Stripped down to only its domestic battle scenes, life is bloodier, more depraved and more terrifying than it is in real time. The violence and trauma of rape, child abuse, battery and addiction relentlessly advance through Roxanna Bennett’s The Uncertainty Principle without pause or breath or respite. The first half of the book is particularly harrowing as poems about sexual exploitation (“I’m everything you’ve wished for. You’re everything I suffer”) are followed by poems about vicious patriarchs (one “bounced the baby until his neck felt soft”), which are followed by poems about mental illness and hospitalization (“This one (symptom) naked in snow, / points the pistol of his fingers to his temple / blows out the hidden sickness”).
A formalist, Bennett gives us clutches of sonnets and pantoums that conspire to create an oppressive atmosphere; as the content is pushed tight against the bars of these containers, so too do readers experience distress within the confines of the verses’ unabating strictures. We are in Bennett’s custody along with her described victims; no light reaches us. And the methodical regularity of repetition, shape and rhyme scheme ratchets up the feeling that the brutality represented here is systemic, cold, institutional. Domestic violence and intergenerational trauma are fixtures of a broken system. Bennett forces us to look at our social order for what it is: this is the kind of patriarchy that kills.
But there’s another side to Bennett’s work: her speakers are various, with a variety of experience, yet they share things in common that provide some antidote to the deep pessimism at the heart of the collection. These characters are courageous, self-reflexive, wily, and they’re pissed—“I won’t be numbered among your dead, / bloody stains on a marriage bed.” I said the opening pieces are about sexual exploitation and that isn’t strictly true. While “The Bottle Genie,” a particularly fine poem, indeed spins metaphors for the predator/prey relationship (“I’m what you push your fists into when dailiness makes you / homicidal, the number you dial when you’re suicidal”), other pieces embrace an assertive, promiscuous speaker, one who rejects Leonard Cohen for her “own frayed belt of men, mangled, notched into nothing, / too many names, a rosary of ruddy-cheeked boys, a few Gregs, / many Mikes.”
The ferocious, sexy poems in Bennett’s first section, “The Dominant O,” are the triumph of the collection due to a masterful control over tone. A poet with formal virtuosity births voices with command over the speech act, wresting narrative authority from the abusers who have terrorized them. In keeping with the overall grim tone of the book, Bennett balances the self-actualization of her characters with the danger they are in: in spite of their moments of power, they remain vulnerable to the memory of past abusers and to men who would use them still. They’re often damaged and numb even as they embrace new carnal encounters. In “Hook-up,” for example, the speaker chases relief from “the system’s blunt routine” by taking a lover into an alley. She’s turned on, “slick in her jeans,” but she “[s]imultaneously inhabits a blank gap; between / thrust, grunt, silence transmits a spreading signal, adapts / itself to disgust.” These women are self-determinedly sexual, but they’re also “stalked and discarded,” the “throb[s] / [cut] from hearts,” their loves leaving them for dead.
The poems thus illuminate the inner lives of survivors, who are alone and trying to find true companionship, who are struggling under the weight of their upbringings and their doomed loves. The result is an atmosphere that is disturbing, haunting, and thorny rather than refreshing or uplifting. This is deliberate and it contributes to a nuanced, complex emotional landscape that leaves me excited about where Bennett’s voice will take her after this effective and affecting debut.
Brecken Hancock’s first book of poems, Broom Broom (Coach House, 2014), won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was named by The Globe & Mail’s Jared Bland as a debut of the year. She lives in Ottawa.
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