Review: Then Again by Ben Berman,
Vine Leaves Press
(Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, 2018),
If you love words, Then Again is pure delight . This slim volume is voluminous and luminous. I’ve had the pleasure of tucking it inside my jacket pocket, close to my heart, as I’ve drifted from summer to autumn, and now, in October, the weather has become strangely spring again. In the way that a life can become a work of art, this hemstitched seasonal trajectory parallel’s Ben Berman’s path with his past and present self, the domestic drama of family life, of parenting, and children.
The poems resemble Neruda’s Odes to Common Things but with the added dimension of time and place, personhood and relationship. The Odes — undeniably beautiful — are, nevertheless, objects of verbal art — still life ekphrastics. Berman goes deeper. The word entries are entries into the nature of being and living and moving in the world that recalls the deep poetic dwelling I find in the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin’s Hymns and Fragments, 1 particularly his masterpiece, “In Lovely Blue”:
…This I tend to believe.
Such is man’s measure.
Well deserving, yet poetically
Man dwells on this earth.
Berman declares in his “Afterword—A Note on the Form,” his mode of being in creating the entries, contemplation: “…to explore the contradictions of our lives by contemplating the tensions within and between words.”
In Denise Levertov’s essay, “Some Notes on Organic Form”2, she inscribes the spark of poetic creation:
To contemplate comes from “templum, temple, a place, a space for observation, marked out by the augur.” It means, not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is “to keep the mind in a state of contemplation”; its synonym is “to muse,” and to muse comes from a word meaning “to stand with open mouth”—not so comical if we think of “inspiration”—to breathe in.
Then Again is a true and faithful artifact of Levertov’s essay. Berman’s intuition has uncovered the inscape his work is to take shape and form—an organic form.
This book is quite alive — a book of wisdom; and in the way of such books, let’s begin at the ending — the afterword. Berman gives instructions how to receive this book, and sheds light on how he shaped it into being. “I began to wonder what it would be like to try to write linked narratives where each section of a piece explored a different sense of the title word, and each piece’s title connected to the next.” (Emphasis mine.)
Now leap back to the contents — the table of words — and trace the relationship between them, the connective, and connotative link. This is the backbone of the poem, the spine of the living book that you hold. Turn the page and enter Ben Berman’s life, holding it with your life, and all that transpires and inspires.
With respect to form, two things are evident: All entries are triptychs, and they are plural: “Breaks,” “Tears,” “Openings, “Spots,” etc. To view them is to gaze into a kaleidoscope as meaning plays and dances among them. They are at play continually, not static, final, finished. Berman is a dervish at play in the field of words, spinning them into being.
In many ways, the first entry, “Breaks,” encodes the path of the book to its delightful conclusion. Berman — his youthful self — arrives at Kathmandu, his heart broken from a relationship: “Sometimes you have to let something shatter just so you can see what it’s made have.” Berman is following the true mystic path, embracing the brokenness in order to be made whole again.
In the second meditation of “Breaks,” he is fleeing three mangy dogs, and is cut by broken glass scaling a wall. He notes his leg is bleeding, but rather than pain, he’s feels “a sensation much sharper… aware of the slight breeze on my neck…the smells of cumin and burning trash, a low mooing nearby.” Through his pierced body, his deeper self revives to the sounds, smells, and heart of the community. The closing entry of “Breaks” is worth quoting in full:
My hostel was just a few blocks away but I stayed up on that ledge until daybreak, entranced by the moon and mountaintops. And for the first time in my life, I felt not just alert but awake — saw the world in pieces and at peace — as though all those shards and peaks, slivers and valleys, were strokes of a single landscape.
Suspended between moon and mountaintop, the all-night fast of sleep awakens in him a vision of the broken and beautiful world in which we dwell, and his calling to gather the shards into a peaceable whole, a single landscape. Then Again is his Testament.
In the penultimate entry, “Notes,” we find Mr. Berman thumbing through an old journal, “every entry filled with notes of such longing and despair.” Yet, this melancholy tone is beautifully resolved in “Rests,” (as in notes and rests in music), in the joyful sounds of this once-broken father playing with his daughters “long past bedtime.” He finally gets them to bed, but his one-year old starts to cry. “I…pick her up, sing a lullaby while we rock and bounce. Its time to rest, I whisper, as she tries to wrest free.”
Rest and Wrest — what delightful wordplay to conclude and continue this book.
Experiencing Then Again is like watching words being teased, carded, and spun into threads — muted and bright and flecked with light. Making wool is an apt analogy: Language is the loom upon which we weave the tapestry of our lives. It is how stories are made, and braided from generation to generation. What stories will Berman’s daughters tell? “Do you remember when Dad…?” I can almost here the wonder of their mature voices asking. Once upon a time begins with Once upon a word.
1 Frederich Hölderlin, Hymns and Fragments. Translated by Richard Seiburth. Princeton University Press, Princeton. 1984.
2 Denise Levertov, “Some Notes on Organic Form.” First published in Poetry, Vol. 106, No.6, September 1965.