Penumbra by Kate Behrens, reviewed by Michael S. Begnal

Penumbra by Kate Behrens / Two Rivers Press / 978-1-909747-46-3 / 2019

Penumbra by Kate Behrens (book review)“Penumbra” is one of those words that I always think I know the meaning of, but then I realize I need to look it up again to make sure. It means “the partial or imperfect shadow outside the complete shadow of an opaque body, as a planet, where the light from the source of illumination is only partly cut off,” or, more generally, “a shadowy, indefinite, or marginal area.” There is no poem called “Penumbra” in this, Kate Behrens’s third collection, but the word works well as an all-inclusive title, for Behrens writes about the shadowy and the marginal, and the way that death or deaths bring previously indefinite feelings into stark, vivid relief.

The book’s back cover gives us the necessary background about the topics of “the poet’s bohemian childhood to the complex grief, in middle age, that follows the death of her painter father, and on to individual animals, people and even trees that are differently uprooted or burdened.” Such a blurb, however, really cannot prepare one for the poetry inside these minimally designed blue covers, as Behrens here delivers an often shockingly good performance loaded with wild, unexpected insight and innovation in modes of thought and language (which after all are inherently enmeshed). What this collection is “about”—death—is what all truly good poetry is about. It is about it all, about life in the grand sense, and especially about poetry. I am enthused by the particular ways these poems render the sense of immanence in being alive, while we are.

“I Sat in the Chair for Measuring Breaths” limns a dream or perhaps visionary state brought on by deep meditation (“measuring breaths” while seated), in which the speaker encounters the dead father. A brilliant combination of description and metaphor opens the poem—“high over the bay / of sparkling tomorrows, / scribbles in blue, primrose”—is contrasted with horrible images of a hospital stay, after which the father “surface[s] through the poisons / pleading for a drink.” It is interesting that the speaker sees herself in the third person (she is “a stranger who appeared / looking like your daughter”). There is a mystic, even ritual feel to this poem where the vehicle for contact with the dead is the chair that is also the site of a deliberate practice of internal cultivation.

Numerous birds appear in this collection. What are they? Messengers, transmigrating spirits perhaps, and/or real birds. One particular bird poem that I like a lot here is “Thrush.” The thrush in this poem is perhaps the thrush in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring,” only now the “same just older thrush, / thrust upwards from sheer. . . / sheerer. . .” (Behrens’s deployment of ellipses is perhaps a revival of a usage that seemed to have gone out of fashion). There is a similar kind of intense soundplay to Hopkins (“thrush”/“thrust”) and a similar attempt to grasp a fleeting joy—Behrens’s poem ends with the thrush’s return, provoking “Ebullience. It wipes us out” (Behrens’s emphasis). But before we get there, there are images of “clear silver branches” and the unexpected metaphor and assonance of the tree’s “roots a papoose of words”—unexpected because “papoose” is an old Native American (specifically, Narragansett) word that has mostly dropped out of parlance, and so it seems weirdly anachronistic. But sound suggests unexpected linkages in meaning, before there is the sudden, aforementioned return of the thrush, “wiping out” the reader as well.

“On the Edge of the Field” is the quintessential poem of this collection (in my of course subjective view), a ten-line masterpiece nearly perfect in its diction and in its various moves through ideas and meaning, effectively rendered by enjambment, consonance, and slant-rhyme. Its sheer surreality contradictorily conjures up a “real” field, with birds (again) and a cow giving birth to “her fly-ridden calf”—though she does not then merely lick the calf; she “rasps dry” the calf in the field that is “bubble-strewn.” All of life is here, including “diasporic cadences,” “a shitter / in plain view” (what?), “rabbit machinery,” and the “sounds of honey, gathering.” If I were to liken this to another poet’s work, I would say it is something similar to what Nathaniel Tarn does at times, but Behrens is so original, her use of language so unexpected, that I feel many of us could learn from a poem like “On the Edge of the Field.”

This collection is divided into five sections, each with a slightly different emphasis. For example, section IV is mostly composed of contemporary observations of people on city streets and even in poetry-Business Relationships situations (launches, readings), but as usual rendered in such a way, poetically, as to make the familiar unfamiliar. In “Girl on a Motorway Bus,” the subject looks out the window at “a scumbled bird-hued hill / over acid rape.” Great lines abound. But instead of trying to account for them all, I will look at one more individual piece, from the final section V, titled “The Rabbit I Tamed Yawns.”

First, one wonders, is it even possible to tame a wild rabbit? It must be, but I see rabbits from time to time when out walking, and they run away as soon as I try to talk to them, so the idea that there is a tamed rabbit is immediately arresting. Then, what is the situation with this rabbit? The first line cues us in that it is all a matter of great importance: “She opens doors on intimate designs,” which leads to imagery such as “red stained urine of hard winters” and “rotten crab apple burnt through snow.” In the second stanza, “She tucks away untidy bones” (but rabbits are not carnivores? this is interesting) and exhibits “silver guard hairs” that “shiver round her”; she has “Egyptian eyes [that] glint river-black.” The conclusion is especially effective: “Reverberations rock and shift, / reconfigure her.” Any poem’s last line is going to carry extra weight, but Behrens adds further emphasis by making it the sixth line of the second stanza, whereas the first is five lines. The eye at first seeks symmetry between the two stanzas; there is only symmetry (of “five” lines each) if the last line is mentally set apart. And of course, to look at that last line, the “reverberations” reconfigure all of us. That, I believe, is the overarching thematic concern of Behrens’s collection.

About Michael S. Begnal

Michael S. Begnal is the author of Future Blues (Salmon Poetry, 2012) and Ancestor Worship (Salmon Poetry, 2007), as well as the chapbook The Muddy Banks (Ghost City Press, 2016). His work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as Notre Dame Review, Poetry Ireland Review, Scoundrel Time, Empty Mirror, Thinking Continental: Writing the Planet One Place at a Time (University of Nebraska Press, 2017), and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has an MFA from North Carolina State University. You can find him at mikebegnal.blogspot.com and on Twitter @Michael_Begnal.

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