WINTERGREEN by CHARLES BENNETTCATI PORTER reviews
Wintergreen by Dr. Charles Bennett
(Headland Publications, 2002)
In my hand I hold a slim green volume of poetry. On the cover is an amazingly ethereal painting by Giovanni Segantini entitled “The Punishment of Lust” in which we see bare-breasted women floating through an icy channel against a backdrop of snow covered mountains. It is titled Wintergreen, by Dr. Charles Bennett.
Dr. Bennett lives and works in and about the U.K. where he runs the Ledbury Poetry Festival, “the best poetry festival in the country” according to Andrew Motion. Several years ago I was lucky enough to hear him read during Writers Week at the University of California, Riverside, near my home.
Throughout this debut, a collection of startlingly fresh lyric poems, Dr. Bennett employs language that is evocative, revelatory, and steeped in folklore that acts as mythical sinew, connecting these poems to the bone of a narrative structure that draws us through a landscape bristling with the mystery of the ordinary and the extraordinary.
The title poem evokes the bright flavor of wintergreen with crisp imagery, then seamlessly turns from the literal to the metaphorical beginning at the fourth couplet, ending the poem with:
Somewhere close at hand
you are hiding until I find you:
a remedy for solitude
a prickle of white in the wood.
These poems, saturated with a longing the reader can almost taste, seek to satiate that longing with searching. Most are oblique love poems, addressed to an un-named “you” as though letting us in on a private conversation. In “The Unicorn Diaries” the speaker claims:
I have put you together from pentagrams of sugar
and salt, from the bones of eleven mice
This invokes, in this reader’s mind, not just a snippet of pagan ritual, but the desire to create that which cannot easily be obtained. When the speaker says:
I wondered if the smell was viburnum
or phosphorus, if the feathers
were swans or doves, if the dimpled sheets
of your bed were the toad’s pale underbelly ,
or fallen hawthorn blossom,
the text seems imbued with a glow, a sweetness; a softness. The swans and doves and hawthorn blossoms, symbolic of monogamy and fidelity, are countered in the penultimate couplet by the unicorn’s slow dismembering of a wedding dress. She then runs off, leaving a bath full of milk, a trail of hoof-prints in the snow.
In another poem, “The Mermaid Room,” written in the voice of a mermaid, the speaker states:
I am the voyage you will make alone
in a small, unstable, open boat
for the rest of your life...
further reenforcing one of the major themes of this work: the deeply human quest for all that eludes us. We find ourselves adrift, almost floating from one page to the next, until we reach the final section: a series of linked poems titled “Lost.” Here, on a Wednesday night, we find the speaker wanting to learn how to spell abracadabra -- a conundrum, of course, because as he is spelling out this desire, he is spelling out the word.
This is the trick that is played as we read these simple and elegant and mysterious poems: in searching out a remedy for our own solitude, we find that we’ve had it in our hands all along.
Cati Porter is poet, artist, freelance writer, and editor of the online literary journal, Poemeleon. Her poetry can be read on the web in the current issue of kaleidowhirl, and in past issues of Poetry Southeast, Sunspinner, Banyan Review, and Poetry Midwest. She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two young sons.