I never tire of coming of age stories. I enjoy experiencing characters struggling with minor humiliations while trying to grasp the complexities of the world. Andrea Bennett’s debut poetry collection Canoodlers reads like any great coming of age tale: think LM Montgomery meets Alison Bechdel with the poetic directness of Kim Addonizio.
In Canoodlers, we see the speaker’s various rites of passage: bird watching with her father, attending camping trips, obtaining a job, and her maturation into adulthood. As an adult, she encounters nature alongside social media, questions privacy as well as sexuality. When reading Canoodlers, I became both voyeur and participant in a bildungsroman of our digital age. Once started, I couldn’t put the book down; like rubbernecking on the highway, I wanted to observe more.
Bennett’s poems deliver narratives with many recurring characters and scenes that hook the fiction reader in me, and her attention to form and imagery hook the poet. Readers learn about the speaker often times through, although not limited to, the prose form:
There’s a story
and it happens when I am twelve. There’s the backseat of the car where my friend Jane is sitting.
The present tense in this poem places us in the backseat of the car. The title, “There’s a story,” spills into the body of the poem, as so many of Bennett’s poems do. We are in the middle of the action, participating in the poems. We watch the scene unfold, feeling as helpless as the speaker herself feels when responding to her mother’s comment on a woman’s inappropriate attire:
Then I say one of those things that emerges from your mouth like a just-born giraffe learning to walk immediately on whatever legs it’s got. It’s just a hop and a skip, I say to mum, between you and her.
Here, like throughout the book, Bennett utilizes metaphors of animals to describe human behaviors, almost mythologizing her suburban backdrop as something transformative. This poem illustrates how we become part of the “zoo,” looking outside of the car into what’s behind the cages—or rather the cages her mother feels scantily clad women belong in.
“There’s a story” follows “When you are famous,” written in the same prose style with a different point of view: “If a hot mess reclines on the chaise and a handsome wreck answers a phone call, it is plot development.” When reading these two poems together, I am reminded that the paparazzi and those who consume their work are just the same as the mother who wants to cage people for wearing shorts that are too short.
This poem resonates with me as a person who would never buy Hollywood magazines (gasp!), yet of course still consumes so much of their content through other outlets: social media or word of mouth or even checkout-line reading. Who doesn’t want plot development, as long as it pertains to those outside of ourselves?
In “Ben and Kim want a sex poem.”, the poem itself never describes the act of sex, yet the mere mention of it in the title and the final line (“There’s something missing from the middle, Kim says. Yes, says Ben. The sex.”) grants Ben and Kim as well as the readers the poem they want. It forces them to insert the sex in themselves. This back and forth between participant and voyeur drew me in despite any disconnect I wanted to have.
We don’t often label ourselves voyeurs. We attempt to distance ourselves from that taboo. Yet Bennett’s poems allow readers to experience this badge in a raw and honest way, one that is familiar and welcoming rather than shocking. Much like the speaker in “Birthday Tarot,” whenever I could be tempted to “call bullshit” while reading these poems, feeling as if they didn’t give me what I expected, well… then as one character Anna so aptly says, “This is not sex & gender class. This is you need to get fucked.”
In the title poem, the speaker does not take herself out of the scandal either—thus never sounding sanctimonious. She too sits and stares at others in a way not too different from the mother in “There’s a story,” the mother who also in an earlier poem “defriended” the speaker on Facebook. “Canoodlers” begins:
Two people sat nose to nose. Gossip columnists call this canoodling, which means intimacy that is fresh, thin, easy to break. Like stalks of asparagus banded together at an outdoor market.
The fragmentation of the line further enacts just how easy intimacy is to break. In every one of Bennett’s poems, intimacy is breakable, whether between family or friends or partners. Yet despite a looming threat of such a rift, many of the poems suggest hope.
In “If I had a beak,” the final couplet reads: “If you were a crow, I’d be a crow too. And then, when we got/ together, it’d be murder.” The romance in the line is somehow not undercut by the wordplay of “murder,” but rather heightened. These tricks of language are also found at the end of the poem “Canoodlers”:
I don’t tell her that I ran my tongue along the edge of those two together, testing for tenderness first in girl, then boy.
Here, I continually read the word “tasting” instead of “testing,” as if Bennett sets up this expectation to highlight the word even more. Testing sexuality, testing intimacy, all add more to the limits of what the tongue tastes, what kisses can or cannot create.
Bennett’s poems provide an eyewitness clarity of a coming of age tale. Combining this truth with her contemporary themes constructs the voice of Canoodlers, a voice that keeps me wanting more. And like in the book’s final poem “In Seattle,”Canoodlers makes me desire to be in the car with the speaker and her friends, living a future in which “we’ll honk and open our throats for as long as possible, until it’s not possible anymore.”