Happinesswise by Jonathan Bennett could just as easily have been called Intimatewise or Intimacywise or some such thing. While the poems are all over the map when it comes to style and subject matter, at their core they are glimpses into the secret lives we all carry within us.
The book opens with a series of poems called Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio, which yes, are about death, but in that are also about entire lives lived. The poems feature notes about end-of-life care and the mundane minutia of death, or at least of putting off death for a few more ragged heartbeats: “the machine drone, the urine sting, the sour C. diff smell, the pump throb, the infection control, latex-free signage.” But the clinical language of the palliative care experience are countered in the same poems with the beautiful, transcendent moments of life, the memories that actually make us what we are: “tinkling wind chimes, your still-beautiful clavicle” and “My son’s first steps – across the lichen at the lake.” In an interview, Bennett states these poems are inspired by his own experiences working in a hospital and reading doctors’ portfolios: “Somewhere in the fog of pain meds and held hands, of DNR’s and oncoming grief, people retell stories that have bound them to one another over the course of a lifetime. Or else they sit in silence and just know, together. Is this happiness? Is it the end of happiness? These are the things the poem pursues.”
While the Palliative Care Reflective Portfolio is not specifically about Bennett, other poems do provide more intimate glimpses into his life. The poems found in Neurotypical Sketches offer insights into Bennett’s relationship with his autistic son – and insights perhaps into his relationship with autism, or at least autism as he has experienced it. There’s a map drawn by his son, Thomas, and moment after moment of a life transformed by something ultimately unknowable:
“He asks: Do cyclops blink or wink?
We laugh and and I ask him to tell me
the riddle of Theseus’s ship again
because I can’t get enough of him
charting his way through a paradox.
And to hear him argue the case
for Bigfoot is to doubt everything
you thought was true in the universe.”
There are other examples of this intimacy throughout the book – the series Concession Line Signs uses signs in Bennett’s region for inspiration, and as a vegetarian I certainly found a connection with his poem “Vegetarians Use the Back Door.” But really, it’s one of those collections best read and not talked about too much, because its true power is in how you will find yourself in the poems. How are you doing, happinesswise?