TEXT review

Verse novel offers new way to see

review by Linda Weste


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:BEL SCHENK COVER.jpg
Bel Schenk
Every Time You Close Your Eyes
Wakefield Press, Mile End, South Australia 2014
ISBN 9781743053195
Pb 96pp AUD19.95


‘The lights are out and people must find a new way to see’: so reads the tease lead of the verse novel Every Time You Close Your Eyes by poet Bel Schenk, a graduate of the University of Adelaide’s creative writing program. The teaser not only conveys the theme of the verse novel, the blackouts in New York City in 1977 and again in 2003, but also draws upon the conceptual metaphor ‘understanding is seeing’ to imply that characters must gain knowledge, insight or wisdom to rise from such adversity.

The impact of the blackouts on three main characters is central in Schenk’s two-part narrative. Part one, with twenty-seven poems, introduces Rose, a waitress living in Brooklyn, her nine year old son, Alex, and a cellist, Robert, who lives alone, several blocks from Rose. In Part two, forty-one poems re-present these same characters, revisiting their lives as it were, twenty-six years later.

To find a new way to see is a challenge for these characters who struggle to make and maintain a connection with others, or to ‘move on’. For Rose, whose ‘best companion is her walk’ (32), desire and agency are at odds: ‘She wants … She wants … She’ll take anything she can’ (30). This amounts to a ‘quickie’ with Bernie in a car parked at the river’s edge (27) in a poem ironically entitled ‘Romance’ (17); an affair that exemplarily ends with ‘Babe, I’m late. I gotta leave you here. You ok to walk?’(30). The trajectory of Rose’s love life is such that in Part two, aged fifty-eight, internet dating for the first time, she muses whether ‘it might be better to wait …with dreams of a superhero’ (54). Alex, her son, is by then aged thirty-five and works in an architect’s office. He is yet to collect his toy soldiers from Rose’s apartment, despite ‘saying for years that he’ll pack up his childhood’ (80). He’s ambivalent about the real world still – hesitant despite meeting Martha who ‘lets him feel weightless’ (66). Robert, the cellist and whiskey drinker in the poems ‘Embrace’ (11) and ‘Falling Star’ (29), remembers a man he used to know and likely loved. He lies awake, ‘glassy with memories’, in the poem ‘Passing’, regretting ‘He once meant to tell someone…’ (65). He remains without a partner, twenty-six years on.

Schenk foregrounds how fears, real or imagined, constrain, or perhaps compel these characters’ choices and behaviours. Several poems allude to the impact of 9-11 on the psyche of New York residents, but common to all poems is a focus on existential and psychological concerns; these predominate in thoughts and speech and often link to setting, to the literal and metaphysical spaces which shape and regulate characters’ interactions and agency:

Lines of people wait for the telephone
and stubbornness equates to crankiness
when someone dares to touch another man. (46)

Alex’s fears originate in his childhood experience; so the many poems about him as a nine year old in Part one, suggest: ‘Ammunition’ (4); ‘The Soldiers’ (7); ‘Hiding’ (9); ‘Dear Sam’ (16); ‘Misbehaving’ (19); ‘Comic Book’ (31); and ‘War Games’ (33). As a cycle of poems they document the boy’s concerns about his personal safety and perceived lack of protection. The boy’s imagined fears see him cowering under his bed with his toy soldiers lined up in rows. In the fourteen numbered sections of ‘Misbehaving’, the vulnerability of the boy is made manifest. Aware he has been left in the apartment on his own, he ventures out, with disconcerting consequences, as the following excerpts of the poem reveal:

3. A piece of cardboard keeps the apartment door ajar.
He climbs to the rooftop.
Never leave the apartment at night.

4. The tops of his teeth bite the lower lip
to stop the shakes. The crash of Brooklyn.
Women roam and men steal.

6. A man and a woman
from somewhere
ask what he’s doing.
He says: Nothing much, just looking. They step closer:
Do you want to come and talk to us. We live here too.

7. He does not yell for her.
He does not yell.

8. What number are you in?
We locked ourselves out.
What a night to lock ourselves out.

10. The man steps close.

11. The boy jumps back. He does not yell for her.
The man in overalls whistles a tune. There is stubble on his face
and a stench, odd. Grease.

12. The boy runs at a pace of nine miles per hour
how long does it take him to climb back down those stairs?

13. Swiftly. That’s how long.
He outruns them. His body swerves and weaves.
His tiny legs lead him back down.

14. How fast he runs.
How they shout: Come back, let us in.(19-20)

In few words, the poem conveys a palpable sense of menace. A further poem, ‘War Games’, imparts a sense of the boy’s unspoken resentment for having been left to fend for himself. He ‘waits for the sound of a key in the door’ (33). His soldiers and a tank are lined up ready to attack, in aim at the front door in anticipation of his mother’s imminent return. ‘At 2am he gives up and falls asleep’ (33).

The sense of disconnection experienced by the characters extends to the verse novel’s form. With few poems longer than a page, in its entirety the verse novel is a slim eighty-six pages. The individual stories of the characters emerge from fragments and evocations rather than detail and elaboration. Schenk elects for an unsettling and grammatically jarring use of language to communicate the fear, loneliness, ennui and longing of the characters. Part of the unease arises from a disruptive construction of syntax. The literal delivery, ‘Shoes remain tied to his feet’ (27), for instance, is de-familiarising and impersonal, evoking a mortuary and corpse chattel. Other destabilising uses of language include: ‘jet planes tortoise on the tarmac’ (47); ‘On its paws, the grease leaves a trail’ (27); and ‘The sausages fry on gas heat./ People wrap them in bread, mustard and onions’ (52). Many lines are prosaic in their syntax, presenting as cropped prose, rather than as poetically condensed or honed. The resonance of the verse novel is all the more surprising for its rupturing and its understated intensity.

To intensify the ‘edginess’ of Every Time You Close Your Eyes, Schenk includes two non-fictional characters, the first of these being the serial killer and arsonist David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, whose crimes took place in New York City during 1976-77. Schenk takes up the challenge of conveying the serial killer character’s interiority in the poem ‘42 Pine Street’. Schenk’s astute approach is to present a disrupted and altered account; an incongruent experientiality:

His dog has been talking in strange phrases. Odd ways.
It’s as if he is in control. David opens a pack of peas
and eats them frozen. Once, there was a steady line to continue on.
A path with an easy tread.
Now, when he is most expected, he stays in.
The dog makes it clear after he drinks again,
from the un-flushed toilet bowl. (18)

Schenk refrains from using the word ‘delusion’; rather, the portrayal of the serial killer’s diminished hygiene and his submission to an animal serve as implied markers of psychological and moral deficiency, and mental instability. The serial killer’s inclusion enables a thematic construction of character to emerge, embodying people’s fear, real or imagined. The inclusion of Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman in four movies, is also thematic, in that it taps the cultural phenomena of the superhero: a generic superhero, a model to help people cope with adversity, to take stock after trauma or loss.

In an emergency, information technology and networks are crucial for communication, a fact Schenk foregrounds in eight poems of Part two which incorporate sections of sms text; these are two font sizes smaller than the poems, and placed in the vicinity of the page numbers, on the right hand side. The sms texts are part of the fiction and first accompany the poem ‘Twelve Million text Messages’ to enable the understanding that sms become scrambled in an overused network and ‘land on the phone screens / of lonely people / they were never meant for’ (42). Presumably this explains why these sms texts are not always relevant to the poems they accompany. Examples such as: ‘Where are you?’ (42); ‘Good to meet you too. / I’ll call when things / calm down a little’ (79); ‘Hey, are you in / power? We’re out’ (67) and ‘Don’t be surprised if / I say something silly / today’ (57) appeal to contemporaneity, but iterate, rather than extend the narrative.

‘In the end, darkness or light, things remain’ (35): so Every Time You Close Your Eyes reconciles its concerns to the fact that life continues, in spite of adversity; that ‘nothing really changes’ (79).

Schenk doesn’t allow such aphorisms to hackney her first verse novel. Every Time You Close Your Eyes makes a solid and original contribution through which readers can see the verse novel anew – as mutable and dynamic in its ongoing negotiations with genres, techniques and forms.




Linda Weste is a poet, editor and teacher of creative writing whose recent academic research on verse novels is available in the online journals New Scholar and JASAL.


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Vol 19 No 1 April 2015
General Editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Enza Gandolfo & Linda Weste
Reviews Editor: Ross Watkins