Ten Poems About Highways and Birds by Sarah Bennett
(Dytiscid Press, 2009)
Ten Poems About Highways and Birds is a very unprepossessing title, I’ll admit, and ten poems may not seem like very much — there’s a lot of whitespace in this chapbook. But birds are, among other things, almost universal symbols of aspiration and beauty, and as for highways: they are perhaps the most inescapable and enduring expression of Americans’ passionate monologue with the land. I mean, obviously this isn’t the only nation with highways; it just happens to be one of the few modern nations where even the most fervent of conservationists is still at the mercy of the road system for basic transport. I am acutely aware of this myself since I don’t own a car. (Which can make it tricky to get to Audubon board meetings, as I’ll be doing tonight.)
All ten of the poems are indeed about either highways or birds, and many are about both. Bennett hails from eastern Massachusetts, and she told me that she used to have a long commute, and would often compose poems in her head and jot them down when she got to work, “a la Wallace Stevens (without the secretary).” In that respect, this book reminds me a little of Tom Montag’s distillation of poems from his Morning Drive Journal, The Sweet Bite of Morning, a somewhat longer chapbook published by Juniper Press in 2003. Where Montag is spare and often aphoristic, though, Bennett’s poems are each about a page long, and often pack considerable emotional punch.
In the opening poem, “Early Morning on Route 128,” vehicles and wildlife are seen to share a common destiny:
Crows commute, heads down,
their line of black Fords slow
but steady. A heron keeps his Bentley in low gear.
Are we talking about birds or people here? Bennett never tips her hand.
A page later, our attention is drawn to a “beautifully named” invader of the continent.
The flank of a very large animal occasionally
flexes above me, her curves
revealed as flocks of starling.
Some of the poems tackle more personal subjects. In “Eastbound on the Mass Pike,” Bennett and an unnamed companion are having a fight as they drive, and it’s all she can do to avoid “open[ing] the door / at 75 miles per hour” and bailing out.
Above us one large hawk
and another spin round each other, connected
by a quarter mile of nothing.
Roadkill is of course an unavoidable subject, mentioned in one poem and dealt with head-on in another. But I was even more impressed with the way Bennett relates driving to flying, as in “Aloft,” where a fragment of memory about a blackbird falling out of the sky is interwoven with a story about her mother being afraid that she would forget how to play the organ until she got to church, and the narrator herself confessing that driving was always like that for her — and that in some way it helped her to remember how to be human.
More than anything, I guess, that’s what I like about this book: it’s full of ambiguities. “Love Poem for a Barred Owl,” for example, might really be nothing more or less than that. For a reader with any knowledge of the environmental consequences of sprawl or the big-woods requirements of barred owls, the poem cannot fail to awaken longing and wistfulness.
You should not be
here. The dark fields you fly
over are filled with new
cellar holes and the forest is only trees
in peoples’ back yards.
But when the call recedes into the distance, even readers who know nothing about habitat loss would be forgiven for thinking that something more than fields have been hollowed out and filled with darkness.
My favorite poem in the book involves not birds but earth-bound wildlife instructing each other “On Crossing the Highway.”
Go at night.
It is easier
at night. They give off a light of
your feet won’t burn.
I particularly like the description of the median strip: “a tiny field full of / wind and roaring.”
The book ends as mysteriously as it began, with a poem involving “of all things a bluebird / in January.” I can’t really quote any more, because, as so often with understated poetry, you have to have read and absorbed the poems that precede it to fully appreciate its impact. As I’ve been typing this review, I’ve been watching of all things a snow squall in April, and thinking that anyone who pays attention to the natural world will have to become much more conversant with anachronisms and strange bedfellows in the years to come. Ten Poems About Highways and Birds is a great place to start.
Dave Bonta is a poet, editor, and web publisher from the eastern edge of western Pennsylvania. He's co-editor of qarrtsiluni, an online literary magazine, and founding member of the group blog Open Micro. He's been publishing his own material on the web since 2003, mostly at his blog Via Negativa. Publication credits include Pivot, West Branch, The Sun, Wind, frogpond, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Art Times, Studies in Contemporary Satire, Sawmill and Woodlot, Bamboo, and assorted other periodicals. Some of his poems are collected online at Shadow Cabinet, and he keeps a daily journal of prose-micropoems at The Morning Porch.