Fourth Walk by Jessica Bebenek
Fourth Walk is the third chapbook by Montréal-based poet Jessica Bebenek, one of three titles put out by microlit publisher Desert Pets Press this past spring. In the opening stanzas of “Accismus,” the second poem in the collection, the poet unites two distinct and seemingly irreconcilable incarnations of the lyric voice: the personal, invested, ostensibly sincere voice that has been associated with the very word “lyric” since at least the European Romantics, and a distant, ironic voice. The poem’s title brings attention to this bifurcation. The Encyclopædia Britannica defines accismus as “a form of irony in which a person feigns indifference to or pretends to refuse something he or she desires.” Accismus, then, and Bebenek’s experiment with the mode, combines emotional investment with an affected aloofness:
I arrived in this poem
slant. Fell out. Tried again
to give this heartbreak breath,
a name. I called us
a desert, distance—opened up
the five city blocks
of our dissonance.
The poems in Fourth Walk are often urbane, their world hyper-modern (the fourth poem in the collection is titled “Shopping for Housewares at Dollarama,” the fifth, “Cosmos,” is an address to popular science superstar Neil deGrasse Tyson), and the poet certainly does not shy away from word play (see word slant cited above). The overall perspective, however, is far from distant or ironic. The speaker in “Accismus,” for example, adopts an initial emotional distance only to tear it back down, and in this, the poem takes on a certain programmatic role for the collection.
Many of the poems in Bebenek’s third chapbook, however, don’t bother with the affected refutation of “Accismus” and jump right into emotional grittiness instead. The central sequence of five poems considers the death of the speaker’s grandfather, laying claim to a poetic sincerity. The first of these, “This is the Morning of a Meaningless Sparrow at the Window,” opens on a raw, frank image stripped of any ornate artifice, favouring instead a simple progression by anaphora:
This is not Alan.
This is wincing
a shrunken man, flesh
loosed from the bone.
This is a body letting go.
This is the stench of cells
lungs rotting and exiting
spore by spore through the mouth.
This is existence
loosening its ties to reality.
This middle section follows the speaker through her grandfather’s last days, his death, and the ensuing mourning period. The linear narrative allows for significant emotional exploration, in which larger concerns about love, the body, and grief are brought into focus.
In laying claim to the emotional, the familial, and the corporal, Bebenek incarnates a feminine (and feminist) ethos …
In other poems, the tone is ludic, the voice often witty. Underneath this playfulness, however, the speaker maintains a certain gravity. The puns in “Two Night Stand” are offset by the speaker’s more serious observations:
I rode you to a finish, kiss
to close your lineless lips. What slowed
was not our hearts, not time:
the portion of my sight that caught
the space between our skins.
In Fourth Walk, Bebenek incarnates two distinct modes, or rather, a hybrid voice, terribly clever, but also terribly sincere. Consider, for example, the closing stanzas of the poem “The Garden,” which ends the suite on the grandfather’s death:
Probably somewhere a squirrel is smelling a flower or something.
Somewhere in the garden a squirrel
lay dead. Imagine this body
on the path in the flower bed:
the soft sway of its tail
in the breeze, the morning light
in its glossy almond eyes.
Wonder how life left it
From an initial nonchalance, the speaker moves to existential concerns. The first squirrel is inconsequential, but in a deft move that almost resembles a correctio, the speaker considers a second squirrel, this one dead, and compares it implicitly to her grandfather, suggesting a certain universality in the experiences of death, loss, and mourning. In laying claim to the emotional, the familial, and the corporal, Bebenek incarnates a feminine (and feminist) ethos, not unlike that found in Klara Du Plessis’s chapbook Wax Lyrical (Anstruther Press, 2015), which presents, among other things, an unflinching consideration of the female body. Like Du Plessis, Bebenek writes with a frankness and an authority that are hard to ignore.
Annick MacAskill’s poems and reviews have recently appeared in Prism, The Rusty Toque, Versal, Room, and CV2. Her poetry has been longlisted for the CBC’s Poetry Prize, longlisted for The Fiddlehead’s Ralph Gustafson Prize, and nominated for a Pushcart. She is the author of a chapbook, Brotherly Love: Poems of Sappho and Charaxos (Frog Hollow Press, 2016), and a forthcoming full-length début (Gaspereau Press, 2018).
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