By Ben Berman (Zimbabwe 1998-2000)
Able Muse Press, $18.95
Reviewed by Jan Worth-Nelson (Tonga 1976-78)
As an unwilling alumna of a Peace Corps tragedy during my service many years ago - the 1976 murder in the Kingdom of Tonga of one volunteer by another, I quickly attuned to heart-pulsing themes of violence and cultural dislocation in Ben Berman’s riveting first poetry collection, Strange Borderlands.
I have never quite recovered from the shock and senselessness of that murder, not to mention the unceasing parade of vivid, direct, in-your-face carnage - chickens, cats, dogs, horses, whales, the old woman in the hut behind me - what seems, in persistent memory, to be a daily, bloody assault, often in startling contrast to banal quotidian life.
During a powerful earthquake during my first year, I stumbled out of my hut shrieking with fear - I would die 9,000 miles from home. The next day, stunned by my survival, I found myself eating Beef Wellington and drinking red wine at the Peace Corps country director’s house, making surreal small talk with my boss, a 6-foot-7 hereditary noble with an Oxford accent. How to make sense of any of it?
As a young volunteer English teacher in Zimbabwe from 1998 to 2000, Berman was quickly embroiled in a similar stew of cruelty and confusion. “Zimbabwe means The House/ of Stones and I was getting grittier/by the day, gritting my teeth/and studying how to sharpen a knife.” he writes in “Learning Shona.”
It was not just young Berman who was at risk, however - he was, in fact, essentially safe on the sidelines and able to escape. After a national election when things turned violent, Berman was evacuated out of his village into a small city and the Peace Corps program reduced. Many of his Zimbabwean friends have died. (In his sestina “Moving On” he marks the ongoing losses: ”Please, Edwin writes, Lovewell and Benson have passed away. I am next.”) But, in the meantime, he steeled himself to pay attention:
“Everywhere I looked, back then, I saw death,
teasingly avoidable and unsheathed,” he writes in “Passing Three Goats in a Field, the Ropes Around Their Necks Tied to Tall Grass.”
The struggle between what one might call “order” - both civil and poetic — and the numbing effect of violence, disease, fear and oddness permeates Berman’s work. In the face of certain kinds of extremities, one cannot keep feeling. In the gripping rhyming poem “Detachment and Delicacies,” ostensibly about killing and cleaning chickens, he writes,
“Even slaughter grows somewhat methodic-
you hold their heads to calm the spasmodic
fits of their feet, focus on precision
how the right cut, like a good revision
can produce a more deft and seamless
And he concludes,
but I was dumping hearts into a bucket
and wanted life to feel delicate,
wanted to handle each flimsy liver
with the fine alertness of a lover.”
Sometimes one makes sense by downplaying interpretation, by simply (even flatly) describing. As we creative writing teachers so often exhort our students, there is good reason to “show not tell” - powerful sense detail often is how to invite the reader’s initial attention and response. This is true of much of the first half of Berman’s collection, In the first poem, for example, he listens to the radio, listing how “Rhumba turns into world news, weather,/sports, Shona. Then Dolly Parton. Then drums/Silence. More Rhumba. It never ends, never/connects.”
He describes digging a grave, finding a dead dog in the middle of the road, drinking beer and getting stuck in mud, sitting on a corpse-filled coffin in the back of a truck.
Much of the material is “sensational” of course - dangerously so, for a writer.
But Berman turns effectively to form as his ally, wrestling some of his most difficult material into a-b-a-b quatrains, sonnets and rhyming couplets. In an email, Berman explained that he worked in form because “I simply needed a sense of order as I wrote; in other ways, I needed the undercurrent of form working with or against the content.” The effects compress and constrain emotion, containing chaos and turning to the comforts of his Western traditions (a quote from Emily Dickinson here, a snippet from Donald Revell there) as if to keep from running himself off the cliff in a demon-possessed herd.
The second half of the book is more reflective, if not more comfortable. Back home, his life as a high school English teacher is haunted by dreams of the Zimbabwean dead. These later poems poignantly convey an insistent and nettlesome remembering, a half-wild entertaining of meaning, along with an unsettled understanding that there might not be any.
“Still,” he asserts in the concluding prose poem, “there is something about the man running and his dead-end flirting with the world - the way he continues on, flailing and unwavering.”
Many of us, especially the young middle class Americans so often drawn to the Peace Corps, were unprepared for the raw violence we encountered — both “casual and casualty” as Berman puts it in the aptly named “Obsession.” Encounters with this side of life can be shocking and traumatizing, and not always, in the end, rewarded by redemption. These hard truths are the territory of poetry, where the heart can be resuscitated and the mangled viscera respected, if never quite restored. Berman says his original title for the book was Close to Closure – an approximation suited to the struggles twisted and taut within these pages. In this collection Ben Berman establishes himself as an eloquent voice in chronicling the dichotomies of darkness and light. It seems to be the U.S. Peace Corps that took him into that troubling borderland.
Jan Worth-Nelson is about to retire from 26 years at the University of Michigan - Flint, where she has been a writing teacher and, for the past three years, Director of the Thompson Center for Learning and Teaching. She is married to another Peace Corps volunteer, Ted Nelson (Turkey 1964-66), whom she first met in Tonga and re-met 25 years later. They have been commuting between Flint and San Pedro, CA for 13 years. Worth-Nelson’s novel, Night Blind, fictionally explores a Peace Corps murder in Tonga in 1976. She also has written many poems, short stories and personal essays - a writing life she is eager to resume full time after retirement.