Guest Review: Begnal On Behrens

The Beholder

Kate Behrens is a poet active in Reading, England, and was runner-up in a contest run by the journal Mslexia.  A slim volume (41 pages), The Beholder (Two Rivers Press, 2012) is her first collection.  Never having read her work before, some of the blurbs on the back cover set alarm bells off in my head.  There were references to “fleeting moments between people”, “celebration”, “the ways children can heal”, and “nature’s capacity to nourish”.  Please, not another poetry collection about “healing” and “nourishing”!, I thought to myself.  Then I actually began reading Behrens’s poetry and was stunned by it.  Thankfully her work is nothing at all like what this sort of promotional copy suggests.

Instead of dull personal narratives about this or that event in the poet’s “life”, intended as direct transposition, Behrens lets the words on the page shimmer forth with their own power and beauty.  Like a painting by Cézanne or van Gogh, the “subjects” of these works are not really the things themselves, but rather the ways in which they are interpreted, felt, rendered through a medium (paint in the former examples, language for Behrens).  The collection’s title, then, is an apt one.  To be fair to the blurb writers, there is a reference to the poet’s “oblique” methods, and Brian Patten notes that “her language is idiosyncratic” — yes, and happily so.  Without knowing a thing about the poet or her “Italian childhood” (another blurb reference), I found the experience of reading The Beholder to be refreshing and fun.

The collection’s title also implies some degree of imagism or that there is a visual aspect to it.  There is that here, and more.  It is not Pound’s pure imagism, where the image is really meant to stand for nothing but itself, unassailed by figurative twists.  Behrens’s imagism is often both visual and metaphorical, as in the poem “Washing-line in Segovia,” which begins with the lines, “A washing-line of blue notes/ excavated from blue ground/ in blue and steepening dusk. . .”  The image here is “presented” immediately and unadorned, yet it is clear that different levels of blue might stand for different moods or modes on different spatial levels (the footnotes, which confirm this, I felt were wholly unecessary).  It is also noteworthy that the dusk is “steepening” (rather than, say, the more obvious “darkening”).

Often, the mode in this collection is abstract, as in the poem “Somebody’s Lilies” (reproduced here in full):

This could be the layered paper
swaddling wasps
or a wood in Norway
or a house of cards

you pass a plump partridge
on a white plate

somebody’s lilies
are extruding a hormone
under night’s tank

I’m forking the meat through her phantom hair

What is “this”?  We don’t know.  Something made of paper, at least, or something white.  But it doesn’t matter if we know, because the poem operates on a logic of its own, which is just as pleasing if not more so than if we were to know.  Then suddenly the reader (“you”) is impelled into the poem.  I the reader don’t really pass a partridge, but the alliteration of the ‘p’ and ‘pl’ words here is pleasant (as were the many sound devices in the previous stanza).  Then, suddenly, lilies.  How does that make any sense?, the literal-minded reader might ask.  Who cares?  Lilies are usually white, though; I know that much.  And the fact that they “are extruding a hormone” — “under night’s tank”, no less! — is an amazing olfactory image.  And “night’s tank” — what a surprising phrase.  Another surprise all of the sudden: “I” (suddenly there’s a speaker bursting into this too) “’m forking the meat through her phantom hair”.  I don’t know that I can sufficiently explicate this line, but I will say that I think it’s brilliant.  Certainly, “Somebody’s Lilies” verges into the surreal, and I mean this in the poetic tradition of André Breton or René Char or Charles Henri Ford, rather than as a shorthand for random weirdness.  This tradition is apparent in other poems as well, such as “Disguised as the Air” and “The Thrush” (which has the line, “a whale burning the oceans’ tubes”).

I also like Behrens’s use of punctuation and syntax.  In some of her poems there is no punctuation at all, and I think in poetry there often doesn’t need to be (especially not full-stops/periods), though many poets seem to use it unquestioningly.  But poetry is not prose, where such markers are needed in order to signal how a sentence or series of sentences are to be read in narrative sequence.  In this poetry, anyway, narrative is agreeably absent, in favor of brief iterations of vision.  Behrens often lets line breaks do the work of a kind of punctuation, so that her lines act as units of thought or image rather than prose sentences.  Even where she does deploy punctuation, lines are still often enjambed or crushed together, adding a further dimension to the act of reading.

Behrens’s “oblique” and “idiosyncratic” language, coupled with her concern with childbirth (at least that is one of the “subjects” in this collection) also links her, at least to my mind, to the work of Mina Loy.  Perhaps not as polemic or sustained as Loy (none of the pieces in The Beholder exceed a page in length), Behrens nonetheless summons something of the graphic intensity of Loy’s “Parturition” in the collection opener “Mixing Our Metaphors”: “We lay in the sliced shreds/ of my long pink t-shirt/ on the sweat-soaked sheet. . .”  In virtually every poem here, whether or not the event is as intense as this, the art-making itself always is.  “Night Ceiling Gels” (which perhaps vies for best poem title of the collection), despite its ostensibly mundane trigger (I guess it is “about” stains or patterns on a ceiling?), ranges from “long-ago herds” to “unsteady girls disgorged/ into the realms of waiting men” to “the skeleton leaves” to “Ford Cortinas” and beyond.  Be these dreams or paranoias, the astute reader will recognize that a genuinely compelling artist has entered our midst.

Michael S. Begnal’s poetry collections are Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), Mercury, the Dime (Six Gallery Press, 2005), and The Lakes of Coma (Six Gallery Press, 2003). His new collection, Future Blues, is due from Salmon this year.  His poems, essays and reviews have appeared internationally in numerous journals and anthologies. He was editor of the Galway, Ireland-based literary magazine The Burning Bush as well as the book Honeysuckle, Honeyjuice: A Tribute to James Liddy (Arlen House, 2006).


frederic Pierre said…
This sounds an interresting book and the crit is rather "extraordinaire". The poem looks good, a slight reminder of the seventies in style,the text and phrasing.I do like Rene Char and the friends he used for illustrating his books.
Still the poem does "sound" good in the reading.
Best wishes to the Lady in Oxfordshire.
frederic Pierre (artist in Provence, not a poet).
Mike Begnal said…
Frederic, Thanks for your comment. Much appreciated. --MB

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