Happinesswise. Jonathan Bennett. ECW Press. Toronto, Ontario. 2018.
Today's book of poetry is quite willing to enter Happinesswise as our next choice for the newest English word. Why? Because Jonathan Bennett says so.
Back in January of 2015, Today's book of poetry wrote about Jonathan Bennett's excellent Civil and Civic (ECW, 2011). You can see that link below.
If Today's book of poetry had been in operation when Mr. Bennett wrote Here is my street, this tree I planted (ECW, 2004), we probably would have had something to say about that as well. The truth is that Today's book of poetry just likes the way Bennett gets to things and once there, we like what he does.
Happinesswise is several books in one. The first go round is about all sorts of universal themes, love, death, happiness, sorrow, and is played out among the hardware and antiseptic hallways of hospitals, the low moan of medication.
Bennett hails from Keene, Ontario. Today's book of poetry has never lived there, but I did play hockey there as a young man. Today's book of poetry grew up mostly in Peterborough, but, I will reveal that I spent some formative time in the great metropolis of Warsaw, Ontario. All of that to say that Bennett makes us feel quite at home in the familiar landscape of our youth.
Patient No. 1
Do I? Admit to the neighbour I need help?
She'll offer impatience, weak Earl Grey.
So instead I admit myself, impatiently,
thrown into that timeworn, off-grey ward
whose Hospitalists chart my chest rattle.
I suffer no fear. I am the recipient
of patient-centered, evidence-based care.
This promise made to me all alone,
on a wipe-able poster that's reinforced
by a tenderly chosen stock photo paired
with a font inspired by Cezanne's cursive
I curse the machine drone, the urine sting,
the sour C. diff smell, the pump throb,
the infection control, latex-free signage.
Only last March, the lake icy, gin and tonics,
tinkling wind chimes, your still-beautiful clavicle.
I presented to the ER with severe pain
in my lower, well—does it really matter
where this began? Things have evolved.
Let's keep up, I say. But he taps my gut.
Read the chart, I bark. He does, mumbles
left flank, I am deemed incapacitated.
Last summer I was myself. That recently,
really, independent, with plans in place.
I golfed. Was a snow bird. I hear this,
my diminished life as a chart note,
a biography no one considered worthy—
is it ever too late for morbid thoughts?
You dear, are elsewhere, gone in that
peculiar way—off the wall, in a facility
with advanced dementia. At the lake
last summer your dress removed one
afternoon for no reason and we stared
at each other until we remembered
the way it was done, by us. That was the last
time our bodies knew their lines. The first?
Another century. Same lake. We giggled—
poke, poke, poke. The results
of investigations indicate—no wait for it,
I require a biopsy of the ilium lesion
for a definitive diagnosis, but a working
one: metastatic renal cell carcinoma.
It chisels into me, their grave tones,
but I joke, adding colourful grace notes—
they do not know, I know, the meaning.
Before a doctor dies he becomes a person—
mortality being a pre-requisite for death,
which occurs to me in a postscript thought.
My goals: pain relief, symptom control. Not curative.
I do not speak, but am understood by blinking coyly
at said plan. My son has arrived. He is a doctor too.
He has a new wife. Younger, a prototype
of the previous, more luxurious version.
Their language is useless here because
I still understand it, even if I can no longer—
The resident's mind is so fresh it's still setting.
What are the words for that thing I wish to pray?
I try say to him, and he leans in,
I try to whisper to him: Overdose me.
He looks aghast. Did I manage to make a sound?
He says, what I am about to share is going
to be difficult to hear. My son and the resident
are speaking. I am still, listening. The cancer.
Likely metastatic. Left kidney. Multiple locations.
My next steps are to determine I cannot walk.
My son's first steps—across the lichen at the lake.
Radiation might be an option for symptom control.
It is not a cure. They discuss goals for my care.
My son takes the news hard. He is emotional.
He is relying on his child-wife for comfort,
condolence. I use my eyes to indicate Kleenex
without meaning, it has the tone of reprimand.
Comfort is assured. Remembering questions
can be hard. Try to write them down.
Pain and symptom teams get involved
and former colleagues in Radiation
Oncology and Orthopedics are called upon.
Or maybe they are just visitors. They see
themselves in me. Smile. The first week
my agony begins to modestly improve,
I am told. I walk a length of the hospital
ward with much discomfort, I am told.
Options for care outside of the hospital
are discussed. I am told. I cannot return
home. I will not be cared for at my sons's
home—for a reason never addressed.
I wish to be reunited with my wife,
but I cannot speak. A social worker
I was routinely rude to intuits what
no one else can and applies for spousal
reunification on compassionated grounds.
I apologize to her all night.
The resident finished his rotation today.
Dictated, in all seriousness, into his small
machine final thoughts for his Palliative Care
The patient is optimistic
he might be discharged to his demented wife.
There is nothing like opening a book of poetry and feeling instantly at home. Today's book of poetry only had to hear the brief mention of an Otonabee hill to be geographically settled. That and the smell of hot oil and white vinegar that lets you know you are near a chip truck. Mr. Bennett has that knack of hitting buttons.
Jonathan Bennett is interested, as the title suggests, in our search for happiness, but he is equally curious about the other result.
Bennett isn't afraid to let us in to the personal and a suite of poems about his autistic son is as jarring and sad as it is beautiful, hopeful and wise. Bennett will find the joy when needed.
Lately, he says lemon squares a lot
and at night with his service dog
hard pressed to him, he admits worries:
I don't know what I'm supposed to do.
Where am I supposed to be right now?
Sleep wind. His oscillating fan is Larry.
There is an entire imaginary world
that he develops alongside this one.
It's a logical realm that makes sense,
a refuge from fluorescent bulb flicker
and persistent AdeleMaroon5Bieber
folded into every wrinkle of existence.
He asks: Do cyclops blink or wink?
We laugh and I ask him to tell me
the riddle of Theseus's ship again
because I can't get enough of him
charting his way through a paradox.
And to hear him argue the case
for Bigfoot is to doubt everything
you thought was true in the universe.
Not a day goes by that I don't ask
what the word he just used means.
Lately, he says lemon squares a lot.
I know why he adores Coltrane and Dali.
Somewhere in his new world a city
is being mapped and named and whole
boroughs intricately sketched,
creatures are homed, or else they war.
All this while he thinks of a video game,
turns over some science he's trying
to solve, and four or five others, unrelated
items in a simultaneous, asynchronous
moment that we partly share, he and I
laughing at the bat of a cyclopean eye.
Today's book of poetry just wants to remind our dear readers that we are not a service for reviews, exactly. Today's book of poetry functions as an appreciation society. Our purpose is not to devine the nuts and bolts of literature, but to share our joy in poetry.
Our morning read was held in the office, as it almost always is, but this morning's poetry office was a quiet place. All our guests have scattered back to their points of departure. Hilary and Daemon are back in Toronto, Cranky Eric is back in school. Erica will undoubtedly be either sleeping, reading or in class. Stephen, our darling K's father, will be on a plane somewhere over the Atlantic when you are reading this. Where Freida, Tomas, Thomas, Maggie, Pistol and Lucy are is anyone's guess.
Luckily Kathryn, our Jr. Editor, dependable as ever, was able to check the stacks and bring out the previously mentioned Civil and Civic, and our copy of Here is my street, this tree I planted (just an aside, but Today's book of poetry loves this title so much). This morning's read became a Bennetthon.
That day we lost the hound down the way,
watched it bound tongue-slack, freedom-struck
beyond the yellow wood and lichen-crusted
boulders of pink shield rock and undergrowth.
That day we took chances, pressed on.
That day made no difference, even as you
plunged into a field of bemused heifers,
cursing all dogs, as it rolled in steaming dung.
That day we bushwhacked calling its name,
calling it names, until it returned
with a meaty bone that looked like a rib.
A last laugh that day, when glibly
you said, the person who nailed the sign
This Road is Unassumed, has trust issues.
Today's book of poetry wanted to send a shout-out to our painter friend Blair Sharpe. He's been living his own set of poems lately and we appreciate all he's done for us here at Today's book of poetry.
We all need good examples in this life. Jonathan Bennett's Happinesswise is a fine poetry example.
Our friend Blair, just a fine example.
ABOUT THE AUTHORJonathan Bennett is a poet and novelist. He is the author of seven books, the most recent of which is the book of poems Happinesswise (ECW Press, 2018). His previous work includes the critically acclaimed novels, The Colonial Hotel, Entitlement and After Battersea Park, along with two collections of poetry, Civil and Civic, and Here is my street, this tree I planted, and a collection of short stories, Verandah People, which was runner up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Jonathan is a winner of the K.M. Hunter Artists’ Award in Literature.
Jonathan Bennett’s other writing has appeared in many periodicals and journals including: the Globe and Mail, Best Canadian Poetry, The Walrus, Southerly, Cordite, and Antipodes. Born in Vancouver, raised in Sydney, Australia, Jonathan lives near Peterborough, Ontario.
“Bennett’s artistry lies in his ability to create poems that shatter complacency with bricks of loaded language.” — Quill & Quire on Civil and Civic
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