By Charles Rammelkamp
The themes of regret and longing are so potent in Joe Benevento’s work. From his rueful observations about his father’s life and mortality in “Stay-at-Home Dad” (“At 89, a cane reliant diabetic”) to his memory of a girl he had a crush on in school (“Marilyn Meshak”), you can feel his heart aching:
Maybe she lives like me an anonymous life,
maybe she died young and is all the more my ghost,
either way, we are as far from our days
sharing a school building, a bus stop,
a neighborhood as it’s possible to be,
more time past only making my dreams more
redundant, pained, to wake up and uncover
how I’ll never tell her
what I felt, and, so, still feel,
how I’ll never know her, and, so
somehow making everyone unknowable,
unreachable, whether awake, alone
The poet recognizes this penchant for grief and remorse, with some ambivalence. “Miami Night with Marjorie and Todd” concludes:
a suspension of my disbelief in the magical
realness of my future possibilities, from this city
with too much music, friendship and night
life for me to insist any longer
on my regret.
Life is so fleeting; how do we not regret its losses? Indeed, this is so succinctly spelled out in his sonnet, “Loser,” which begins with an epigraph from Whitman’s “Song of Myself”: “Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.”
The qualities of loss often conceal
how winning is a limit and a lie,
since human nature would much rather deal
with touchdown dances than with kids who cry
their disbelief we just want them to try
their best. They know better, they know too well
winning gets parades, applause, proud eyes
that say well done, instead of damn it, hell,
how did you miss that pitch, that pass, oh, well,
we’ll practice more, or send you to a camp,
some place where they do all they can to sell
you on the notion that there’s just one stamp,
one way to court the dark drug of winning,
to hide how life is loss from the beginning.
And so we feel the sting of his awareness that nothing is permanent, in another poem prefaced by a line from Whitman, this time from “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d”: “In the day, in the night, to all, to each, / Sooner or later delicate death.” In this poem Benevento is walking his ancient dog on the rain-dampened streets that are crawling with earthworms; it is his father’s 91st birthday, and the poet is “derailed by the near / certainty Dad will never see ninety-two.” The dog’s imminent mortality weighs on him as well; “and a tear trickles down for my dad, my dog, / myself, even for the worms I may be running over.”
As in his 2015 book, Expecting Songbirds, another sweetheart from his youth, Sylvia Ramos, makes an appearance and provokes his yearning. Even more than Marilyn Meshak, Sylvia’s memory fills him with longing and a sense of missed opportunities. In “After Driving to See Sylvia in Nebraska,” the poet encounters his ex-flame from his youth in Queens, a “mixture of beguiling beauty tempered by modesty,” and struggles with his feelings of what might have been but resolves “to remain // the faithful knight to her maddening Dulcinea,” a reference to Don Quixote’s ideal in Cervantes’ novel.
Another kind of regret is humorously expressed in “After I Realized I Didn’t Have Enough Money,” a poem about college tuition for his children, in which his longing and lament come back to haunt him when his daughter wants to go away to college: “she has spent her first eighteen years listening / to my nostalgia for a larger world.” Call it poetic justice! The poem’s ending likewise brings a smile:
…I’m wishing I was bankrupt
enough to become an administrator,
or foolish enough to believe in the lottery,
some other magic means to protect my long
cherished claim money doesn’t matter.
There are eight “After” poems in this collection (“After Zoraida Martinez Saved Me from Divine Word Seminary” is an example); the very construction of such a sentiment, regarding an event in the rearview mirror, is likewise a trigger for misgivings and second guesses.
Poems, such as “No Competition,” “‘I’m never going to dream of fairies’,” and “After Math” are ones in which Benevento’s heart aches for his children, their expectations and future, let alone their well-being. In “Unsettled” he observes, he “never underestimates / the odds of disease, accident, or, at least / the predicted contempt of their teenaged years.”
But in the final poem, “Physical Therapy,” the poet acknowledges his good fortune in the midst of all the inevitable loss that life entails. He’s getting help from a young therapist for “a right ‘shoulder impingement’” whose “shooting pain” is bearable, but in the long-run, compared to his siblings and mother-in-law, afflicted by various cancers, he’s been pretty lucky. He concedes:
I can live with the pain, or better still,
avoid it almost entirely, if I remember
evermore not to reach too far above
or for anything behind.
Keep your expectations low, and don’t go rooting around in the past for things you can never change? Is this the cautionary message? Physician, heal thyself!
You can find the book here: http://www.unsolicitedpress.com/store/p212/playgroundJB.html
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.