On reading Earthly Use: New and Selected Poems by Kate Bernadette Benedict, a rich and full collection spanning years of fine writing, the first impression I get is of being in the presence of what is meant by the Arabic word “imlaaq” or “giant:” a presence that fills the space of these pages and the reader’s mind/heart. This largeness is expressed in the minuscule, the mean and lowly, the physical, the everyday, the small oddities and weird delights, banalities, or even horrors that we encounter in the normal course of living – “larger issues” feel grounded in something tangible, and the mundane feels imbued with the sacred. This is the voice, the world-conjuring voice of Kate Benedict.
Of course, something large fitting into something small or slightly out-of-whack must run through a vein of humor, which Benedict threads through the serious with sleight of language. So in “A Fine Form of a Man,” we meet her father, filling his giant spirit into a less-than-perfect body:
Mention one of his manifold abnormalities—
the crooked nose wart,
the swollen ankles, streaked and raw,
the toenail humped and earthy as a truffle—
and he’d smile, his green eyes twinkling.
You’d paid him homage.
You’d noticed a fine particular
of his excellent form!
A rare endowment, is it not,
to bear your flawed flesh royally,
blubber your vesture,
fungus your rare black pearl?
And then we have another variation of fitting the grand into the not-so-grand: a sort of religious seeing, a down-to-earth visionary, as evidenced in the title poem, “Earthly Use,”:
I see God in the eyes of my poodle!
a starlet on a talk show claimed
and I laughed at her, pleased by my own scorn.
Yet what did she see in her dog’s eyes after all,
but innocence, credulity, docility,
an effortless uncritical craven love—
the typical qualities of saints
for which, thus far, I’ve found no earthly use.
This narrative is filled with both irony and honesty. The narrator turns a sharp eye on herself as well as on the starlet, laughing at both, and yet seeing the redeeming qualities of both, simultaneously validating and skeptical, in a moment of perfect and imperfect balance.
It is this almost brutal honesty mixed with grace that characterizes Benedict’s poetry. Without being religious per se, she fills her moments with that spirit of something much larger, the holiness of which is reverenced in the subtlety of a holding back, the unwillingness to compromise the inviolability of things. She takes us, in that spirit, to the whole range of human experience. To “The Polis of Sorrow:”
And for those who slog through it,
on the other side of sorrow is more sorrow.
It comes as a great wave comes, walloping,
or like a swarm of locusts, feeding,
or it infiltrates like tapeworm or eye worm.
One day you see the worm, traveling your own eye;
one day you feel the woe, gripping you in its pincers.
Cry out or pray or plead; no answers.
And so her poems more frequently brought me to tears than I’d like to admit. But not always for sorrow. There is also exaltation, as in “Expedition in Mid-Life:”
Soul and body, I set out
to climb Reach Mountain
in the August of my life,
in blue-green coastal Maine,
not knowing that the peak I rose to
would be my own peak,
my physical moment,
what the squirrel knows
when it scratches its path up the pine,
fleet-footed and single-minded,
all animal radiance.
In her poems about work and the office (from her book In Company), she imparts the same cosmic sense there, too. In “Universe Management,” “a manager mistakes his customers for the cosmos.” And in “Waiting for Elevation,” a prayer:
As we do and are done to,
in the crucible of our humdrum jobs,
give us holiness.
Grant us ecstasy even in dailiness.
It is a book any reader will treasure, as I do the one in my hands, for its way of getting to the heart of things. It runs the whole gamut: childhood, prejudice, work, seeing newborn kittens drowned in a toilet, girl fights, peace and war, politics, vacations, love, adolescence, disease, old age, and death. Love, anger, terror, sorrow. “The Stinky Lady” personifies a recurring theme of the clashing of worlds and the voice of the outcast.
I pass her as I leave for work
and when I return from work.
Sometimes I watch her on closed-circuit television,
sitting or slumping, awake in the night, as am I.
Does she ever sleep?
Does she have a daughter?
A doctor, a P.O. box, a welfare check,
anything at all
besides those layered, threadbare clothes?
Somewhere, in some pocket or recess, she keeps makeup,
that rose lipstick she wears, the black eyeliner.
“Gad, I’m beautiful,” I’ve heard her say,
peering into the cracked mirror of a broken compact.
“God, she’s horrible” is the opinion
of our co-op’s board of directors.
They will add more locks
and fine any shareholder who lets her in.
Aeaea! Aeaea! Aeaea!
The feral call will echo not from this place
but from a near place,
maybe every place.
The fact is, I see her everywhere I go…
We can still hear her wailing “down the canyons of Manhattan.” She who reminds me of “She,” Benedict’s haunting ghazal about the Shekhinah, each sher reverberating to the end: “Ever since, beyond, unto, always, until, she wanders.”
Some of her pieces are practically scripture. Like “Self as a Refuge:”
Make yourself a refuge: there is no other refuge.
Intruders will crack the strongest lock. …
Divest of excess. Dearth is also treasure.
Robbers do not loot the empty coffer. …
Otherness may mark you, some will shun you.
Be undisturbed: forbearance, your asylum.
Be tabernacle, ark to timeless patience.
Be sanctuary, chaste and ample space.
These lines (and the lovely unquoted ones), “variations on a teaching of Theravada Buddhism,” have even greater meaning and impact in the context of the other poems in this book, which range from free verse to formal.
Many of her poems exhibit the craft of form – in top form. But what you will take away is so much more. One example shows us also, again, how something vast – too vast to be contained or described in words – is nonetheless contained in this small thing, a poem, “Into His Hand:”
…cupped in sleep, you’d slip a nickel. Such
gentle stealth: not wrist or finger stirred.
His O-mouth gaped, his snoring chuffed and whirred.
That sly transaction: all you knew of touch.
Double shifts of duty on the subways
conducting a shrill orchestra of doors.
Then tanking up with Clancy’s dull-eyes boors.
Back home he’d drop right off; you’d foray
into father’s room, bearing your small coin.
You loved imagining him, wealthy-waking—-
but did he like the joke? It wasn’t spoken.
Today that quiet man lies dead. I join
you, husband, in a rite of our own making:
tucking in his cupped, cosmetic hand this subway token.
This is why I love poetry. To read a book and come away enriched – by the elusive enormity hidden, real, and dynamically participating in Benedict’s poetry. And so a woman who has seen wealth and poverty, love and contempt (the poem about that will blow you away), exaltation and inexpressible loss, comes after such fullness with this observation:
It is nothing I return to now.
A bare plank floor, a pall of dust.
And in each ball of dust, a galaxy of mites.
And in the essence of each mite: alpha, omega.
A book deserving of “vast contentment” for its author, and a takeaway for the reader of equal size.