In the Prophetic Essence of Visionary Courage, John Bennett Challenges & Incites with the Birth of Road Rage
ADAM MICHAEL LUEBKE
One of my favorite things to do these days is make a strong cup of coffee and read John Bennett’s The Birth of Road Rage. I’ll never forget the day Bennett’s chapbooks arrived in the mail. I opened the manila envelope and spilled three colorful and mad book covers onto my kitchen table. They smelled lightly of cigarette smoke. I was not surprised. I’d been reading Bennett’s Shards and poems he blasts out to his email list, and you learn a fair bit about Bennett this way.
I was quite pleased to be holding the physical work in my hands.
I’ve read enough purely entertaining stories for a lifetime. I’ve ripped through the Franzens and the Chabons, the Foers and the Zadie Smiths. I’ve sat on lonely Los Angeles park benches while trying to meander through n+1 and the New Yorker, or whatever was setting on the local Starbucks book shelf.
I can’t stomach those novels anymore. Go to your local bookstore and find stories about the ‘way we live today’. While some of the novels being published are well-written, or boast an intriguing plot, or claim to make you smarter, or teach you about a particular ethnic group and their struggles with living in America today, there is a stifling lack of visionary courage.
They are dead on arrival and don’t matter. Just another story. Get to know another character dealing with today’s modern world. It’s difficult to pinpoint the problem, exactly, but the corporate stench pervades most of the sterile books trickling out of the presses. There is an overwhelming acceptance of materialism, of consumerism, of accepting our culture and society as reality, and exploring life from that assumption. I need deeper risk. Innovation. Genuine enthusiasm for using language as both a tool and a weapon.
Dear Jesus, you want to shout to your fellow trendy readers, put down your safe literature! There are murmurs and Shards written by John Bennett from 1975 and on that address the quagmire of humanity in 2014 better than anything being promoted by a big slick New York house.
“There’s a directive that’s come down from on high: ‘If we can make them feel guilt, the world is our oyster.’
“The scientists don’t know who’s pulling their strings. They stop reaching for stars and start grabbing at straws. They dress their finest creation like a priest and then go down on their knees”, Bennett writes in LIFE IS A BOSTON TEA PARTY. “Out in the real world, eagles soar thru a hazy-blue sky and helicopters swoop in clumsy imitation.”
As an English major undergraduate, I couldn’t stop reading Burroughs and Spicer and Kerouac, Vonnegut and Hesse. I witnessed my consciousness expanding with Moby Dick and Ulysses. William Blake and Matthew Arnold. That work had guts. It had spirit. It took chances. It was not always pleasant. But reading it felt like you were benefiting somehow. Not only was it a mind-soul adventure, it was intellectual kinship.
I always thought, Who’s out there doing this now? Yet there was so much classic literature to consume, I didn’t stumble upon what Norbert Blei calls the “un-Oprahed, unlisted, un-academically acclaimed” writers until a couple of years ago. I try to publish their works from time to time in the Fiction & Poetry section of this site.
To call Bennett’s books mind-blowing seems cliche. To claim they’ll heighten your consciousness seems overblown. To say his work is like a literary shot of LSD seems desperate.
I get a little embarrassed about complimenting the shit out of a living writer, yet, I sit at my small kitchen table and look toward the ocean. I see the miniature Westwood towers through the hazy Los Angeles air after reading every Shard in Bennett’s books, like Road Rage, and I just think. I really think. His words, the thoughts, the ideas, and the way they are presented, either have me chuckling at the irony, feeling uneasy, or being just a little jealous that he jammed out, with what seems like the utmost ease, exactly what I’d suspected all along about the world, but couldn’t find the language for.
Bennett’s Shards oftentimes begin grounded in practical and commonly understood ideas and images. “Somewhere along the line they told me to write about what I know, which is what they tell everyone,” reads the first line of Road Rage.
What kind of incentive is there in writing what you already know? is the next question. “…the night wind begins to howl, and something disagreeable starts to spread thru my heart,” Bennett writes. And the seed of disenchantment is noticed. But who planted it? From where did it come? That “something disagreeable” seems inherent to the author. There’s the spark. And it’s there I first connect with him.
These days I find myself reading Road Rage out loud . Who are you reading to? I ask myself. And when did you start doing that? But I keep on, because it feels damned good. There’s rhythm in these pages. There’s music from cover to cover. There are also clashes. And jangles. In most of the Shards there’s commotion. But hold still and read on, because the melody persists, and it’ll soar again and merge either in the next line, or on the next page.
Many of the Shards start off with a platitude, like in NO ONE LOVES A KAMIKAZE: “They say the truth will set you free…[and]…ignorance is bliss…”
Maybe that’s Bennett’s way of luring you in. He will coax you into taking that first simple step, but just before your foot lands, he’s already nailing it to the floor. Bennett’s a longtime window washer. He’s no stranger to hard physical labor. You can bet once he’s gripped your ankle, you’re not going to easily wrench it loose. You’re going to stay and learn something. You’re going to re-think what you thought you knew. If you ever thought the truth would set you free, Bennett lets you have it:
The truth crushes you into powder and you don’t know how or why, you don’t even know it’s the truth doing it, you’re baffled and so go looking for answers and along the way lose your innocence.
And you know he’s right. The reader quickly understands that Bennett’s been through too much to live with easy assurances and warm phrases. Yet, he admits, in the very next line, that it doesn’t “set well in most circles.” It’s social suicide to launch talking points like that.
But Bennett won’t let up. Instead, he takes the concept he’s established and bolsters it with an anecdote about flesh and blood:
I saw a magazine photo of a cluster of rainbow men planting a flag in the sky. The photo was all asses and elbows. Over-population at the peak of a five-mile-high mountain. Twenty minutes after the picture was snapped, they were dead. A storm came out of nowhere and snuffed them.
John Bennett’s work is what writing and the exchange of ideas should be all about. Challenging, in the prophetic essence of far-seeing. Provocative, as in acting as a stimulant or incitement for thought. Insightful, to offer a vision, a reflection. Yet, there should be music in the sounds of the words. There should be spirit present, and dancing through the style. And, I think those are the beginnings of what makes a legend like Norbert Blei call books and writers like Bennett, “authentic”.
Find John Bennett’s novels, short stories, and shards at Hcolom Press. You can contact him, or get on his Shards list at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read a review of his novel Children of the Sun & Earth here
[photo of John Bennett “working with his 1917 A.B. Dick back in the late 70s” from Outlaw Poetry]