Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Expecting Songbirds: Selected Poems 1983-2015

by Joe Benevento (Purple Flag Press) 2015 (108 pp)

Reviewed by Kasey Perkins

     

 Looking at Joe Benevento, one sees the simple-yet-not: for some, the archetype of the middle class, white male professor populating the trendiest of internet think-pieces. Others see a conservative’s dream—the child of legal immigrants who bootstrapped his way to success. In truth, while both visions of Benevento—who resembles his “hawk nosed…tough-guy-non-smile” (75) father—are accurate, both skim only the surface of a character fully fleshed throughout his 1983-2015 compilation Expecting Songbirds. Indeed, in an era where faith in the American Dream is dimming, it might be enough to convince readers of upward mobility despite hardship. And yet.

 

Benevento’s work is hardly meant to brag on the rise of an Italian kid from Queens. Rather, the overarching theme of liminality throughout shows that regardless of success, a working class past lingers: nostalgically, romantically, and painfully. At stake is being caught between all these different worlds—being a white kid who perhaps doesn’t feel so, caught between a “Puerto Rican past” and a Midwestern present; a blue collar family with university educated children; between Wal-Mart pumpkins (53) and the “tropic perfume” (85) of an island mango.

 

He acknowledges these spaces with a frankness only gifted to the most self-aware: “All of my amigos in physical labor, / the knowing painful smiles, / the macho covers” (4). In the same poem, no amount of posturing and reading The NY Times fools—not when a character’s “factory smell / gives him up for pretend-middle class.” The image lingers, a poignant subway vision of a masquerading factory worker captured in his deceit by the words of his own kind.

 

Most readers will identify with being pretend-anything. The author feels this, though like many, tries to hide it at first. In “Your New Boyfriend,” the speaker denigrates a man who cannot converse “pointedly on Whitman / or Salinger, Borges…” (14), surely mocking the egotistic graduate student speaker. Later, readers get the reverse through the displacement of PhDs at an apple farm: “six highly educated people, amazed by pomace” (23). Yet how foolish these students are, unaware of their impending divorces, belying years of graduate education. It would seem there is no place for this speaker.

 

However, in a land of increasing disparity and awareness of intersectionality, Benevento’s work shines. Tough topics are approached with his classic candor and occasionally humor, especially in “Of Meatballs and Diphthongs,” which takes a shot at the Olive Garden: “[Italian families] never charged me / for the food, or mispronounced my / grandfather’s name” (39). While lines such as “Damn Joey, you can’t / Latin for shit,” may elicit a chuckle, other lines regarding race illustrate the feelings of the lone white boy in Queens: “out / of step with the rest, mis- / placed and strangely ashamed” (47).

 

It is in contemporary Missouri where readers also feel that stab of not belonging. Before, in “Junior’s Problem,” our author is “a Wop not convincing anyone / but my best boys that I belonged;” who, after Junior’s death, notes that “somehow / I still feel responsible for his hate” (29). When misplaced to Missouri decades later, “all those blue eyes borrow [him] still” (51)—the people beckoning him to his new, mostly white town after a childhood of diversity. Benevento’s use of “borrow” implies that he should be returned to his roots. But would he still belong?

 

This questioning self-awareness manifests again in “Mango Street Rules,” where the speaker argues that those who rise from poverty are usually somewhat privileged, like the famous Cisneros. Bravely delving into what many are too uncomfortable to discuss, Mango Street seems much less dangerous than his own hood, “…especially for [him], the last white boy left, praying / for amigos on streets…” Ultimately, the speaker boldly states:

“… as a grown up blanco, / I can’t get any acclaim for the success I had in making / it out of the barrio. I’m not even allowed to call it a barrio; / I’m not even allowed to compare my lot to sister Cisneros; / I’m not even allowed to write this poem” (86).

 

This speaker acknowledges his own privilege—but does so while also acknowledging that his perceived privilege doesn’t discount individual experience and commonalities. Here, Benevento walks a difficult but beautiful tightrope between seeming ungrateful and feeling silenced by the plight of the people to whom he spent his entire childhood belonging. Such delicate balance is a signature of the book.

 

Nevertheless, Benevento would surely contend that this volume isn’t about race, privilege, or class. It is instead about what is true for the individual. He has lead a life populated with diverse characters, all of whom fill this collection. It begins with Joseph Benevento Sr.—a man personified as a sun that both “dazzles and hurts” (8). It continues through Sylvia, the most prominent figure, herself a representation of something perhaps exoticised to some, but deeply loved and familiar to the author. Yet even in the end, he writes that Sylvia was “still pushing me / away for my own good” (85).

 

And he is away. Perhaps he was always meant to be. Still, he experiences a deep, human, and desperate longing for Queens, for minority neighborhoods, and for a symbolic Puerto Rico—all while condemning phoniness, such as in a derisive poem about reality television. Even as he rejects that phoniness, he is drawn to watching, feeling the sting of what he calls “middle class hypocrisy” (102). His beloved Whitman wrote of all-inclusiveness, and while Benevento achieves this, he is often closer to the speaker in Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.” The Expecting Songbirds poet knows that to anyone who looks at him, he will always be “a janitor’s son, no matter the miles, / the money, the time” (75). When he looks ahead, he sees his white collar life. When he looks behind, he always sees his father, both figuratively and in the form of the photo kept on his desk.

 

 

 

Kasey Perkins teaches at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the recipient of the 2014 Margaret Leong Children's Poetry Prize and recently her chapbook, When the Dead Get Mail, was shortlisted for the Arcadia Ruby Irene Poetry Prize. Her poetry and book reviews have appeared in The Chattahoochee Review, The Chariton Review, The Oracle, Lumina, The Wisconsin Review, and more.