Book Review: Unseen Garden (Roxanna Bennett)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

I'll cut to the chase. Roxanna Bennett's Unseen Garden is one of the most engaging and intellectually satisfying books of disability poetry that I have read in the past few years. Right from the beginning, with her quotation from Jim Ferris' "Poet of Cripples," Bennett signals her intention to link to the community of disabled writers and, like Ferris, to locate disability within the traditions of poetry generally while at the same time carving out a unique place for disability poetry. This interconnectedness is manifested not just in reference to other writers but in the way that she uses form, both within individual poems and between and among the poems throughout the book.

I'm going to quote Unseen Garden's initial poem in its entirety, not just because it is a wonderful poem in itself but because it is gateway into the remainder of the book.

Unmeaningable "Let me be a poet of cripples" not
a patient etherized upon a table,
not a brain floating within a body.
This moment I must be a body,
the place incision produces, a body
previously intact. Poor body, inert,
inarticulate. Pain flees from the word "pain"
between meaning and the unmeaningable
the trick of thinking I can fix what I can name.
Inertia insists on comfortable
contraries, less on chastened patients.
Let me be any other word, any other body:
stone, swan, sycamore. Perform patience
full time; retirement a normate luxury
I will not be afforded. My need
alien to pain, yet I remain, unseen.

Within the first Bennett invokes both from Ferris (whose line riffs on Whitman) and T. S. Eliot. She also signals the desire not just to use the visible body, as Ferris and Whitman did, but extend her scope to the invisible aspects of the body - specifically pain - and give the pain of the body a voice. Using pain as a major focus, Bennett pushes back against the medicalization of disability through its implicit goal that what can be framed and named can potentially be fixed.

"Unmeaningable" also sets up some of the patterns and techniques that she will be using through the book. Among these are the framing of her book as a sonnet sequence. It is a technique that she will use to purpose when she intentionally breaks it periodically throughout the book. In addition to this overall sense of continuity brought about by sonnet-like poems, there is a linkage between poems through the use of lines.

The last line and a half of the poem above becomes transmuted into the first two lines of the book's second poem "Sick Queens" as "My need to mean alien to the pain/ yet I remain, unseen." This linkage pattern that Bennett establishes between the book's first two poems continues throughout the book, but as in her use of the sonnet form, it is something that she plays with throughout the book, skipping a poem, linking further down into the poem, or making the correspondence between lines more tentative as she progresses into the book. It is another example of establishing patterns in order to disrupt them.

The constant use of wordplay that hinges both on sound and meaning is another characteristic of Bennett's work established in the first two poems, and this takes a number forms. Here are three examples: (1) Four of the lines in the first poem end in the word "body," centering the reader on its importance to the book. (2) The use of semi-rhymed pairs in the second poem to imply relationships: pain/sustained, words/world, Mercury/be, inconsistent/insist, and body/sorry (twice). (3) A sequence of three alliterative words that repeat themselves throughout the book and break away from each other to become symbols in later poems, in this case "stone, swan, sycamore."

What all of this points to is the careful attention that Bennett pays to craft and detail. Her poems are not prose broken into lines. They are not the result of channeling an inspirational muse. They are not a series of loose associations flung out for the reader to try to wring meaning from. They are poems that demand the careful attention that has gone into creating them.

Since the publication of Jim Ferris The Hospital Poems in 2004, one of the functions of disability poetry has been to critique the medical model of disability in general and the specific treatment of disabled people by those within the medical establishment in particular. In fact, in the United States it has almost become obligatory. One might think that in Canada, with its more humane system of medical care, the climate might somewhat different. There has not been a great deal of exploration of this topic among disabled Canadian poets. One exception is Shane Neilson's Dysphoria, but Neilson's focus was more on psychiatric issues. Roxanna Bennett's, as discussed above, is very definitely on the body and on medical practitioners who deal with the body.

Her poem "Waiting Room" begins:

What would I be losing if I left but
the next invasive intake, the next
skeptical examiner, the next cut
that leaves another scar, the next
bargaining for the next ineffective
anodyne, the next vain elective
abscission, the next insurance claim,
the next question that causes shame,
the next cursory callous checklist,
the next remote rejection.

Bennett, however, goes a step further than simply pointing out the abuses inherent in the medical system and makes medicine complacent in the social stigma – often moored in religion – that is attached to disability. In "Empirical Evidence," she ties together the indignities of the scientific system with "invisible empirical/ evidence of closets our mothers hid us in," concluding in frustration:

I am heartsick of passing, of being passed
over and being anchored to a past sinning,

As already mentioned, another area that Bennett addresses is pain. While even the most reductionist philosopher admits that the subjective experience of one's own pain is something about which no one can be mistaken, within the field of disability poetry, one of the challenges of writers has been to try to translate that experience into a language that is comprehensible to those who have not had similar experience.

Language of Pain Once every 45 seconds & inaccessible
to intervention the gnawing cramp wrenches
attention from birdsong to black cradle
lacerates language. Exhaustion punishes
the nerve of plans slices singular from
spectacle insists voice is not larynx
sight is not eye taste is not tongue touch

Braided into the poems reflecting her bodily experiences and those that deal with the health care industry are poems that deal with the author's family background, specifically her father. These do not occur until well over halfway through Unseen Garden in the final two lines of "The Language of Hospitals": "My father spoke the language of stone,/ swan, sycamore, stuck in the throat." The following poem, "Emerald Eggs" begins with the words, "bad dad bad dad" – that linking again, but then disappears until the next poem in which language about her father becomes fully incorporated into the other symbolic and referential language that Bennett has developed.

Despite its title, Unseen Garden in not a collection in which one can simply go frolicking through the book reading poems as though one were picking flowers. While most of the poems in the first quarter of the book can surely stand by themselves as self-sufficient poems, the poems build upon each other as one progresses through the book and those in the latter part of the book loose much of their meaning - in some cases are almost incomprehensible – without having read the book from the beginning. Rather than a weakness, this is an indisputable strength of Unseen Garden. (Picture jumping into the midst of the first movement of a Beethoven symphony without hearing it from the beginning.) It is what makes Unseen Garden a necessary book.

Since it is almost impossible to translate what Bennett has accomplished into ordinary prose, I am going to leave off from further explanations, but before doing so, I just want to sample a few more of the lines that makes the work so wonderful to read. Here, from the opening of "Blue Rose":

One day I will be blue rose a poet
of cripples not a patient etherized,
needs seen to, seen to mean a violet
hyacinth sliding like a soft bullet inside,

Not only has she doubled back to her references to Ferris and Eliot and foreshadowed her intent with respect to their place in literature, but has set the stage for the use of a new symbol, the blue rose, that contrasts to her current state symbolized in the hyacinth, itself a reference to a previous poem, the first from which the formatting broke out of the sonnet mold into a more free-floating form.

Canadian poetry has yet to produce an anthology of disability poetry as American poets did in with Beauty is a Verb or the UK did with Stairs and Whispers, but if it is looking for a place to begin, it may want to start with Roxanna Bennett and Unseen Garden. Buy the book.

Title: Unseen Garden
Author: Roxanna Bennett
Publisher: knife | fork | book
Publication Date: 2018


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).