What Lightening Spoke: New & Selected Poems 

Robert Bensen. Bright Hill Press, 2022. 292 pages. $18.95.

What Lightening Spoke cover image

By Indira Ganesan

For those readers in search of a good book of poems to dip into on the summer hammock, or pack in a beach hamper, Robert Bensen’s new collection of poetry is the ticket. The cover, by artist Charles Bremer, evokes a jar of fireflies in its depiction of an iridescent jar of mustard. The poems themselves are moments of illumination, ranging from quiet memories and assessments to startling epiphanies that surprise the reader in their wisdom. We are offered in thick volume a sheaf of new poems, along with a selection from six previous volumes and a few translations. 

I found the new poems most appealing, as if I was listening to an astute observer of both nature and human nature. A poem written for a wedding anniversary is situated in a rain forest, follows a trek, and observes ferns “spread their fronds burst after burst/ and dry segmented trunks raise their serrated crowns.” It ends:

…love grew

A forest too, in time, much more than we’re given.

Now who isn’t ravished for a plate of flying fish,

Plantains, rice and beans, a little hot sauce,

A bottle of Red Stripe to cool off?”

Many of the new poems are dedicated to friends, and they carry a special urgency.  “Red Tail, an Epitaph” relays the close encounter of a hawk:

“You meet each other’s gaze

in mutual, astonished arrest. Nothing you can do

but add this moment to the forever your mother made you for

for whatever your heart holds fast.”

Perhaps you will search the sky for an overhead raptor, watch a robin dart away with a morsel for her young, as you are reminded how sudden are our interactions with wildlife. Are we not all continually surprised, stopped in our tracks, when a rabbit hops out of the grass, where unknown to you, it had been hiding all the time? This is how poetry affects our lives—causing us to pause a bit, reconsider what we know. Unlike some poets who might chastise us to do more with our lives, or others who are only happy to hold up the past film of their suffering for mutual regard, this volume is like settling with a friend who can be counted on for a strong cup of coffee and a fine crumb cake while imparting some needed advice and observations.

There are poems inspired by Edgar Degas’ dancers, love poems, and ruminations on childhood. As a reader, you can pick and choose, find a selection to read for a while, and return to later in the week. It is an impressive volume and makes for fine reading. 

Novelist Indira Ganesan was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa at Vassar College. Her books include The Journey (Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), Inheritance (Alfred A. Knopf, 1998) and As Sweet As Honey (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013).