Whose Cries Are Not Music by Linda Benninghoff, Lummox Press, PO Box 5301, San Pedro, CA 90733. 2011. $15.00
Reviewed by Julie L. Moore
“I come down to the dark, torn pond / to hear the geese/ whose cries are not music, but / catch in my ears,” writes Linda Benninghoff in the title poem of her first full-length book of poetry. Weaving together in five sections poems from her previous five chapbooks (published by presses like Pudding House, Finishing Line, and March Street), Whose Cries Are Not Music juxtaposes images from the natural world—yes, the geese and also deer and moose, dolphins and fish, lakes and oceans, snow and stars, sky and earth—with a melancholy longing that pervades each section. Unsentimental and plainspoken, Benninghoff’s poetry sings of pain mixed with beauty, of loss tinged with grace.
Throughout, the book is contemplative as Benninghoff raises questions over and over again about the nature of our human finiteness and of death itself. The first such question is the title of the book’s opening section: “Do the Dead?” And in this part, Benninghoff uses questions about concrete reality, such as this one about the laundry—“did you put / your blue pajamas in, the towels?” (“Snow”)—and this one about rain—“Count rain on my fingers? / It is too fine, / like each column of pain—/ my hands hold it gingerly, / till it runs through them” (“Rain”)—as bridges to cross into the metaphysical realm.
Because she does suffer, Benninghoff also asks many penetrating, spiritual questions: “Who are the angels? Do they come to us / even in death, and slowly lift us / from oblivion?” (“Reply to Rilke”). So many other inquiries likewise follow, poignant ones that reveal her suffering has made her sensitive to the sublime:
Why can’t death cover me like my own breath,
make a single sound like the sea
wave after wave
full of memory,
the fish opening their mouths on the crest?” (“Sickness”)
Sometimes, Benninghoff’s questions are rapid fire:
Do the dead stop and rest,
or do they continue? . . .
Do the dead retire to living rooms
where they drink tea and coffee?
Do they chat with
their neighbors about unruly
sunsets and the summer weather? . . .
Does their living flash
back to them
like something they cannot reach
a world behind a window
with birds flapping by
whose nests were disturbed?
Do they regret it?
Do they clutch at it
the way I clutch at a few
stars in a cloudy night-sky? . . . (“Do the Dead?”)
Sometimes, her questions slowly build with intensity as each line moves the poem forward. For instance, in “Winter,” she asks:
What is the meaning of being alive?
Is the world coming close
is it two hands
After the whiteness—
The new green shoots rising? (“Winter”)
Later, she asks the same question again, but differently, revealing new insight as she mourns over the death of her friend Mary: “What is the meaning of the encounter? / Two hands meet, / intersect. / These cold days we know we are still alive” (“After Your Death”).
These moments of intersection, of connectedness between people, form the fabric of life’s meaning for Benninghoff. The longing for relationship, for belonging, fulfilled: That is the root of her joy. Yet, fulfilled in an unlikely place, far from family (where her relationship with her father was especially tenuous), in the city, on St. Paul Street, where she once lived in a “red row house” with others, all of whom “ached with the darkness, / wanting all [they] could not have” while they pursued recovery from “depression, mixed up lives” (“St. Paul Street”).
Like the questions, the geese, and other animals, haunt the book. Geese “ma[k]e a sound as sad / as a child’s cries” (“Canada Geese”), and yet, as the title poem says, their noise is anything but melodic. Elsewhere, “geese unhinge the muscles of the sky,” like death unhinges the breath from many friends whose losses she chronicles (“After Five Years”). And crows chatter while she “name[s] the names of friends / but do[es] not find them” (“There Is No Stillness”). Deer, too, permeate her verses. They are ever-present, like beauty and pain, and apparently, as inseparable:
When I heard she got cancer
Everything seemed to
Appearing in the woods again
Stared at me as I
In that stare an eternity seemed to sit,
Death and heaven
And the stillness of God. (“Four Deer”)
In addition, the poems stir the reader to reflective thought as Benninghoff shares her fears without offering clichéd answers (without pretending to offer any answers, really), confronting similar images from various angles. For example, in one of several poems addressing winter, she pens this strikingly original stanza:
I fear the winter but the spring more.
The first crocus bloom is
terrible under the March sun.
I feel the dim shoots of change,
pushing from underneath, the soil
growing moist instead of caked and hard. (“Reply to Rilke”)
And Benninghoff reveals that her fears are of course, our fears, too: "I fear sometimes / I may wake up alone, / under a morning that has no blossoms…" (“Under a Morning That Has No Blossoms”). Naming them for us is a gift because we also know “how hard it has been sometimes, / to say a word,” know how hard it is “to stoop, lift someone / softly out of pain” because truly, it takes “a heart like stone to bear / the incompleteness of that action” (“Gulls”). This poetry is written by someone who knows that finding the words and speaking them—writing them down!—bring relief, that the words, like the gulls’ wings in her poem, “hang like hands, / and their motions reassure” all of us (“Gulls”).
Benninghoff writes that she “thinks thoughts / none can hear,” that her “thoughts edge / to the wind, / soil, leaves, sky” (“The Lake and My Childhood”), and we, her readers, are so very grateful she has let us listen to what previously we could not hear.
Julie L. Moore is the author of Slipping Out of Bloom (WordTech Editions) and Election Day(Finishing Line Press). In addition, her manuscript, Scandal of Particularity, was a finalist for the 2011 FutureCycle Press Poetry Book Prize and a semi-finalist for the 2011 Perugia Press Prize. Nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice and Best of the Net anthology, Moore has also had her poetry published in Alaska Quarterly Review, American Poetry Journal, Atlanta Review, CALYX, Cave Wall, Cimarron Review, The Missouri Review Online, The Southern Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and Verse Daily. You can learn more about her work at www.julielmoore.com.