Part III in our series on James Benton…from Kathryn’s desk.
James Benton is a master at prodding emotion through the artistry of his words. Whether writing memoir, fiction or poetry – he weaves magic with his rich textural tales, causing you to laugh, cry, or ponder the complexities of life. In this last of our 3 part series, I asked Jim where he was from originally, knowing he has lived in many places along the way which is reflected in his heart-felt words.
I was born in San Diego while my Father was in the Navy. He is originally from Sacramento, and so after he was discharged, he moved us back there. When I was three, Dad graduated from the Highway Patrol Academy and was assigned to motorcycle duty in Los Angeles. We lived there, first in Montebello, and then in La Mirada for the next five years. I have clear and vivid memories of the little house in La Mirada. I could draw you the floor plan from memory. The elementary school was directly across the street, there was a church at the end of the block, and I remember the names of at least four of our old neighbors. Not bad for looking back 55 years. I only wish I could remember where I put my watch this morning. We moved back to Sacramento in 1962, and I graduated from Foothill High School in ’72. After that it’s been unintentionally nomadic: San Diego, Concord, San Francisco, Boise, Sacramento, Carmichael, North Highlands, Elk Grove, La Grande, Sacramento, and back to La Grande. I’m done moving, thank you very much. Some of that moving had to do with being in the Navy, some of it had to do with chasing jobs in volatile markets. It has led to an uneasy connection to place (I should say dis-connection) that I wish was different.
K: Tell me about your poem Spanish Gull. What inspired it? Any particular day observing those feathery scavenger friends near an ocean waters edge?
Let’s see. Spanish Gulls. My brother, Randall Benton, is a genuine genius photographer. He spends time in Spain every so often, and in this one town on the northern coast, a long dirt road leads out of the village to a bluff above the ocean. Every day at the same time, and I mean every day, an elderly couple arrives in a beat up old pickup truck loaded with scraps of food they collect in town. My brother spent one day photographing their communion with the gulls, who seem to have a unique bond with the couple. I was moved to silence by the gentle kindness of the couple, and the trust the birds seemed to have toward them. To ascribe trust to a flock of birds may be an anthropomorphic stretch, but the display suggested it might be interesting to write the poem from the birds’ point of view. The hard part was to execute that point of view without sounding silly. I’ll leave it to readers to determine if the poem succeeded or not.
the sun at mid-day sticks
above the rocks
and spray our perch they come
in wagons to the end
of the Barrio de Portio bearing
boxes of leaf wilt bread crumb berry fruit
arrive with the sun unbidden
gods to feed our barking sky-dog
generations wheeling we dance
our backs to the sun
that brings them our generations trust
to our feathery hollows
know in the chitin of our arched
mouths and airy bones await
the wagon’s certain return
they cannot fly but come to us
we come to them and they do not fly
they will cast their arms toward the sun
at mid-day stuck and grace the rocks
K: What about Ice Water? Is there a story about your mom behind this memory?
As for Ice Water, I did have an image of my mother in mind. Again, the challenge was to find a suitable point of view, but more than that, the right narrative distance. One of the most important aspects of writing is the voice, and finding the right tone either amplifies or silences that voice. The point of view in the poem is that of a child, but the speaker understands the scene as an adult would. My mother had an almost unimaginably difficult job to raise nine children, and even as a kid I sensed the magnitude of her challenge. It sounds sentimental to say it, but she made a lot of our clothes on an old sewing machine after we had all gone to bed, cooked three meals a day, bandaged knees and on and on. And yet, she managed the day-to-day with both grace and efficiency. I asked her one time how she did it all, and her answer, which has stuck with me and served me well when things felt overwhelming, was this: “Well, Jim, I just did the next thing that needed to be done.” More than just an answer, her remark is character revelation. That’s what the poem is about.
I think of Mother in her kitchen. Flour and
sugar down from the cupboard. A blanket of
ice-water sky outside. She moves
geraniums in a mason jar away
at the counter’s edge, and I
pinch their velvet leaves. She
wipes her sticky hands on that blue
apron, streaking dough at eye level
stiffens and grows dull, cracks and sloughs off.
Twisting lemon halves into a bowl
it doesn’t look to me
James is an award-winning author published in Convergence, Raintown Review, Word Riot, Ragazine.cc, Flatmancrooked, Poetry Now, Rattle and is forthcoming in New York Quarterly. He also serves as a senior editor for noir fiction at Mixer Publishing and is an English professor at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, OR. His brother, Randall Benton, is the photographer for the Spanish gulls. You can find parts 1 and 2 of my series on him at: http://t2ps.com/thepossibilityplace/index.php/editorial/kathryn-mattingly/