Charles Rammelkamp Review of Expecting Songbirds by Joe Benevento

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“Expecting Songbirds”
Purple flag, 2015
$15.00, 120 pages
ISBN: 978-0944048665

The question I have about Joe Benevento’s very likeable new collection of poems is why he chose to name the volume with the hopeful title, Expecting Songbirds.  It’s the title of a poem selected from his 2003 collection, Willing to Believe.  Was it something as simple as just liking the way it sounded?  But knowing Benevento, an English professor, it must be emblematic of something in the poetry that he wants to highlight.  But what? 

Expecting Songbirds is a collection of new poems and poems selected from four previous  collections, poems spanning a third of a century, 1983 – 2015.  We get a good sense from the voice exactly who this Joe Benevento is.  Full of a cautionary nostalgia for “where I grew up, South Jamaica, Queens … the last white boy left, praying  / for amigos on streets owned by Dominicans and Puerto Ricans.” (“Mango Street Rules”), Benevento is to his corner of New York what Philip Roth is to Newark, remembering the vivid details of the Lefferts Theater on Liberty, Bruno’s Barbershop, the Q41 bus his mother took, Freddie’s Fish Market, the subway ride from Richmond Hill to Bay Ridge, and a whole cast of characters from Junior Normandia, Judge Franklyn, Jorge Irizarry, José, Fernando and Ricardo to the unforgettable Sylvia Ramos.   While Benevento has lived his entire adult life in the heart of the heart of the country, Kirkland, Missouri, he takes us back to the desires and conflicts of youth as if he were still a teenager.

Nostalgia often implies regret, or at least reflection on opportunities missed, the road not taken, and there is plenty of that in Benevento’s poems, but his sense of the past must always be viewed in the context of an idealism that’s always implicit in these selections and best expressed in the poem, “What Our Love Could Be Like,” from the collection, Holding On. The epigraph, in Spanish, comes from San Juan de la Cruz’s “Noche Oscura” and is roughly translated, “Leaving my care between the lilies, forgotten.”

If I could find a God-
like love, overpowering
emotions, physical essence
so completely I could
leave behind my caution
to a field of lilies, experience,
even for a minute that sensation
of well-being, being well
beyond the touch of guilt,
second, third thoughts,
I would adhere to that love like
the perfume of cherry blossoms
in the center of an enormous orchard,
I would be more faithful than death,
become a saint to passion,
turn your worries to flowers,
fruit, gathering, carrying
all of our delicious burdens
for the chance
to love that way.

Benevento would certainly like it to be this way (who wouldn’t?), and in poems like “My Parents’ Backyard” (from Tough Guys Don’t Write), his memory almost achieves that vision of caution suspended, doubts forgotten, even while, as we learn in the epigraph, his sister, with evident exasperation, portrays a scene of neglect and collapse in their childhood yard.  But for Benevento:

I remember soaring
on the yellow swing, surrounded
by produce, flowers, fruit,
knowing nothing
of death, decay,
as my feet seemed bathed in blue
sky, cottony white clouds.

And then there is Sylvia Ramos, the one that got away, the childhood heartthrob who, if only he’d had the moxie to pursue her, could have made his life downright Edenic.  Sylvia appears in at least seven poems, by name, always with a sense of longing, missed opportunity.  Benevento finds a Christmas card, with his daughter, in “Thirty Year Old Christmas Card from Sylvia Ramos” (from Willing to Believe). It

…says simply, “To Joe,” concludes
“Love Sylvia,” right maybe when she was starting
to, when I was still too shy to find a way
to cash in on that crush.

In “Mango Memory” (from Tough Guys Don’t Write) we learn that Sylvia is now with her fourth husband, and the poem concludes:

I can never cut into their pulpy
yellow-orange flesh, sense their tropic
perfume without thinking of Sylvia Ramos,
so many mangoes later, still pushing me
away for my own good.

Not all of Benevento’s poems are set in Jamaica, Queens, maybe not even half of the eight-odd poems collected here, but they all contain something of this endearing idealism, this wistfulness, this longing, and a good deal of humor, too.  In “New Neighbors” (from My Puerto Rican Past), for instance, Benevento is admirably restrained in conversation with the strident born-again who has just moved in next door – this is the Bible Belt, remember, Missouri.  “About every fifth sentence/she mentions the Lord.”  The poem concludes with the hilarious observations:

I wonder why He didn’t warn her about me,
not the Lord-on-my-speed-dial type,
not one to celebrate someone wanting
to pawn off her worldly wants
as God’s will.

I guess one of us just isn’t praying
hard enough.

“Who Names Their Kid Brandi?” (Tough Guys Don’t Write) and “The Bachelorette” (My Puerto Rican Past) are two others that raise a smile or a laugh.

There are also a couple of really admirable sonnets – “Driving to a Poetry Reading in My Father-in-Law’s Pick-up Truck” (My Puerto Rican Past) and “Joseph Sr.” (Tough Guys Don’t Write).

But to get back to that nagging question.  Why Expecting Songbirds? It’s from a poem about his pre-school-age son, waiting for the return of the birds to their feeder, as winter melts into spring.  So far no finches, juncos, titmice or cardinals, but the boy continues to wait.  And Benevento?

I bring him his favorite, soft, pale blue
blanket, his ladybug pillow,
understanding I have to comfort
such faith for as long as it takes,
for as long as it lasts.

For Benevento believes in the ideal, the hope, the longing for renewal (“knowing life is at least as inevitable/as dying,” as he writes in “Holding On”), and as he concludes in the final poem of the collection, “After All,” he longs

to believe my children
will figure me out sufficiently to make
fewer of these mistakes which are not
inevitable, while still maintaining sympathy
enough to keep loving at least

some silver haired vestige of my golden intent.