Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011



I was adopted as an infant into a family that already included two other children—a natural born son and an adopted daughter. Between the birth of my brother and the adoption of my sister, two other children died shortly after birth. In a sense, my sister and I were replacement children, but that’s not what it meant to our family. All three of us who survived are the children of my parents, and each of us are loved and treated equally. I have no idea about the other two because they were never discussed; I can only imagine the sorrow my parents must have felt at their loss.

There were, however, some obvious differences that were effectively ignored. For whatever reason—likely the aftereffect of sorrow and loss—my parents were unable to discuss potential issues of 'origin' with the children to whom it mattered most. Until my sister overheard a phone conversation at our grandparents’ house, we didn't even know that we had been adopted. Shortly after the overheard phone call (just before my eighth birthday) my sister shared this information with me. I was horrified and felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me. Neither of us brought this up with our parents, and, as a child, I refused to discuss it any further with my sister.

Over the next few years, she talked about our adoptions with a number of other kids we knew in common. They mentioned it to me and I denied everything. About the same time, I began stealing things. I was not a particularly good thief, so I was frequently caught and punished. My parents didn’t know what to do with me, but we had many long discussions about my misbehavior. I remember crying and saying “I don’t know” an awful lot. I don’t recall the subject of adoption—or my understanding of what it meant to me—being raised. I do remember being deeply depressed, feeling like I didn’t belong with anybody. When I stole something that I wanted, it gave me a brief burst of joy. It’s not an overstatement to say I lived for that joy.

Fortunately, I didn’t grow up to be a thief, but I was never able to shake the self-imposed sense of isolation that accompanied all these events. At the age of 50, depression still comes and goes; issues of social anxiety can be debilitating. The only conclusion I make from any of this is to say major issues in a child’s life should not be treated like an unmentionable secret. If they are, a strong sense of shame—complicated by other ordinary events—is likely to follow. Concepts of self-identity and self-worth can become major stumbling blocks that impede a child’s healthy development into adulthood.

Today, I have a good relationship with my family that is built upon a solid upbringing and a great deal of love. My contact with other family members, however, is usually contingent on someone other than myself (usually my wife) initiating contact and making plans. For the most part, this extends to my social life too. People are surprisingly patient with these limitations and generally forgive the distance I place between myself and others. For my part, I find it much easier to forgive the faults of others than to forgive my own.

Jim with granddaughter Parvati and dog Maggie



As an adopted child who continues to struggle with identity issues, I’m keenly aware of what occurs between two or more people in a social relationship. What interests me is the conceptual and emotional space between individuals, or the way in which collective events feed into that space, only to be transformed by individual reactions (or conceptions) which then feed back into the empirical space of shared events. When writing poetry, I try to enact this perspective from two different positions: 1) the interaction between myself and the evolving drafts of a poem; and 2) a potential reader’s interaction between a finished poem and their own reaction to its sound, lines, words, structure, and potential meanings. I try to play with these two different positions and engage the dissonance that arises from their opposition. I’m fascinated by the undercurrents of language and communication, the inescapable role played by that which remains unspoken.

If I write fragmented poetry that leaves quite a bit of space to a reader’s discretion, it’s because I want to initiate a feedback effect that highlights the experience of a poem beyond the actual content or meaning implied by its creation. However, I also want it to be reflexive in the sense that the content and every structural element plays a role which feeds into the overall experience of a poem—all of which is guided by the submerged logics that arise from the process of writing and a genuine experience of life and social engagement. Sometimes this involves socio-political considerations. Ideally, I want a poem to include contradictions that play off each other in a way that gives rise to additional unspoken consequences relevant to the poem as a whole, and I frequently build content from the contextualized interrelations of implied characters within a poem. I try to infer more than is explicitly stated, integrating opposed meanings whenever the opportunity arises. I rely an awful lot on chance occurrences as a way of stepping outside my own limitations, but I don’t entirely let go of “authorial intent.” Still, I try to break its shackles wherever possible.

More than anything, I want to enact a sense of social experience that is similar to the interactive, dynamic feedback between the conceptual and empirical spaces that constitute the specifically human phenomenon of modern society. I think of poetry as an implied social activity that is contingent on shared experience, literary history, art history, music, and every other activity that plays an interactive role in human relations. I try to minimize concepts of self-expression (even when I use the first person pronoun) in favor of dynamic, reflexive structures that potentially enact the ways in which we relate to uncertain conclusions and contradictory knowledge.

Beyond this, I quit writing when my son was born—nothing was more important to me than my role as husband and father. Sixteen years later, when my son was nearly grown, I found and met my natural mother and, together, we formed a meaningful relationship. Perhaps not surprisingly, I began writing again. Maybe it’s because life had come full circle, or maybe it's not. But either way, it would be difficult to minimize the impact of adoption on my life and views as a poet.



Family Picture, 1964

My father,
sunk into a deep
black chair,
has his legs crossed
exposing a white
hairless calf above his sock.

A magazine
lies open in his lap
and his eyes
have the blank stare
of a man displeased
with cameras.

On the arm of his chair
my mother sits
with down-cast eyes
and one hand
clenched into a fist.
These are my parents.

Taking the picture
is my Grandmother.
She can be seen
only in body language
and the hard stare
of my father’s eyes.

Thirty-six years later
I’m sunk into a chair
pulling this photo
from an envelope.
I’ve never seen
these people before.


I. A fiery wheel or a dove

I was puzzling. Heroic.
And a barstool.
I was not a throne.

You were both tide and landfall.
A splash of brine.

We were an olive

swallowed, inarticulate
wildly mundane
and not too laconic.

You were conceived in tandem.

We breathed I am, I am not,
breath after breath
in the wardrobe.

I ate silage.
You ate corn out of season.
We wanted to be layered.

They found intricate displays
in your footnotes.

We have our seasons.

II. The dark uncanny

You flew down the staircase.

How dirt stains the carpet.
How there are too many linens.

They need a confession.

III. We are method

Your toe is a pencil.
It traces the hollow of reason.

Layers and layers
of heart beat and reason.

These are shadows.

Shadows are not method
and we are not echoes.
We lean toward the sun.

They ask us to be pleasure.

IV. Shaped and reshaped

What do they make
of our chorus.

We are translucent
and sorrow.

V. Somewhere in habit

You exhale. There are no syllables
caught in your teeth.

We are lonely. Your clock
is unwound. We eat the undercooked meat
that they serve us. It has delays.

You were avoiding the spoon
on your saucer. It is on your lips.
It is a measure of moments.

I cannot elaborate.
The saucer was only contrivance.

VI. A sort of coma

What do we void
if we count minute by minute
what is void

is retention. What do we count.

The minutes, the echoes.
Let me think.

They want me to think
in a chorus.

VII. Wildly mundane

About linens.

Their linens hang in a wardrobe
but the wardrobe is barren.
Its dimensions
are not what we hoped for.

Layers and layers
of footnotes and silage.

They want a confession.

They did not expect
the clock to be chiming.

The hours have been sprung
from its gears.
We do not comprehend

how they fold time into echoes.
We are submerged.

It is not what we hoped for.

VIII. Not a chorus

These tides

do not crest when the moon
falls from orbit.

They only sing softly

into night
for no reason.

We are not singing.

IX. A tin cup

This is an echo.

Every shade of intent
is a heartbeat.

We are not method.
Not of syllables

and these
are not words.

We have seasons.



Jim Benz has been writing poetry for more than thirty years—with a big gap in between. His work can be found in a variety of print and online journals, including (most recently) Arthur Magazine, Daily Haiku, Full of Crow, and Cricket Online Review. He lives in Minneapolis MN with his wife, two cats, and a dog.


No comments: