Review: Arboreal Days by Daniel Bennett

Daniel Bennett, Arboreal Days, The Red Ceilings Press, 2017.

There are writers under whose words landscapes become protagonists, particularly in the case of poets. This is very much true of Daniel Bennett’s writing in Arboreal Days. The trees are alive in a way that surpasses the human, at once comforting and horrifying, familiar and ineffably eldritch – a setting that Guillermo Del Toro or H.P. Lovecraft would be proud of. Bennett doesn’t mess about in getting into the thick of it, the opening lines: `Imagine a forest./Here is a moment of calm’ sliding in the same stanza, the same poetic breath, into a world `lost to agrimony and buttercups/or a dead crow strung on aluminium wire.’

The opening, title poem states Bennett’s ambitious intent, a six-part monolith that dominates the chapbook and immediately makes the reader realise their own smallness and inconsequence. `Who will explain the raw complications of money and separation? Who will find form in the purely abstract?’ The poet is not separate from this world and from the judgement of landscape. He holds his hands up and confronts his own role as ultimately meaningless in the face of the forest, holds a mirror up to all those bizarre human questions of self and meaning.

the roots growing through

our memories of these

arboreal days.It is not

what we look at

but what we see:

These memories allow the plant life to drive its roots through subsequent poems in `backyard elder’ and `weeping willow,’ but also, less obviously in `codebook’, `notepad’ and `Les Fleurs du Mal’. Ultimately the world of Arboreal Days is coloured by the strangeness leaking out of the forest, which may as well have been another reality, into the ordinary. Bennett remains baffled by his surroundings, full of `somewhere’ and `somehow’ and `strangers occupy[ing] bathrooms’. He writes as if a man returned from the faerie realm, or an even stranger place.

If there’s a criticism to be made here, it’s perhaps that the slow return to reality is something of a disappointment. Bennett eventually consigns that bewitching landscape to the past, to hallucinations and to dreams. In the poem `Walking to Work’, he even seems to admit this to himself:

First day back. No reward

is worth this reprise

[…]

how easily you find yourself

anchored into the usual.

I find myself, as a reader, wishing to return to the landscape that opened the chapbook, free from the drab cityscapes and petty concerns of traffic and detective programmes. Perhaps therein lies the point – that having had your eyes opened how could you ever return to the world before and expect to be contented? How could any poem follow the splendour of Bennett’s first?

In many ways, Arboreal Days reminds me of all the poetic landscapes I have loved and inhabited as a reader: Skirrid Hill by Owen Sheers, Sheffield Almanac by Pete Green and Seven Hills by Ben Dorey, to name just a few – but Bennett also does something completely new, eschewing any attempt to make that landscape feel homely or familiar in favour of its strangeness and unknowable nature. Overall, ambitious and wickedly good poetry, well worth a read.

 

Amy Kinsman

 


 

You can buy Arboreal Days here.

 

Amy Kinsman is a genderfluid poet and playwright from Manchester, England. As well as managing Riggwelter, Amy is associate editor with Three Drops From A Cauldron and runs Gorilla Poetry open mic in Sheffield. They have also been a student editor of Route 57. Their work has previously appeared in many print anthologies and web journals. Their debut pamphlet is forthcoming from Indigo Dreams at the end of March 2018. Available here.

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