I first encountered Jayne Benjulian in 2013, through a project initiated by Gabrielle Calvocoressi at The Los Angeles Review of Books. The idea was to provide emerging writers with a much-needed platform, a helping hand with our careers—so difficult to develop for writers who are not yet established in a particular genre. Each writer was asked to pitch an essay and then paired up with another writer in the group as a way of providing mutual support through the process of writing, revising, and editing. I was understandably nervous about this. I was sure that the term “emerging writers” referred to young people, just beginning to poke their heads above ground into the big, wide world of writing.
I did not fit that description. Almost fifty, I had switched from a long career in journalism at Newsweek Magazine to the world of poetic translation and literary essays. As it turned out, serendipity was at work, arranging my perfect match; and I was paired with Jayne Benjulian.
Benjulian always loved poetry and wrote it from an early age. But she began her career as a writer of commercials in New York, and then moved on to become a Silicon Valley speechwriter at Apple. She became a successful writer of other peoples’ words, researching their goals and shaping their ideas into coherent presentations. During that same time, I was busy researching and writing for Newsweek’s Middle East bureau in Jerusalem. Like Benjulian, I recorded people’s voices and then listened attentively, trying to catch the pitch of their voices, their moments of hesitation when they paused and looked away.
More than anything, I wanted to know what made people tick: I would take copious notes, not just on what they said but what they wore, how relaxed or tense they were, and whether there seemed to be a subtext beneath their words. When I read over my notes, though, When writing a political story about a Palestinian woman who had lured a young Israeli boy to his death, for example, I found myself more interested in her difficult family background than her political or nationalistic tendencies; When I visited a hardcore Jewish outpost in the West Bank, I was fascinated by the sweeping Biblical landscape, the green hills and the clumps of wild hyssop that grew there. It was far more compelling than the clichés of the settlers there. I had written poetry sporadically before launching into journalism, and I could not quite shake off this urge to delve deeper into the minds of the people I met in Palestine and Israel, as well as my own.
Benjulian wrote poetry from an early age. In a recent email, she writes me this:
I cannot determine the beginning of poetry—it seems as if I was always writing. Certainly by my teens I knew what I was writing were poems. I published several, maybe less than a dozen, before going to work at Apple. Then the great silence–though I would not want to imply that it was painful—it wasn’t. I loved the challenges at Apple and in Silicon Valley, which is why, although I planned to live in California for two years, I stayed more or less three decades. I was in a constant state of learning—I thought of it as post-graduate school.
At Apple, Benjulian moved through the world of technology, entrepreneurship, marketing strategy, finance, collaboration, PR, branding, and negotiation. “I sharpened my ability to listen and to turn things around and examine them from alternative perspectives. Certainly I learned—everyone learned from Steve Jobs—that the customer does not always know what she wants before she sees it.” She quit Apple in 1990, shifting into theater. There, too, she perfected the art of helping others discover what they really wanted to say—and how to say it eloquently.
I wanted to study theater three hundred and sixty degrees: how do actors learn to do what they do? How does dialogue work? The art of asking questions, something that came naturally to me, is the key skill for a dramaturg, at least the way I practice dramaturgy, and, not by coincidence, the question is one of the most critical elements in the way I wrote speeches—and, increasingly, in the way I consider poems.
As a dramaturg and director of play development at Magic Theater in San Francisco, Benjulian worked hard to sculpt other peoples’ words. But, she said, she became increasingly aware of her own urge for self-expression—something I was also feeling, sitting at my computer screen on the other side of the world.
While working in theater, I began to write poems again. I do think working with artists in lighting, set, sound design, playwriting and directing had a huge influence on my outlook. These artists had made careers with the art at the center of their working lives. Theater is tactile, aural, visual in multiple dimensions. Perhaps it was the opposite of a “perfect storm”: artistic content, clarity about what I wanted to write, the pressure of time. I set my course and did not deviate from it.
To tell you the truth, beginning as a poet in mid-life is nearly impossible unless you have had an ear for language all your life. Without my early experiments in poetry and fascination with the rhythm of speech, I could not have done it.
By 2010, Benjulian was already writing seriously in her own voice, poems towards what has become her debut collection, Five Sextillion Atoms, published earlier this year by Saddle Road Press.
We have never met in person, but I feel as if we have. We spoke for the first time on Skype—she from the sunny dining room of a farmhouse in Sunderland, Massachusetts, me from the office of my own home nestling in the Ella valley of Israel. From the window of her house, Benjulian could see corn, beans, garlic, cabbage and strawberries grown by the nearby farmer; a forest surrounds my house, and in the lower slopes there are vineyards and melon fields.
In those early conversations, we mostly discussed the long and winding roads we each have taken into creative writing. She told me about her rigorous process of revision, how every word counts, every word is weighted down, no matter how simple the image, and how she often slices off the first or last line from a poem for greater impact. She does exactly this in “Clean,” a deliberately imperfect sonnet about being punished by her aunt for using a curse word:
What was the word I can’t remember?
What words did I know at nine?
Plenty with a father like mine.
As Benjulian writes in a poet’s note published in Women’s Voices for Change, she ultimately decided to slice off the final line—which revealed the punishment she received for cursing, her mouth washed out with soap and water—of this beautifully rhymed sonnet in order to amplify the sharp, unexplained punishment she received. The reader is left bewildered, dangling, like the nine-year old Benjulian.
The poems in Five Sextillion Atoms are rich with economy and precision. Their lines are taut, compressed. There is no room for sentimentality. In Benjulian’s book, the white space speaks volumes, the clipped, sharp lines and simple diction linger in the mind of the reader. Each word has been held up to the light, magnified and deeply considered. This, in fact, is the ethos behind the title—how an entire world is magnified in a single drop of water. What could be simpler, or more complex?
In the opening poem, Kaddish, Benjulian provides what seems to me her own ars poetica:
“You will always be,” she wrote—
the rest will wash away.
Benjulian carefully picks words that will endure, that will not be washed away in the currents of time. She frequently uses seemingly banal dialogue, snippets of conversations that take on deeper meanings in the context of the poem. In an email response to an essay I was writing back in 2013 for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Benjulian wrote “Yes! Yes! To the inclusion of grounding and context.” Now, reading her poems, I see how grounded her own writing is, how she juxtaposes her own personal story of her parents’ death, her stepbrother’s suicide, her own struggle to understand the world, into the larger frame of public history.
One of my favorite poems in this collection is “Ode to Steven”, a brief but dense revisiting of her stepbrother’s death.
My stepbrother pretended to hypnotize me,
I pretended enchantment. In this way
we touched. Each year his mother reminded
me, today is the anniversary
of his death, don’t you forget.
Ah, Rita, I cannot forget the year,
abandoned Hobbits on the shelf, the CNN
pundit who was his high school friend.
Dear, she wrote, could have, will never, himself.
On-screen, lines disappear from her face,
her auburn hair comes back to life,
her opinion counts: Snowden exiled
to a foreign country, exposed our ills.
Stepbrother, hotel with pills.
Benjulian delicately traces the intermeshed relationships among herself, her stepbrother, and his mother. It is a piercingly intimate look at the guilt attached to suicide, the reproachful “don’t you forget” dialogue, the distances of time, and place, and feigned emotion, that separate people. All of this is placed in temporal context: Hobbits, the residue of childhood, CNN, laptop screens; and the comparison to Edward Snowden, exiled to this day for leaking classified NSA information. The two final lines, end-rhymed and terse, underscore not only the darker side of a personal family drama, but the darker side of today’s society.
I asked Benjulian for her own take on “Ode to Steven,” and she wrote this:
It illustrates the difference between confessional poetry (which is a derogatory term and should not be when it is applied to the likes of Plath, Lowell and Sexton, or our contemporary Tony Hoagland for that matter) and poetry that rises above the personal into the public.
I wanted to write about Steven for many years, but I was unwilling to publish anything until his death expressed a larger universe of meaning. I was, and remain, deeply affected by the truth teller who breaks open the container for our perceived reality. He is not celebrated; nor is he understood. Consider Teiresias, who predicts and describes the blindness of Oedipus or Cassandra, who foretells the fall of Troy. These stories are meaningful because they ground one family’s tragedy in the historical and political. The poem snapped into place quietly and suddenly. Suddenly, that is, after several years, which is so often the way things work in poetry. Regarding the more formal aspects of the poem, although I never set out to write in any specific form, this kind of sorrow required a closed form—to hold my grief, to suggest tension between container and contained, public and private.
Since our collaboration at The Los Angeles Review of Books, Benjulian and I have kept in touch, despite the huge geographical distance between us. We have cheered each other on, and we have steadily believed in each other’s writing. “You need to sometimes put poems aside that are new and not quite satisfying,” she told me. “To keep going back until you hear that little click in the bolt.”
At around the same time as Five Sextillion Atoms was published, my translation of Israeli poet Agi Mishol’s collection, Less Like a Dove, was published in the UK. Jayne Benjulian is already working on her next book of poetry. It will take time, but it will happen. I look forward to bearing witness to the beauty of that little click.
Joanna Chen is a literary translator and essayist. Her work has been published most recently in Guernica, Poet Lore, Asymptote and Narratively,among others. She writes a column for The Los Angeles Review of Books Blog. A collection of poetry in Chen’s translation, Less Like a Dove, was published in 2016 by Shearsman Books. Read more at www.joannachen.com
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