If the mermaid of Charles Bennett’s “The Mermaid Room” is the “voyage you will make alone/ in a small, unstable, open boat/ for the rest of your life,” then Wintergreen is certainly the guide that will help you through it. In delicate, particularized poems, Bennett goes about defining himself and the world he sees: a world of flowers and trees, small creatures, magic and lore, domesticity, and an oddly familiar strangeness. We learn that wintergreen is “good for clarity of mind,” that agrimony “draws bitterness from a wound,” and that nettle must be plucked “by the roots if [we] ever wish to be cured.” The attention and wholeness of individuality granted to the subjects of his poems through description and the close point of view (many are told from the first-person) create a quiet space in which we can step back and see the details of the world in a new, transformative light, and, through that light, see ourselves as well.
The tenderness and humor inherent in Bennett’s poems is most obvious in the beautifully lyrical short poem, “Earthworm” –
While the idea of a poem about a worm eaten by a blackbird might make us chuckle, the transformation of the earthworm into a song gives us the hope that if such tenderness can be shown to so small and ordinary a creature, it can, perhaps, be shown to us as well. This kind of care pervades the collection: we see it in the “Spider,” thrown from a bedroom window, a “black snowflake,” its legs “a prayer/ for safe landing;” in the “Snowdrop Girl” holding “sprays of seventeen stems” to her lips; and in the mermaid whose “treasures are a toast-rack and an eggcup.”
Particularly in “The Mermaid Room,” the combination of tenderness, magic, and strangeness come together as they form a portrait of the mermaid. She is presented as a kind of siren, very like La Belle Dam Sans Merci as she collects “twenty-seven wedding rings” and “[leads] you astray” in the night, and yet, at the end, we also see her loneliness – her face flickers “like the faces in a dream/ or a water-colour, overcome with rain.” These poems become a kind of search for identity, for the self, so that, in “Wednesday,” the speaker can “pretend/ I’ve come home to myself” and, in “Swarm Haugh Closes,” the speaker can actually become England. The strangeness, then, comes home – if lore and magic and the strangeness of a mermaid or a unicorn are part of our world, they are also a part of ourselves.
Bennett’s use of stanza and line breaks add to the sense of mystery set beside the domestic or personal through the turns or realizations they achieve in individual poems. This is especially striking in the ninth poem of “Lost” –
Here, the break between the first stanza and the second gives us the time to imagine a song as a “broken saucer” before realizing that it is, in fact, a car that is like a broken saucer. The line break at “car,” further, gives us a moment between understanding that it is a car and understanding that it is a car that has been in an accident. The short lines and small stanzas build the scene slowly for us and allow each image to stand for an instant, however brief, on its own.
In the small, encapsulated stanzas, attention to detail, and especially in the compassion for all of his poems’ subjects no matter how small, domestic, or seemingly insignificant they are, we start to understand how it is we can survive that voyage “in a small, unstable, open boat.” It is through care, through the ability to show ourselves and everything around us empathy and tenderness, that we can live. These poems evoke a peace and acceptance of the world that lets the speaker of “The Library of Rain” ask of himself, “Will it matter if I go unremembered,/ if nothing was done?” and can lead us, as readers, to the realization that “[We are] already/ where [we] need to be.”