Theodore Enslin: I, Benjamin, 61 pp McPherson & Company, P.O. Box 1126, Kingston, NY, 12402 USA
US $10, paper, ISBN: 9780929701905
I, Benjamin is composer-poet Theodore Enslin’s 119th book. It was published on the author’s 85th birthday, and Enslin, who lived in Maine, said it was his “last” written work. The cover of the book describes the work as a “Fable” and quasi-autobiographical novella.
The book is divided into four sections, or variations, of the poet’s life experiences as a young artist becoming a much older man, mainly in a rural world both real and imagined, largely unpeopled and yet sometimes peopled by “an alluring diva, a shape-shifting siren, and an oddly omniscient hunter.” The largest section of the book, called “The Spirit of a Lark” originally appeared in an issue of Conjunctions magazine called “Betwixt and Between/Impossible Realism,” and it is the core of this charming and charmed work wherein all that is real judders in actual time and once upon a time and ultimately outside of time. I doubt that Enslin would agree with the description “Impossible” when applied to his work in this book, but I believe he would embrace “improbable,” a word that makes room for chance and possibility, for randomness coinciding with logical sequence, not exactly ‘captured’ by “magical realism,” but a purveyance of an unexpected ‘elsewhere’ doubly grounded on earth and in the poet’s consciousness.
“Spirit of a Lark” immediately brings to this reader’s mind Shelley’s poem, “To A Skylark” which begins “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!/Bird thou never wert—.” Chaucer and Blake also seem to be tutelary spirits for this work. The reader walks an ordinary countryside with Enslin who experiences it through both common and extraordinary perceptions. (It is worth noting that a book of poetry Enslin published in 1971 is titled The Country of our Consciousness.)
There are dry grasslands, meadows, and rooms wherein Enslin, a.k.a. “Benjamin” encounters “Lark”, a shape-shifting siren who is a skylark/spirit as well. There are several planes (call them) of consciousness in the story, and an open acceptance of paradox which may be the very nature of living; and there is, for this reader, a connection to E. M. Forster’s story, “The Other Side of the Hedge” (which depicts another “side” of what is real, an improbable or alternative reality.)
We enter, with Benjamin, into “a place that did not answer to ordinary timing” in which there occur various buildings, including a windmill and houses known within and outside of oneself, places where boundaries break down, liminal spaces that are facets of consciousness and quixotic beauty, beauty which is a by-product of perception. We also meet and get to know a character named Zerlina (a reference, from this composer-poet, to Mozart’s character of the same name in “Don Giovanni.”) Enslin writes of her “That brief encounter had posed many problems, more than I needed.” Throughout I, Benjamin there are “fingers” of time and time itself and directional changes magically off from one’s “left wrist.” We meet an ambidextrous character named “Roy Basileus” whose very name may be a pun on the French Roi, while Basileus first meant something like “king” as well as the one changing the very universe of things. Enslin depicts this neighbor-friend initially as a local who is a disheartened artist/ painter who steps away from his ambitions and then becomes transformed, largely through Lark’s interventions, into becoming a hunter in charge of eliminating an excess population of ducks…until he eventually becomes someone loosely in charge, one who is also magical in his ways, earning the ancient Greek moniker: Basileus.
Meanwhile, Benjamin is meeting Lark in her various transformations, and there are seemingly real meadowlarks, and because there is such whimsy throughout the book, Enslin is clearly having fun going on a lark while traversing land he knows and loves, listening above all to all there is that strikes him as being music or musical in this territory imagined and discovered to the point where boundaries no longer exist—beyond which is a mysterious “abyss.” Perhaps the distance between us and other worlds, including those of the dead, is measured in dreams, including so-called daydreams.
In Enslin’s hands, it all becomes great fun for the reader following along in this mainly serious fable without declamatory moralizing. There is Benjamin’s aloneness and loneliness, neither of which is regrettable, but rather both are necessary for the artist to become, to be, himself. Rilke is worth quoting, in part, here: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness….”
And what else, in this review, may be said without spoiling other delights of I, Benjamin? Read this fine book (costing just $10!) and walk, dream, discover, then reflect.
copyright © 2013 David Giannini