birthing room, a cave, ice-white walls. Hibernation over, you hunger-howl. You are beside inside coming out – You burrow through a leaf shadow, emerge from a labium shrouded by shavegrass, ragweed, passionflower. Your fur slick with symbiotic swamp you left behind. Hunger-howl – nipples, sun-hard chokecherries.
Everywhere your fetid musk: cracked skin marsh root blood moss scat.
Bodies of Stones
Measure the distance they've come, wear river and bitter rain. In lacunas of night-breath we learn to hold each other – before words or after.
Through every thing we love, light comes in. Love, an aperture, shows the world in new ways. The curve of the ear whispered into when night lays down on you, like sun through rain-sequined sky.
That is why we are disoriented when love leaves. Having lost a way of focus, all sight becomes peripheral.
When my head was on your chest, filled with the ocean sounds of blood, July sky was a bulging vein. Air above pavement serpentine as Latin dancers. Elm leaves, embossed by the bronze dusk sun, flicked at the moment light's slow tickle became unbearable – tails of jut-ribbed horses. Later we smelled of grass, a lover's lingering scent, hair woven into a shirt.
But now snow falls soft and random, the ohs and ahs of bodies entwined.
Not love, but its absence, makes us blind.
The Night was Split
How the night was split by stars cat-teeth sharp and the moon stiff as a swan feather, how you passed out at some party and woke to him on you, a nest of blood, sweat and hair, his pounding between your legs reminding you of waves against the pier where you sat last October in pigeon sound and the yellow smell of death and shit and how he must have bit off your tongue, a fish beached in sun, because only now can you tell me – voice a sparrow's flight in wind – of the blood, the stars, the night split.
That Ugly Thing
My friend in the psych ward cries unless she's asleep. Her room dark, a mouth silenced. Nurses bring paper-cups of neon-sweet pills that make her forget she feels
ugly. Last week, my Dad dragged a dead fox out from under my cabin. For a day I watched it peripherally, caught pink glimpses of its lulled tongue.
When my friend was sixteen a man tore into her. And just as wheat sprouts where a farmer shakes out his overalls, a husk split in her womb.
Three months later, blood-sopped petals. Secrets make a gravity. It pulls on you until you can't stand. She told no one.
I want to look at the fox, touch its eyes, black as what fire leaves behind, but only a smear remains. Dad hauled it away, 'Didn't want you to have to look at that ugly thing.'
The World Open
Tears make you believe you are underwater. Pines seaweed-sway and the moon wears the shape of waves.
Mom's heart stops and all time shifts. The four-hour drive to the hospital – days.
* * *
Our night car travels the terrain of a cave: pines, stalagmites, stars, bat eyes, night air, leathery skin. My fingers through the window brush wings and I think it's wind.
* * *
In the glow of his cigarette, my father's flesh drips, leaves from November poplars. My father points at death, its smoulder, the tip of his cigarette, in the cave of my belly.
Before my brother left to study we went to a pub. Despite the pull of beer, he gave us names for muscles and veins. The feel of Latin on our skin, sounding out each pore.
Without him to translate, the doctor's words hover – a cyclone of bees.
Lack of language makes us involuntary. My sister grabs my hand. Magma-heat, her beating blood.
* * *
As children we learned tectonic plates balance on pools of stone. Tides of heat tear earth apart. Under winter skies, my siblings and I drawn by heat into our parents' bed, a web of limbs. Ears pressed to chests, we hear the world open. Continents remember Pangaea by the bend in their bodies. My cheekbone defines the curve of mom's hand.
My Body That Is For You
Earth sucks his body like a seed, frees him from an oiled wood and velvet husk.
Rhizomes bloom in empty eye-nooks. Bread broken by wrung hands, evergreen roots. They braid
his leaven bones. Blood and flesh feed fingertip-sized nodes. He pulses in flame-shaped pine cones.
Last night I watched you lean over your mother. Hospital light washed you in water-colour. Your body's shadow, stained sedge, definitions of endings, impossible. You told me once we all come from the same DNA. We all pass through the hips of a familiar mother.
* * *
At the equinox they sedate her. Outside, wheat sates new hunger. A sharp moon decrescendos. Earth waits open.
* * *
The night she dies you rest your head in the hollow between my breasts. Heartbeat, careless wing thrum. Heartbeat, a sound you can carry in a teaspoon.CHAPTER 2
From Thin Moon Psalm
Fall. The season of listening for what we must let go. But your listening was something hungry, a demand to be spoken to. To be heard. Now far from him you remember two things. Probably accidents or undeserved gifts. Like the slant way you realize Spring – weak-tea light of dusk, wrist's moon-shadow when you hold the hot cup. A knowing that slinks through your gaze. But you're doing it again. Please. Just listen.
Driving him to work. Morning moon passing through pine – sleight of hand, shocks of silver. The story of the farrowing sow. How as a kid he sat in the broth of straw, burnt wood, manure. Furious mewing, steaming birth, he'd place the litter in a box of rags, cut their teeth, return them to their mother. How he and his brothers took turns waiting. Head wrapped in scarves of sleep, he'd break the night-mirror, split light of snow-stars pooled in alloy sky. How he sang stories to stay awake.
You realize you are panicking. You want to free him from the scars of smoke, work, whisky, that tear him from the small songs he made in front of the fire where he learned how to wait.
Listening has made your heart a bruise, a dark pearl of gravity. Outside your cabin, the great blue heron rising each morning, a gesture of abandonment to what is more. It shames you. You watch the moon finally sink into a barbed crown of unlit pine and not rise. That's the only thing you can recall with any sort of clarity – the moon's last time and with such voiceless ease.
What It Tastes Like
In near-dark, when she's almost asleep. Smell of coming rain, wet wool. A spore of the farm rises in her. Animals, shadow-pulse. Her father in the barn. Rubber boots. Manure. Open door cedar-light. Kitchen window weeping the beet soup loam, sweat of someone you love. Hands thick with work and cold around a hot bowl. Autumn dusk in bled cloud – loose straw, spilled oil, a concrete floor. Steam's in-between-breath pause. Stars, tin, a drink of well-water.
As when you pull a stone from the river, and hold it in your palm. The light is wrong.
Time redeemed through memory is emotional reality.
Larry Benning, study notes on Four Quartets, 1967
Pike guts, motor oil, milky coffee, birch sap, passing me flesh on knife-tip, fish scales stuck to palm – scatter-light, unfocused eyes,
Well it was a Heidt from St Gregor. Big sonofabitch. I was drinking at the Burr bar by myself and he starts up with me. Oh you know – 'think you're so smart' – shit like that. And I don't want to fight but you know how it is, so we head outside. And I get the jump on him. Mushed his face pretty good. You know slim guys like me gotta do it hard and do it first. And he starts bawling – bloody embarrassing. So I pick him up and haul him to the john – through the back so no one has to see – and I help him clean up. Then I buy him a beer and I tell him to leave me the fuck alone. Well shit, then the sonofabitch's uncle starts up with me and he's a big bloody bastard and I'm not there to fight so I just buy a six-pack to take home. But of course he follows me out so I just set the beer in the truck box. And he starts dancing around, thinks he's Cassius Clay, so I ask him if he wants to dance or fight and he keeps hopping like an ignorant asshole so I kick him a little – just so he'd drop his hands – and then I plough him one something furious. And the silly sonofabitch leaned in or something so damned rights I get him right between the eyes. The poor bugger walked around with two black eyes for a helluva long time. Anyway, Wilf Chernetsky and them other guys they came to break it up then but I just left. I guess that Meyer kid who works at the butcher shop was there. And well shit – next thing he's telling everybody in the countryside how I beat up both those big sonofabitchin Heidts –
left lid memory-pinched, flexed jaw, pose for the deep-bellied 'huh', the hang-time vowel between a story's end and the meaning of it all. You want him to blink, to shake his head, but goddamn bunch of bullshit.
[He doesn't move.
What Passes Through
November sky: a mouth that has smoked too much for years. Cold
that could make you bleed, thin whistle of sun.
Running on scabbed ice. Poplar death, familiar smell of what passes through dark:
menses breath sweat.
That time of day when the membrane that keeps us separate begins
to fray – sudden rip of the heart, wolf-flick on the back of the eye.
Errata? Look again. Only the sky's gaunt skin, but I saw something.
: petal-curled in the garden of my mother, beneath the moth-drone of her lungs, in her
wish and blood; before my voice became descent; before language, the sound of distance
between what is divided –
every word I say, traced back to first exile; every word, rooted in parting; every word
is echo for that moth-drone, that wish, that blood.
'in dead earnest offer the betrayed world a rose' Zbiegniew Herbert
I want to write how my lover's eyes imply
a boy from Haiti
a good harvest, a winter of full- bellied dream, how his eyes
are a currency that no longer purchases: penny, kopeck, half-moons
of clay under fingernails, horse-hooves, elm-bark, how
in his flesh
lying at night in the willow nest of his rib-cage, next to his corvine heart,
until he was no more,
I lean into the silty river of his gaze, see my face reflected –
a shred of local news –
to say is only to weave torn flesh, bright and
bloody rags in the dark.]
The night before I leave there is a storm. Wind, a train down Nevsky that runs past us before we can turn to see what it is. Street dirt bites our eyes, sunset culled by fists of cloud.
We undress, hold each other urgently; heat of our bodies a false certainty. Tired and dumb, we whisper small words, I love you, I love you, pebbles to dam the tide of coming morning. Forgive us. We don't know how. Love is not inevitable –
when we meet what can't be named, that we choose to love is a kind of grace that shades everything. Like the soft shadows of night-snow turning winter into a sleeping-animal blue.
In the morning we take a cab to the airport. Sky, a bloodless face we can't read; suspect it might be judging us. We think we might've lacked courage the night before, though we don't say.
Sometimes I will dream of return, but in the dreams clouds entropy. Wind shears your face. And instead of coming home with bread and wine to find me reading at our kitchen table, a candle gutters and you will walk away.
At the airport we sit on the steps, share a cigarette. Without thinking you reach over to wipe something from my lip, hold your finger there. Later you help me carry my bags through customs, yell an insult back at the guards before you kiss each of my eyelids,
and promise we'll meet soon. Forgive us, we lack courage. Don't know how to hold the pose of letting go. But the grace of the moment on the step, your finger pressed to my lip, its small shadow – a sleeping-animal blue.
Not the flute-song light of April, of skittish creak waves or the heart-in-throat jitter of aspen leaves.
When you peel back the husk.
Allspice, cinnamon, unwashed hair, cloves pinned to over-ripe oranges, sweat of yesterday's labour.
Doesn't turn around though it can feel the eyes at its back.
Nor is it November's slag-light, the thing said by a lover that cannot be taken back and now sits between them, broken-winged and awkward. Not light of the thin cough after.
Inward light – viscous magma, lamp in a night window, light of a thought you can't yet say, blood, embers through the seams of an old wood-stove. Light that invites, go deeper.
A thick-tongued drunken prophet, light that spills long shadows at your feet as if to slur. It knows how to come to grips with the darkness that is coming, but it's not going to say.
Excerpted from The Season's Vagrant Light by Sheri Benning. Copyright © 2016 Carcanet Press Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
From Earth After Rain
Why I'm Afraid to Have Children 9
Under the Noon Moon 10
Bear Letter #1 11
Bear Letter #2 11
Bodies of Stones 12
The Night was Split 13
That Ugly Thing 14
The World Open 15
My Body That Is For You 16
Impossible Endings 17
From Thin Moon Psalm
What It Tastes Like (Hoarfrost) 22
What Passes Through 24
Torn Flesh 25
Sleeping Blue 27
October Light 28
Bird Bones 37
Descent from the Cross 38
Thin Moon Psalm 39
What It Tastes Like (Salt) 43
November Light 45
Bones in the Wings 46
Northern River 48
Notes Towards a Love Poem 49
Unsent Letter #28 53
Wolverine Creek 55
Bread, Water 57
St Benedict's Rule 58
The Breath of Looking 62
Unsent Letter #47 63
That Song That Goes 64
Ash, Smoke 66
Notes to Thin Moon Psalm 67
Rise When You Hear 74
Near the Saskatchewan River 83
Night and the Silence 85
Mandatum Novum 86
Savannah Sparrow 87
Hopewell, New Brunswick 88
Spring Rain, Glasgow 89
Early Spring, Dancing 90