about the author

Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the novel Here Is How It Happens (Ampersand Books, 2013), the short story collection Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), the chapbook Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.

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Sightings in the Land of the Dead
A Review of Sightings in the Land of the Dead
by Barbara Bennett

Spencer Dew

In Japan, shrines to the bodhisattva Jizō portray him with but also sometimes as a child, tiny statues, round-faced, which the living visit and adorn with bibs and hand-knit caps, with toys. Imagined as, in particular, protector and rescuer of “water children,” those babies who die before their parents, Jizō shrines have become central to rituals of remembrance not only for lost infants but also for miscarried and aborted fetuses. Women and couples come, bringing gifts, and while one mythic narrative running in the background here speaks of the souls of children, unable to cross a river, locked into an eternity of stacking stones, the here-and-now speaks of humans working through decisions and accidents, knitting a tiny hat as would keep warm a child that never was. What goes on here, at these shrines—this remembrance and projection, this vague imagining of an alternative future, this atoning for and owning up to the past—reverberates throughout Barbara Bennett’s series of short prose poems about the dead, about death. We are given glimpses of eternities—down in a hollow of the hill country, an ironically Appalachian heaven; or in the temporal, hiking across a glacier and thus, in a way, backwards through history—and voices of the left behind, the lost: “Voices throng the ruined mountains, the misspent rivers, the smoked forests. The chorus of crescendos and holds, not as aria, as moan.” We are shown recollections of colors and scents and the names of things, woven by Bennett into verbal hallucinations, fever dreams: “She harvests wisteria and lemongrass to weave into baskets and collects geodes to fill with sweet sage and cream-colored roses.” And we are subject to the alchemy of weather, specific to a particular place, “the measurements of warm and wind that shift foggy to vivid.” In the end, the tone here is celebratory more than mourning, always warm with blood. When ghosts pass, it is often with a giggle, a fragment of some good memory, and unexpectedly satisfying desire. Bennett’s goal—akin, I think, to those popular shrines of child-size bodhisattva statues, lovingly bibbed and capped—is consideration, for the living to take attention, to notice. The voices and names and weather and places presented here call the reader to witness. We, the living, Bennett’s book seems to say, should heed the fleeting as well as those details we are inclined to ignore, those moments that bore. As one poems says, demonstrating this dynamic of appreciation: “The wild patch she tends bores her. Pa would have coaxed ramp and polk as if it were spring onions and spinach.” From dismissal to the meaty particulars, their wonder: life, in so many words.

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