In Print

Margery Benjamin. Photo by Ralph Stewart
Margery Benjamin spins a lifetime of poems. Photo by Ralph Stewart

A lifetime of poems

By Brooks Robards - January 12, 2006

"Song Spinner," Margery Benjamin. Tisbury Printer, 2005. 116 pages. $14.

"How is a life built?" asks former West Tisbury resident Margery (Meg) Benjamin in the preface to her new book. The answer comes in the musical language of "Song Spinner," her life-spanning collection of poems.

This handsome, 12-part book is filled with portraits of the individuals who have enriched the author's life. It also contains drawings by the poet's first husband, the late Ralph Delli-Bovi, and photographs, many of Benjamin at different stages of life. In an age as visual as ours, their inclusion enhances the written work.

The cast of characters who come alive on the pages of "Song Spinner" include family members like Ettie, friends like Jane Sinclair, poets who influenced Benjamin, ex-lovers and husbands. The poet casts her net wide to explore a range of subjects, places and ideas as well as people.

Born in New York City, Ms. Benjamin graduated as Julia Richmann High School's poet laureate and became a national poetry award winner in 1939. After a year of college at the University of Miami, she married and moved to Ridgefield, Conn., raising five children and ultimately finishing college in 1972 at Western Connecticut State College, where she completed a master of arts in 1981.

After separating from her first husband, Ms. Benjamin moved briefly to Martha's Vineyard in 1989, returned as a summer resident in 1994 with her second husband, Dr. Bernard Benjamin, and settled in West Tisbury for eight years in 1996. She now lives in Boston, visiting the Vineyard frequently.

Poetry has remained a recurring motif in a life busy with education, work, family life, friendships, and community. Ms. Benjamin begins her collection with a lovely invocation, "Follow Me," in which she invites the reader, "Follow me. I am the color of magic... We will sing with the stars."

Family portraits, childhood delights
The first section of "Song Spinner" collects portraits of family members: her grandmother, her aunts, an uncle, her mother Beatrice and her father, the "Young Man in a Straw Boater" whose shoulders served as her pony. Ms. Benjamin combines an almost journalistic observation of the details that define life and character with the love of word music expressed in rhyme.

In the section called "Early Years," the poet evokes the imaginative delight of childhood. The adult perspective that understands, "An only child is a lonely child," combines with the child who says "Not me, I had two pals." Nanni and Tutti are Ms. Benjamin's imaginary playmates, who came alive for her in the three-way mirror of her mother's dressing table.

The section "Lovers and Others" opens with the haunting "Unbidden," where "The past rolls in unbidden/Kissing me on the mouth like an old lover." Memories of love can sometimes be brutal, as in "Rape," where the poet warns, "Never could trust/Men who wanted me/Not my poetry."

Ms. Benjamin's skill with rhyme often brings unexpected juxtapositions and endings. The title poem from the section "Connections" concludes with the triplet, "Nothing lasts forever/Not even a wife/Not even a life."

A good poem should surprise the reader. In "What Does God Have to Do With It?" Ms. Benjamin builds her poem around the mindless conversational epithet, "Oh my God," and ends it by giving new meaning to another simple phrase, "God has everything to do with it." One of her strengths as a poet is her skill at finishing off her poems with satisfying couplets.

A section on Martha's Vineyard Miscellany, "This Land in the Sea..." celebrates summer people, a Squibnocket sunset, the ocean's proximity, the Island's seasons and even the West Tisbury Post Office. Hard on its heels comes "Light This Way..." a grouping of politically inspired poems that includes the poet's responses to the Black Panthers, 9/11, and the Holocaust. Ms. Benjamin's "Prayer for Rosh Hashanah" takes the start of the Jewish New Year as an occasion for a statement of religious belief that is both simple and eloquent.

The concluding sections of "Song Spinner" gather the poet's work on New York City, on old age, recent poems and elegies.

It might have been better not to try so hard to divide the poems into so many different categories but let the work speak for itself, regardless of subject. However, that is a small complaint to make about a collection of poems that is generally varied, rich, accomplished, and wise.

Meg Benjamin will read from "Song Spinner" on Tuesday, Feb. 3 at 7:30 pm at the Bunch of Grapes in Vineyard Haven.