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Five Sextillion Atoms Paperback – June 8, 2016
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The Amazon Book Review
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From the Back Cover
Five Sextillion Atoms is a highly distinctive and gripping book notable for the ways in which it combines the stories of family history with larger matters of public history. I was struck repeatedly by the formal compression of the poems, the tautness and acuity of the imagery and the epigrammatic exactitude of the closings. While the concerns are often highly elegiac, the poems scrupulously avoid sentimentality and effusions. Benjulian has terrific skills as a portraitist and satirist, and many of the poems are sly and wry examples of these talents.
In a single drop of water there are five sextillion atoms, yet Earth in relation to the rest of the universe is infinitely smaller still by comparison. Jayne Benjulian takes this astonishing fact for the title of her first collection of poetry and aptly so, for these poems hold vast reaches of perception, loss, personal and family history, all with admirable compression. Diamond edged, fiercely honest, Benjulian's work pulses with lyric intensity.
What distinguishes Benjulian's debut collection is the enormous range of history--personal and world--it covers and does so by employing spare, unadorned language, and does so while withholding all but essential narrative, and does so by focusing the reader's attention to vivid, precise details that arise from memory and present day occurrences, details that are tiny and large at once. Five Sextillion Atoms deserves our attention and our praise.
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Jayne Benjulian’s book painstakingly puts together each exquisite poem. The chapbook sequences indicate similar painstaking assembly, but no clear picture of the whole emerges. And that is intentional. She reminds us that even with the most scrupulous examination of history and single events, it is difficult—even impossible—to learn what the overall picture means. And so she treads backwards to find fragments and instead of trying to define them—examines this moment, this object, this yearning: all of it in its discrete beauty.
Poem after poem is compelling. They forced this reader to slow down and breathe the soft, attenuated air of unreliable memory.
Lexington Avenue Line: recalls the frontispiece photograph “Before is fuzzy. After is fuzzy.” This is a moment that the narrator wants to remember: she is at her mother’s hospital bed. But the weight of both train and subway are more insistent: the feeling of being underground. Each parent side-steps, deliberately or not, the act of farewell and this is the muddying of memory with no marker, no words to tell the narrator-child how to step forward.
The poems are deliberately stark, presenting information as it happens, mis-en-scene, in an attempt to avoid the distorting lens of memory and yet ineffably that distortion occurs because these are past events and Jayne Benjulian’s integrity proscribes her from adding anything other than what was immediately and keenly observed.
I’m always affected by specific word choice. The words “zipper” and “zipped” appear in two poems (Kaddish and Pond, respectively). There is a brevity, forcefulness, and acuity to them that epitomizes Benjulian’s language choices.
These poems are the antithesis of gushy narratives. If they seem opaque at first sight, they will give up their secrets if you lean in on the language. It is this precision of language and line that cleaves a clear trail through Jayne Benjulian’s forests. Follow her. She is a highly talented and rigorously insightful guide.
So looking forward to her next book!
I especially love the poems in Part Three, which seem more accessible, perhaps because she herself has finally become more comfortable emotionally with the material. I don’t know. But this I do know: Five Sextillion Atoms will wow you.
Wherever Jayne Benjulian pivots on her timeline in Five Sextillion Atoms—whether we see through child, adolescent, or adult eye, we we are held in thrall by the poet’s ruthlessly consistent adherence to the use of spare and luminous imagery that accretes to form a geography of unbridgeable losses and bittersweet turning points. Each occasion, each heart-point, if we claim that this collection maps in part the coming of age of an adolescent bereft of anchor of mother, is catalogued by a witness who misses nothing about her changing physical and emotional landscape.
While individual poems are tightly hemmed by form (sonnet, rondelet, improvised sonnet), Benjulian does not order her collection in a linear fashion. In mimicry of the circular nature of memory, themes reappear in each section so that we experience the intensity of awakening to variations of betrayal, loss, and salvaged connection.
Along the trajectory of maturation, as adolescent speaker becomes a mother herself, we see the complicated aftermath of unmet yearnings in later poems about heritage, love gone wrong, and motherhood. Benjulian’s use of brutally precise metaphors—as in the poem Julius, in which pups suffer brain-damage when locked in a kennel with “a mother not their own" and equally arresting and haunting images such as “rain raining in,” “roots of blighted madrone,” and “starlight on stone”—make her a trusted and indispensible voice in the often murky terrain of articulating the nuances of relationship with lovers, family, animals, and memory itself.