Several times a week I get books in the mail from RPCV writers….mostly I know they are coming as I have been forewarned by the author. The other day I got one via Amazon.com that came to me without notice, no fanfare, I didn’t request it. It was a collection of poems from a guy named Ben Berman. I never heard of him.
The jacket cover suggested Africa. When I looked closer I saw that it was an image entitled, The Unnamed by Petros of Harare, Zimbabwe. On the author page, sure enough there was black-and-white photo of young Ben Berman, and a short biographical paragraph saying that he grew up in Maine and served in Zimbabwe.
Now, for some reason we don’t have many writers who were PCVs in Zimbabwe (is it because of the water?) Nor, for that matter, do we have many RPCV poets.
This collection of poems were published by yet another small press, a publisher in California called Able Muse Press. I never heard of them.
The back of the jacket was crowded with quotes from poets, and good poets, too, praising this first book, this first collection of Ben’s poems.
Gregory Djanikian called it a “marvelous first book;” Dzvinia Orlowsky wrote that the poems “dig deep into the casual and the casualty of daily life,” while Alan Shapiro wrote the collection was “a masterful study in the power and limits of empathy.”
Well, anyone who publishes a book knows the power of friendship can produce ‘log-rolling’ blurbs for any writer on anything they write.
I tossed the book aside onto a short stack of recent arrivals.
Then the other day, having work to do and searching for a good excuse to procrastinate, I picked up Strange Borderlands and thumbed through the 80 pages of prose and poetry.
What is obvious immediately is that Benman uses a variety of poetic approaches: rhymed couplets, prose paragraphs, sonnets, free verse. Also, the poems are divided by his Peace Corps experience and what happens afterwards. And what is also obvious is that the guy can write. In fact, he is one of the best RPCV poets who served in Africa that I have read, right up there with Ann Neelon (Senegal 1978-79), Phil Dacey (Nigeria 1964-66), Susan Rich (Niger 1984-86), and Sandra Meek (Botswana 1978-81).
What is key about his work, and as the poet and creative writing professor Fred Marchant points out in his “Foreword,” is that in the second half of the book, “[Berman] focuses on the aftermath of the Peace Corps, the way those deeply formative experiences become absorbed and retained. Thus the book brings us inward, towards the poet’s psychological landscape, and how it has been altered by his experience.”
In other words: we have the poems from his two years in Zimbabwe, and then we have the poems of Ben trying to sort it all out, or as he writes in Gallery Walk, ii:
I’d been home a couple of years already but was still
struggling with the blurred lines of where things end.
Today, Ben Berman teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School and with Grub Street Writers. He has received fellowships from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and Somerville Arts Council and honors from the New England Poetry Club. He is married and has a daughter and lives in the Boston area. And he writes lovely poems.