Poetry Collections

Strange Borderlands

I learned about Strange Borderlands and its author from my teenage son, who had the good fortune of studying with Ben Berman during his senior year at Brookline High School.  On several occasions my son sang Berman’s praises, as the creative writing instructor of the course Eloy chose for his final English class requirement.  Eloy had already begun writing the lyrics to his own rap songs, and recording some of these, as he entertained the possibility of simultaneously pursuing a music-making career and that of a neuroscientist.  And Berman suggested that Eloy might want to consider producing an album in lieu of the final paper required for the course.


Since this is a review of Berman’s first collection of poems, as opposed to his qualities as an inspiring and creative teacher, I’ll concentrate now on the poems themselves.  But mentioning the fact that the author of Strange Borderlands was also my son’s teacher is relevant, because one of the most rewarding aspects of reading these poems is the company of the poet himself.


It was Seán Ó Faoláin—in an out of print book he wrote called The Short Story—who said something about the fundamental requirement that a writer have a “personality.”  T.S. Eliot was saying the same thing when he wrote, “A poem does not a poet make.”  In other words a writer must have something worthwhile to say, and this depends on that writer’s sensibility and vision.  Not to mention their experience, and what they’ve done with it.


Berman begins, in this first collection of his poems, with the advantage that the experiences he relates—in forms that vary from seven stanza rhymed couplets to single prose paragraphs—involve his time as a Peace Corp volunteer in Zimbabwe and his travels in northern Africa and Southeast Asia.  The settings and circumstances of these poems are exotic, and therefore intrinsically interesting and full of possibilities. 


But what makes the telling of Berman’s stories poetry is the nature and quality of the observation, the unsentimental sensitivity to his surroundings and the associative organization of the sights and sounds and smells the young Ben Berman was exposed to, which result, for example, in the metaphoric discovery in a hybrid piece of fruit—“half plum,/half apricot”—found in a Chinese Market:

For years now, I’ve been trying to graft
the past onto the present.  But not until
I wandered here, to this worldly and local
aisle, did I see some way to unify
the visions of the outer and inner eye,
to tear into this tightly fused fruit—
the best of two worlds, drippingly sweet.

Life outside of the United States is not, as I fear many Americans imagine, life in a cheaper and poorer and less efficient version of the United States.  As Ryszard Kapuściński notes in The Shadow and the Sun the white man is a “sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder” in Africa.  “He is ever afraid:  of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes—everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.” 


But Berman was not afraid, if only because he was young and naturally naïve.  That naïveté though was quickly tested.  Death in a country governed by a man Desmond Tutu referred to as “a cartoon figure of an archetypal African dictator,” a chronically poor country ravished by AIDS—

               The entire
place erupting with laughter
and AIDS.

—and institutional ignorance:  death was everywhere, even under “the bench we were sitting on,” after being picked up while hitchhiking. 


Berman helped dig and waterproof the grave of that man as well as numerous others, at the end of that particular journey.  He grew accustomed to “boys who die next/to you on buses” and learned to slit the throats of chickens and goats and endure “parasitic snails burrowed through my feet” that made it burn “so bad to pee I thought I’d caught the clap,” as well as the piss bugs that “would leave trails of blisters along your chest while you slept.”


Berman grew up as both man and artist while living abroad, and after returning to the life he had known before he left the States he confessed to drinking

        to remember, not to forget,
so that the world might feel vaguely
strange again.

Having spent much of my life abroad, having lived in Africa as well, I know exactly what Berman means, both here and in every other poem that forms this hugely worthwhile collection of poetically rendered observations and reflections upon the lives that most of the people in this world live.  As Kapuściński noted, “Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humor.” 


Ben Berman has published an admirable collection of poems that pay tribute to the remarkable humanity of the African peoples, and to the memories of the many friends and acquaintances who he had to leave behind when it was finally time to return to the States, where he continues to inspire young talent.


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