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Molly Bendall’s Under the Quick

Central question: Can poems change their language as fast as a poet can change her mind?

Molly Bendall’s Under the Quick

Stephanie Burt
19 Snaps

Quick is right: Molly Bendall’s speedy, enticing lines set up a world where everything passes by, and nothing remains. On the one hand it’s elegiac, often wistful, leaving us nothing that we can preserve; on the other hand—so her ­allegretto passages of consonances imply—it’s full of exciting discoveries, transient joys. “No waves, so spread your blanket / on the grass,” she says in “Farm Days”; “Talk like a tree // so you’ll find / the honey business winging / that nowhere-look.”

Deliberately ephemeral, Bendall’s phrases do not so much resist clear paraphrasable meaning as flirt with it, then run away: “Come shy beetles,” she teases, “have a show down… while the morning spews its threads / to the evangelical finch shunned / by a clique of finches.” The poet herself shuns evangelism, shuns doctrine; she ­cherishes glimpses, hypotheses, and passing scenes. Flying insects are her favorite symbols, though she also lets “owls peer into our lives”; “someone’s belongings kept secret in the flower’s core” become “a blemish / for a habitat of moths.”

Half the poets in history have made carpe diem, the fleetingness of all pleasure and all ­experience, one of their themes; few books weave that theme so tightly into a new style. Bendall favors cascading enjambments and free-verse stanzas that zip irregularly down the page; she pauses just enough to catch her breath. She writes of “galloping air, never settling, / how it flares,” comparing herself to other fliers and gliders who ­cannot be pinned down: “I could be a lost plane / in my Amelia browns, / spun and blown clear.” To move so fast, propelled by such conditional verbs (would, could, can), is to emphasize both evasion and uncertainty: if Bendall is a poet of rapidity and desire, she is also a poet of reticence, even of fear, “always in the shrubby maze,” like Peter Rabbit, either mischievous or hiding. Scene after scene suggests loss, forgetting, flight, as well as delight in motion: “Adventures on a Raft,” for example, ­begins: “A jigsaw leaf mumbled down and I thought / last year’s fox would remember me.”

Though her chosen element is air, Bendall also explores water and earth, racing through creek beds, waysides, shadows, anywhere a sylph, “a bobwhite,” a woman who sees herself in such creatures, might hide: “What stitch / the river bed / might hold.” The textures of hypnogogic and of hypnopompic experience turn out to match the textures she likes in her language, to match the feeling—both disorientation and freedom—that even ephemeral words can take charge of us, that souls are really whisper-thin: “coveting the woozy look / of sleep, I’ve come to call call / covet and coo,” “Horned Lullaby” says, turning over its wayside debris, picking up “a tiny tub of lip gloss.”

If the poems feel impermanent, even flighty, trying on moods or symbols only to flit (like foxes) away, if they feel clever (like foxes) rather than solid or wise, they do what they seem meant, even destined, to do. Some poems (and the subpar sequence “Windward”) do imply tacit plots, sets of linked events; most, though, yield only personae, impressions, speech-acts—invitations, refusals, hypotheses, tentative claims. If you want narrative—or if you want avant-garde frame-breaking devices—you won’t get what you want from Bendall’s poems. If you want anything else—a quick run through a garden, a minute with moths, “a turn / then out back again for cakes / and cokes”—you can find it in Bendall. Just do not expect it to stay.

—Stephen Burt

Prior books by Bendall: After Estrangement (1992); Dark Summer (1999); Ariadne’s ­Island (2002); Bling & Fringe (The L.A. Poems) (with Gail Wronsky) (2009); Bendall’s current ­hometown: Venice, California; Bendall’s ­childhood home: somewhere in Virginia, whose Southern waters and plants (she says) inform the poems here; ­Section titles: I. Causes and Cures, II. Windward, III. ­Adventures on a Raft, IV. Blurry Evidence; Representative sentence: “Pathways, paving stones, // and yeasts come out of the sea // longing for attachment / then billow their wanderlust.”

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