Sheri Benning’s first full poetry collection consists of previous publications with several new pieces. Her new title, The Season’s Vagrant Light, is a beautiful and sensuous collection, addressing interpersonal relationships, place and memory and showcases Benning’s growth as a poet.
Benning’s ability to conjure vivid and beautiful images from the seemingly ordinary or mundane infuses the whole collection. Her explorations take in both the material and the tangible and intangible, meaning and underlying feeling. Consider the short but thoughtful and intricate piece “Bones in the Wings”:
When he kissed me between my shoulder blades,
I thought how the bones in the wings of birds
are as fragile as the skin of the first frost
on pasture grass- early morning,
These small, delicate and personal moments characterise the mood and tenor of The Season’s Vagrant Light, a collection that addresses birth and motherhood, familial relationships and loss. In deeply personal pieces the poet shares some of her most precious and treasured memories, and moments with her family, but also steps back and reflects in images of decay that speak to the passing of time. In “The World Open”, she recalls her experience of visiting her mother in hospital in intimate visual epiphanies filled with tenderness and pathos: “the glow of his [ Benning’s father] cigarette”, the way in which her “sister grabs my hand/ Magma-heat, her beating blood” or later “My cheekbone defines the curve of mom’s hand”.
The collection is divided into 3 parts; the first two sections are from previous publications: Earth After Rain and Thin Moon Psalm respectively. The final section is a collection of new previously unpublished poems. The organisation provides the perfect opportunity to appreciate the growth of a poet. The poems at the beginning contain lush imagery and metaphors; in “Lastochka”,
Outside the sun still
stooped on candle stubs,
the broken city
horizon. Its thorns of light tore my eyes –
Bone-light of sky
slow cry of the contrite,
Benning’s handling of fragments, beautifully rendered, play with our expectations. The Season’s Vagrant Light also contain poems which inhabit tighter shapes; these variations show Benning’s strengths, her ability to move between voices and forms with ease and a lightness of touch.
Benning’s prose poems add a different layer to her work. “Ballast” has a narrative and reflective quality, inflecting visual scenes with a sensory quality, the sounds and smells of a household stirring:
…Saturday mornings in predawn fog, coffee, toast,
kettle purring on the stove, bergamot-steam, lapping breath of
hungry slumber, her uncombed hair, animal musk of sleep.
Many of Benning’s metaphors and imagery derive from nature and often human subjects are given animalistic qualities. The womb as a cave is a recurrent image in these poems, childbirth and motherhood associated with bears emerging from the cave.
This is a superb collection, undertaken with acutely descriptive powers and rendered in powerful images. Yet The Season’s Vagrant Light also offers a tonal intimacy that comes from sharing the small and the everyday. As the collection progresses, poems become much more focussed, concise and finely honed. Highly recomended.
Hamzah M. Hussain